I was four when I learned to read. Back then – the late 1960s – doing so was considered a sign of extraordinary precocity – something akin to dog-paddling across the English Channel or memorizing the Encyclopedia Britannica. When I was around six, I got my hands on a gold-embossed volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets and carried it around with me whenever I went with my parents to a dinner party. I couldn’t comprehend a word of what I was reading, but the sight of me with my little book of Shakespeare was guaranteed to elicit gasps of delight and astonishment from the adults. Once the hubbub had subsided and the grown-ups had returned to their own conversations, I sat down in a corner and quietly drew pictures with my crayons in the margins.
These days, the reading ability that wowed my parents’ friends is no big whoop. All children are expected to begin reading in kindergarten, having been prepared in advance by prenatal read-alouds, the healthful ingesting of board books in infancy, and flashcard drills in preschool. At today’s dinner parties (usually burritos wolfed down on the sidelines of a soccer game), I hear parents dropping the names of children’s books as if they were designer labels. “Junie B. Jones?” one might say witheringly. “My daughter loved that in preschool, but now she’s reading the sixth Harry Potter.”
In the children’s section of bookstores and libraries, I’ve watched parents prying picture books out of their school-aged children’s hands with a look of pained embarrassment. “You’re too old for this,” they say loudly, just in case anyone nearby might think their child suffers from some sort of developmental delay. “You know you don’t like reading these kind of books anymore.”
As a children’s book writer who has yet to outgrow the habit of reading picture books for pleasure, I find all of this a bit disturbing. Of course it’s wonderful that children are reading, and wonderful when they read complicated books. But in the fuss about literacy and reading levels and school achievement, something fundamental gets lost: the pleasure of the book for its own sake. Books that are delightful for ten-year-olds are not necessarily delightful for six-year-olds, and too often both parents and teachers encourage children to read books that are too old for them, or discourage them from reading books we have deemed “too young,” thus guaranteeing that reading will always feel like a chore.
“It’s not an exam, where you pass your E.B. White level and you get to go to your Tolkien level,” observes Anita Silvey, author of Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children’s Book. “The same child that reads Charlotte’s Web may also read Captain Underpants. They may like Charlotte’s Web and Captain Underpants kind of equally.”
Recently I came home with a copy of Wolves, a picture book by the incomparably wry and inventive Emily Gravett. I had checked it out of the library for my own amusement, but it caught the eye of my nine-year-old son, Milo, who was lying on the couch reading the 528-page fantasy novel Eragon. “Can we read it?” he asked. I sat down on the couch, and we leafed through the book, giggling at the story of a rabbit who checks out a library book about wolves and ends up eaten by one. When we finished, he noticed the age range on the fly leaf: 4-8.
“Ageist!” he sputtered indignantly.
“Some people think that kids your age don’t like picture books,” I said cautiously. I had hoped he wouldn’t find this out.
Milo was outraged. “What? But picture books are awesome.”
A good answer, given that my most recent picture book was dedicated to him. I probed a little deeper, just in case he was only telling me what I wanted to hear. “What exactly makes them awesome?” I asked. He gave me an exasperated look. “They have pictures,” he said.
Duh. We tend to think that illustrations are just there to keep the attention of a kid who can’t follow the story without them, forgetting that we like pictures just as much as children do.
“I say to parents, ‘Have you ever heard of coffee table books?’” remarks Valerie Lewis, who owns Hicklebee’s, a children’s bookstore in San Jose, California. “When they have picture books on their coffee table, they think it’s very interesting and arty. But when Billy finally learns to read, his parents reward him by taking away his pictures.”
Milo proudly identifies himself as a bookworm, a description that seems particularly apt when I find him burrowed into the sofa, his long body cocooned in his favorite blanket and his face obscured by the covers of a book. Seeing him there reminds me of myself at the same age, and I’m eager to acquaint him with all the books I loved when I was nine – A Wrinkle in Time, The Book of Three, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. But I’m cautious too, knowing that reading a book at the wrong time can be worse than not reading it at all. In first grade, with Harry Potter mania raging through his school, I knuckled under and read Milo Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, despite feeling he was too young to really appreciate it. I was wrong: he loved it. But the series quickly gets darker and more complex. Mid-way through the third book, Milo – now in second grade and reading it on his own – tossed it aside. “It’s boring,” he told me.
For a seven-year-old, “boring” has a vast portfolio of possible meanings, but in the case of Milo and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I was pretty sure it meant “too soon.” The jokes, the innuendos, the relationships and rivalries – it was all over his head. Looking at the discarded volume, its pages spread like the wings of a felled bird, I remembered reading The Princess Bride when I was eleven. I’d seen it at a supermarket, and thought I was buying a fantasy in the vein of The Prydain Chronicles and the Narnia books. Three-quarters of the way through, I pitched it across the room, nauseated and infuriated by the torture and death of Westley, the hero. (Westley is revived later on, but I never got that far). Golding’s lampooning of fairytale conventions is hilarious for adults. But as a child, it just hurt my feelings.
Picture book writer Erica Perl (Ninety-three in My Family, Chicken Butt) is also the mother of a bookish nine-year-old, and she told me she too worries about serving books before their time. Her daughter loved Judy Blume’s Fudge books, but when she finished them, Perl decided against revealing that there were other Blume books to choose from. “I think she can wait a year,” she told me. “When I think of a book like Blubber, which deals with cruelty and social meanness – I’m not quite ready for her to see that.”
In second grade, Perl’s daughter was in a book club that had Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson as one of its suggested titles. Perl – and other parents who know the book – quickly steered the group to other choices. Not to spoil it for you, but two-thirds of the way through the book, the protagonist’s best friend – a fifth-grade girl – dies in a freak accident.
“I think there’s something to be said for not taking the power away from that,” Perl remarked. “You kind of dilute it if you read it too soon. Either it has a huge impact and makes you afraid of an accident taking someone close to you, or – if a kid doesn’t quite get it on an emotional level – then you’ve read it and it hasn’t affected you at all. A book like that, if you read it at the right age, it has power, but you also gain the power to deal with it.”
But if you’re not already steeped in the world of children’s books, how do you avoid being blindsided by a book like Terabithia – or by far less literary reads like the snarky, materialistic Clique books? The best resource I’ve found is Common Sense Media, which flags all the things that I weigh when I’m thinking about the right age for my son to read a book – not just sex and violence, but also consumerism, emotional intensity, and overall message. Reviewers suggest appropriate ages for books (nine in the case of Terabithia; twelve for the Clique books), and alternative options on the same topic. “Even great books, kids can start too early,” explains Carrie R. Wheadon, senior book editor for the site.
I don’t always love Milo’s choice of books, but for me, the best antidote to bad books is good books. Milo is free to read pretty much anything he chooses on his own, but his dad and I also read him books that we choose. On road trips we listen to books on CD, and bedtime is still the time of day when we snuggle up with a shared book. Those read-alouds are a chance to introduce books Milo might not read otherwise, particularly classics whose old-fashioned language makes them more challenging on the page or books that take a while to get going. The books that we read together are a wellspring of family in-jokes and shared references and as the frenetic pressure of homework, sports, and activities devours an ever-increasing portion of the day, that cozy half hour with Treasure Island or Alice in Wonderland feels like one of the last protected enclaves of childhood.
Not long ago, a friend of mine told me – in the boastful tone parents inevitably fall into when talking about their kids’ reading habits – that her twelve-year-old daughter doesn’t read children’s books anymore. “She’s only interested in adult books,” she said proudly. My heart sank, partly because of all the wonderful books her daughter is missing out on, and partly because I know that Milo will leave the world of children’s literature eventually as well. I hope that when he does, it won’t be to impress adults or improve his test scores, but will simply be because the books he loves as a child lead him, like stones across a river, to books he loves as an adult. Children’s books will be there for him as long as he wants them, changing as he changes, and eventually becoming so precious that when the time comes to share them with his own child, he’ll wait for the perfect moment to pass them on.
This piece was originally published on June 8, 2009