Reading Beyond Yourself

At a local Barnes & Noble in the children’s section, I overheard a mother tell her children, “Remember what we talked about!  Pick something in your reading level!” 

Now, I admit that I didn’t know what was going on there, and it’s entirely possible that this parent was admonishing her children not to chose a book that was below their abilities.  She could have been worried about adult content, but, as I said, I was in the children’s section.  Whatever the case, my impression was that this mother wanted her children to stick to those artifical age ranges that are printed on the back of picture books and YA novels, and, frankly, I was horrified.

I find this distressing if only because I read LOTS of books that were well beyond my reading “ability” when I was young, which is how the heck I got better ability, you know?  I have never, ever told my son Mason that there was a book he couldn’t try to read.  As far as I’m concerned, unless there’s graphic violence, sex, or swear words, it’s all good.  (Actually, he’s already read some swear words over my shoulder.  Luckily, he doesn’t have all the rules of pronunciation down and so he thinks a** is said “iss.”)

This desire to protect young readers baffles me.  And it seems to be prevalent.   We were once at Red Balloon, a children’s book store here in Saint Paul, and the sales person tried to take a chapter book away from us.  She nearly snatched it from Mason’s hands because she didn’t think it was appropriate for my then three year-old.  When I asked her why, she said, “Well, the stories are too long.  He won’t have the patience.”  At that age, I’d already read all of Charolette’s Web and much of Bambi to Mason, so I just looked at her with a stunned expression.  “How would you know?” I asked.  Then I said to Mason, “Never let anyone tell you what you can or can’t read.” 

And anyway, at that point, I was still reading to him.  It’s not like there would be words he couldn’t ask me what they meant, you know?  More to the point, the last time I checked there’s no rule that says you have to finish a story you start.  We’ve still never finished Bambi because we get to the chapter where Bambi’s mom is killed and Mason wants to start over.  So we do.  I figure he needs time to process.  Processing what you’ve read is part of learning, IMHO.

Mason’s grade school also seems to have a “reading level” restriction they enforce.  Everyone’s library card is color coded for the level they’re supposed to be reading at.  I overheard a librarian ask someone to take a “Goosebumps” book back because it wasn’t at their reading level.  This was a seriously disappointed looking kid. Again, this may be done in order to make sure that children are challenging themselves appropriately, however, I don’t really get that either.   Who doesn’t love the comfort of a “simpler” book occasionally?  I know that I didn’t discover Leo, the Late Bloomer until I was a teen, and it was still extremely meaningful to me.  Plus I have to ask, what adult doesn’t love a certain YA about a young wizard in training?

But, as for reading beyond yourself, the last time I checked no one has ever been seriously injured by reading a hard book. Well, okay, there was that one time I was so excited to start a book I’d checked out from the library that I was reading it while riding my bike on the way home.  I ran into a parked car.   That’s my only reading injury to date. 

There are books that scared the crap out of me as a kid.  I read Amityville Horrorat a tender age and now the name “Jody” sends me into screaming heeby-geebies even as an adult.  However, I learned an important lesson: you can close a book.  If a book is beyond you on an emotional level, you can wait and pick it up later.  There are several books I attempted that I just didn’t get all of until much, much later.  I’d heard that there was SEX in Lady Chatterly’s Lover, but damned if I “got” it the first time I read it.  When I came back to it as a young adult, I understood.

In fact, my partner and I have bonded over the fact that we both remember the day we got to go to the “adult” section in the public library on our own.  Both Shawn’s folks and mine never hesitated to check out books from that section for us, if we were interested… but there was a thrilling sense of wonder the moment it was okay for us to have ANY book in the entire library for ourselves alone.  I think that reading beyond your ability is what makes readers out of people, you know?  If I hadn’t tried The Hobbit in sixth grade, where would I be now? 

I didn’t “get” a lot of it, but I was AWED.

And I still am.

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  1. 1. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    I remember discovering Jack Chalker’s stuff when I was like in 4th grade. Oh. Dear. That was an experience. And I was also going through a horror phase in my junior high years. But you’re right . . . Yeah, I prefer not to let my kids read things that will give them nightmares, but they usually tell me when they don’t want to and they know very well what they like and don’t like.

  2. 2. SMD

    I don’t have children, but I think I would be very radical in how I allow my children to learn and express themselves. I have no problem with my future children reading whatever they want–short of actual pornography or erotic literature which is clearly for adults anyway. But if my 10 year old wants to read Catcher in th Rye or Mein Kompf, well, fine, so be it. Let them learn. They will have questions and I’ll do my best to answer them. I feel as though my future children, if I have children–which is a long shot anyway–will be better prepared to accept that fiction books are ‘fiction’, movies are not real, and video games are not representative of reality and should not be followed. I just don’t agree with shielding children from the world. They will learn about it eventually and telling them that a certain book is for adults–again, not talking about erotica and pornography–may very well stunt them or instill rebellious tendencies. I don’t want that. I’d rather they be aware and understand literature and its significance.
    But maybe I’m weird. *shrugs*

  3. 3. domynoe

    We have teachers who tell my daughter to “read within her level” for extra credit and it drives me batty. She started off in this school district behind, and now wants to get ahead, and they won’t let her? I just tell her to read whatever for the school, we’ll let her read what she really wants here.

  4. 4. Alma Alexander

    My parents NEVER put restrictions on my reading. I was reading Pearl Buck at eight, Sigrid Undsett at ten, and John Galsworthy at 13 – all of them Nobel Prize winners who wrote complex books for adults which I had no problems with understanding.

    I read the Hobbit at thirteen, maybe, but that was because I learned English aged 10 and I hadn’t come across Tolkien in translation before that; I might add, to put it into context, that I was maybe fifteen or so when I read the Silmarillion, and you know, I could manage THAT just fine, too.

    Kids are underestimated on a daily basis. One would hope that the people doing so would NOT be their parents, but all too often that’s where it starts. I remember a comment someone made in the context of my own YA work (highly complex books, because I can’t write anything other than that and don’t want to assume young readers are idiots anyway) was that [my books] were “…YA, and so therefore far more complex than adults can cope with”. I kind of liked that, as commentary.

  5. 5. Amy Sisson

    I hope you’ll consider checking into your child’s grade school library policies. It’s possible the librarian(s) just took it upon him or herself to institute that policy, which would be somewhat inappropriate.

    Even if there is an official policy (as in, instituted by more than just the librarian), it may be possible for you to have that waived for your child — and spread the word to the other parents. If I recall correctly, when I had a child’s library card several decades ago, my mother was able to get me a sticker that showed she had no problem with me checking out adult books.

  6. 6. CE Murphy

    I think the whole reading level thing is bizarre beyond belief. I remember quite clearly reading books where there were, for example, sex scenes, or politics, or whatever, that were over my head, and they didn’t scar me. They just didn’t mean anything to me. Kids are self-editing. They can be astonished when they go back in five years and re-read that book and discover what they missed last time around, but they don’t end up clawing their eyes out or traumatized because they read material Too Old For Them. They just don’t *get* it. And I don’t get why it’s a big deal. Adults are *weird*.


  7. 7. celeber

    This is an amazing topic to me. The idea of restricting books never crossed my mind. With the exception of their father’s magazines (We are separated so it isn’t in my control, but we had an challenge pop up with our son).

    I have three children. One of my joys in life is being able to read to them. I have shared some of my favorite childhood stories with them, and we read the first three Harry Potter books together. Even the three year old likes the snuggle up and read time. I don’t think she really understood The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, but Mom was holding her and cuddling and speaking directly to her.

    I don’t think restrictions are a good idea. If your munchkin wants to try something out there, I say go for it.
    My oldest has read Stephen King and she loved it.
    I read my first Stephen King book at about 10. Salem’s Lot gave me nightmares for months, but I loved it. I was hooked on vampires and have been ever since. I devoured everything I could find by Stephen King, and I hate clowns to this day because of it.
    I have shared some of my Fantasy/Sci Fi collection with the kids and together we have shared many YA novels. Rachel Caine is an author we tend to fight over. Me and my son have an author that we both love Jennifer Estep, she writes about Super Heros and Uber Villains.
    I just love that they want to read. I can’t imagine telling children they can’t have a book. This may curb their desire to break out in the future and never get the craving to want to read for life.

  8. 8. Alma Alexander

    “I can’t imagine telling children they can’t have a book.”

    Amen to that. In spades.

  9. 9. Bran fan

    My 4th grade son complained that his teacher was giving him easy books to read. I asked the teacher if my kid could bring in harder books from home, thinking that maybe the class didn’t have any higher level books. Teacher said no. I was willing to meet him halfway. I asked if I could donate some higher level books to the classroom, and I’d buy whatever books he approved. Again, no. (Banging head against wall) I said, then will you please retest him and put him in a higher reading group?????? That was done and it all ended well.

    Here’s what happens to great readers in a public school. They are tested up to and until they meet the “expected outcomes for the year.” At that point, they are no longer tested. Therefore, if the expected level at the end of 3rd grade is a level “N” and your kid is a level “R” or “S,” they will only test him up to a level N, mark him as “done,” for the year, and move on. It is maddening.

    OTOH, to be fair to the mother in the bookstore, familes without great readers sometimes have kids who pick books that are too easy for them, time and time again. I hope that what you witnessed was a mother trying to help her kids to grow, rather than hold them back. (I dearly hope.)

  10. 10. lyda morehouse

    Egad! Seriously? I’m going to make sure that’s not the case at Mason’s grade school. That’s the most amazingly WRONG thing I’ve ever heard. Does anyone know why this started? My memory of my high school media center was that I could check out any book there, no restrictions. And thank god. That’s where I found Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series.

  11. 11. Simon Haynes

    Our kids had to read their way through thirty levels of books at primary school. But at the same time they were reading the enforced ‘Spot likes the ball’ stuff they were carting around 80,000 word novels for fun reading.

    My mum used to take me to the library every week, and her suggestion was that I should read the first page of any book I was interested in. That worked well – and I used the same suggestion when browsing their shelves for new reading material at home ;-)

    I do the same with my kids now. My ten-year-old just finished the Potter series and wanted something else. I stacked up Temeraire #1, the Golden Compass, A Bear called Paddington, The Hobbit, Just William and a few others. She read Paddington and is now finishing the Hobbit. Next – who knows? We have over a thousand childrens’ books in this house.

  12. 12. Lisa

    I feel lucky now that my library (both school and public) never enforced “reading levels.” We had an AR program in elementary school, but I tested into the highest level and ended up with very few books to read, heh.

    The adult section of the library was “off-limits” for a while, to my young mind, but not literally… do libraries actually ban children from wandering into the adult shelves?

  13. 13. Simon Haynes

    No, but I had a junior library card which meant I couldn’t take out adult books.

  14. 14. Bran fan

    Lyda, yes, it happens. My son never checks books out of the school library because his school goes up to 5th grade and therefore the books don’t go much beyond that and all the library books are too easy for him. He doesn’t care much because he gets any book he wants from the public library.

    Our public school is fantastic at helping the struggling kids, but the higher learners often get lost in the shuffle. The parents have to really stay on top of things. But if they do (and I’m sure you will) then it will all work out fine. I keep open communication with my kids’ teachers and every single time, they step up and do what’s right for the kids. They just need to be informed, that’s all.

  15. 15. S.C. Butler

    Anyone here have older kids? That’s the next big battle. Mine read till 12-13, and then pretty much gave up under the mountains of schoolwork they were given in junior high and high school. It wasn’t tv or video games that got them either. They just ran out of time.

  16. 16. Simon Haynes

    13-14 is when I really started reading in earnest. It was easy – I just gave up doing homework.

  17. 17. S.C. Butler

    Simon –

    You’re a boy. They’re girls. They can’t give up doing homework, it’s not in their genes.

  18. 18. Alice Audrey

    I have said it many times to my children and every time it was because they wanted to read below their level. Dr. Suess anyone?

  19. 19. Jess

    I actually liked having reading levels in school because I was competitive and would read higher to show off. :D Does anyone remember/Have you ever heard of SRA’s? I Googled them and they don’t like a thing like what we had, but they were done per grade level and I remember reading the entire series through seventh grade level when I was in third grade, rather smugly. But then I read unabridged Victor Hugo at thirteen. I don’t understand why people would say you may not do that if it’s clear that you CAN. I just don’t understand the reasoning behind it.

    Is this like in The Incredibles movie where you can’t be special so nonspecial kids don’t feel bad? I think there’s two sides to the coin, actually. I have the mentality that you tackle something difficult first so that everything else is easy and you don’t scare yourself out of trying, stretch to start with. But there’s merit in the actual stepstone approach, where you start where you’re at and work your way up. Does that make sense?

Author Information

Tate Hallaway

Tate Hallaway is the best-selling paranormal romance alter-ego for an award-winning science fiction author. Her most recent novel is DEAD IF I DO is forthcoming from Berkley Trade in May of 2009. Visit site.



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