My Wholly Unscientific, Highly Subjective Opinion on Advanced Books for Children

A few months ago, I reviewed a book called The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.  I had originally intended the book as a read aloud for my girls, but I decided to hold off for a year or so.  As I wrote then:

 While my daughters’ vocabulary is certainly passable, there were words that even I was unfamiliar with. (“Widdershins,” anyone?) I think some of the magic of the book would be lost in frequently stopping to share definitions. Two, I felt that some of the emotions of the book were too intense for my young girls. Not that I’m overly protective, but that they either wouldn’t understand the melancholy/longing/loneliness/intensity or that they might possibly be disturbed by it. Not having older girls, it’s hard to guess what age would be more appropriate, but I think probably the 10 and up crowd might be better suited.

I set the book aside to bring out in a year or so, and moved on.  A few weeks ago, I noticed that an acquaintance of mine was having her 6 year old daughter – a kindergartner – read it.  I felt a familiar stirring: a sort of competitive spirit or an urge to prove something about my kids.  Heck, my kids are smart.  They’re talented.  They can read well and have discussions with adults.  Maybe I should let my kids read The Girl Who Circumnavigated too!  I wouldn’t want them to be behind, or less interesting, or not know what to talk about with their friends or !!!

Deep breath, Micaela.  Deep breath.

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I’ve had these feelings before.  The ugly beast of Competitive Parenting tends to rear its head at certain moments, especially when one of the kids’ friends begins reading Harry Potter.  I love the Harry Potter series, and I’m very excited for my kids to read them, but for a variety of reasons I’ve decided to wait until they’re closer to Harry’s own age.  This has led to some disappointment, I’ll admit it, but mostly on my part.  My kids find no shortage of great books that I do approve of, so they’re not chomping at the bit.  We’ve already faced some annoying issues because of this purposeful delay (mostly unsuspecting neighbors revealing huge plot points) but, except for silly moments like the one I described above, I don’t regret or second-guess my choices.

So no, I don’t push my kids ahead.  Here are my three reasons, wholly unscientific and completely subjective.

1. There are incredible books at every level.  Why push ahead to the next stage when there’s so much good stuff to be found at the level you’re on?  I love reading chapter books to my kids, but I think I love picture books more.  And there are soooooo many good ones out there.  If I had years and years of unlimited reading time, I bet I’d still be able to find excellent picture books for my kids to read/to read to my kids.

2. Books are magic.  But the magic depends upon comprehension, and inference, and prior knowledge.  If my kids can sound out the words, but they don’t catch the meaning or tone of the story, then an opportunity for magic has been lost.  And it may even discourage them from reading that book again when they could understand it because it was “boring” or “confusing” the first time.

3. Emotional maturity is extremely important to me.  Innocence, once lost, can’t be found again.  Perhaps my strongest reasoning for waiting, especially on books like the two above, is that I want my kids to be innocent for as long as they can.  I don’t lie to them, and I don’t think I’m overprotective, but when it comes to realistic situations outside their immediate experience, I’m cautious.  The emotions caused by a story are remembered long after the book is done and the memory of specific events are over.  And emotions are fragile things.

To this day, I remember a story that my very first principal told me during my first year of teaching.  At the time, I had a student who needed to be challenged in reading and was asking her for advice.  She told me that during her first year teaching kindergarten, she’d had a student who could read at the fourth grade level.  Going purely on reading level alone, she had selected a book and assigned it to the 6 year-old.  The book was A Diary of Anne Frank.  She still counted it as the greatest mistake of her teaching career.

So there you have it.  The three factors that override my competitive nature when it comes to having my kids read “advanced books.”  What’s your family policy?

Comments

  1. I agree with everything you’ve said here. My eldest has been a strong reader since the very beginning and I absolutely regret that she was given books that were too advanced for her emotional age just to match up with her grade-level reading ability. The first time she ever read Blueberries for Sal, for example, was as a 12 year old when I brought it home for my 6 year old. Also, yes to thinking good books are boring if they’re not truly ready to read them. We’ve experimenting that as well. Excellent post!

    • You know, I used to teach English as a Second Language to middle schoolers and I had the opposite problem: finding books that were interesting and appropriate for them that were simple enough for them to read. I think since I “left the classroom” (Ha!) that gap has been filled somewhat, but it still seems to me that authors/librarians don’t always understand maturity in a way that is helpful to kids and parents. Do you read everything your girls do? I really want to but I find I’m not able to keep up with them!

  2. *experienced
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  3. First of all, I totally know what you mean about competitive parenting. I get the same way at times. It’s SO HARD not to compare ourselves to others.

    We don’t really have a family policy on advanced reading or not. I guess we take things on an individual basis. My 12-year old has read adult books, but still enjoys books for younger kids. The one thing she doesn’t read a lot of are teen books,, just because I’m really cautious about anything in the teen section of the library…either the material is too mature or they are just silly and dumb or whatever.

    I do have a quesiton about your point #2. I consider reading level to be more about comrehension than sounding at words. I mean, my 3rd grader can read just about every word she comes across, but that doesn’t mean she can comprehend everything. I guess my point is, I would consider a book to be above a child’s reading level if the child can’t comprehend it, irregardless of it they can sound it out or not. Does that make sense?
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    • Reading level *is* both decoding and comprehension, but I think there’s comprehension and then there’s comprehension. Just because a kid understands that the character Joe Schmoe goes from X to Y and gets Special Item Z, does not mean that the child comprehends the nuances of the story. Does that make sense?

  4. I think your instincts are spot-on. I still remember reading “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret” as an 8 year-old…I really wish that my mom had been better at supervising what I was reading, because starting with the memory of that one book, the rest of my growing-up years were full of book that I was not emotionally mature enough for, or that were downright inappropriate. A couple of years after we started homeschooling, one of my friends told me that in what would have been my daughter’s fourth grade class, girls were reading Twilight. In Catholic school.

    I have never regretted waiting what I consider the right time for my kids to read certain books. I also read almost all of the books that my teenage daughter reads, so we can talk about them, suggest other books to each other, and it’s really become something wonderful that we share.

    • I’m especially sensitive to books like that one, Lisa. Books that “explain” life to kids in a way that is contrary to what we believe. Realistic books are often more of a concern than fairy tales, too, and so much of elementary/YA lit is geared toward “real” life, but is not actually TRUE, if that makes any sense.

  5. Emily QF says:

    I super needed to read this. My eldest is 5, and I CANNOT wait to read Narnia and Harry Potter and ALL THE BOOKS with her. But, BUT, I know I need to wait for the right time.

    Perfect post.

  6. We are waiting on most advanced books too. We tried a few that other kids his age were reading (or having them read aloud) and they just didn’t work out. I’ve since come to the same conclusions as you.

    I agree, the Harry Potter series is the hardest one to wait for. I’m not too worried about the first book, but I’m worried that once he starts reading them, I won’t have it in me to make him wait the year or so the kids had to wait when the books were being written and coming out. So we’ll just wait to start, hoping, like you, that not too much gets revealed to him too soon.

    Lord of the Rings is another one D wants to read, but I won’t let him. We did read The Hobbit, but I think it was too early for that even. It inspired much anxiety for him.

    On the other hand, historical fiction, or actual history, is ok in our house–even the really bad stuff. Of course we stay away from too much detail, but as for the innocence factor, because children (boys?) tend to glorify fighting as fun and something they want to do when they grow up, I feel like it is important to discuss the realities of war and the pain of it all.

    • I have the same concerns about HP. Book 1, 2, and even 3 are fairly innocuous. But Book 4 takes it to a whole new level. I read them as an adult and I remember thinking “Whoa” when it got to that book. Crazy.

      I totally agree about history, as you know. We’ve covered all that gruesome stuff about Rome for examples, not to mention things in the Bible, and it doesn’t get to them the way frightening books do. Perhaps it’s the lack of gory detail? I don’t know. I also just think history is really important to learn, so I’m willing to brave the more mature things (cautiously, of course) for them to learn about humanity.

  7. I find that my younger kids get exposed to things a lot sooner because of their older siblings, especially movies and books, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. I never would have read The Lord of the Rings to Lucy when she was four, but right now, we’re listening to it in the car and James is totally into it. I think that’s the blessing and the curse of a big family, but I think it’s important for all the kids to have shared experience, including being read to. And since my 10-year old isn’t going to sit down for a session of George and Martha, I’ve got the littler kids listening to things that they’re “too young” for.

    We’re a family of re-readers, so I’ve just figured that, as long as things aren’t too intense for James now, he can revisit them later and get more out of them. And I do think that good stories make that possible. The Narnia books are great adventure stories, but I remember rereading them as a teen and “discovering” the allegory. That’s what makes them enjoyable for readers of all ages, I guess. I also think that reading aloud has really bridged a lot of gaps for us. It gets older kids interested in continuing to read things (like other books in a series) on their own. It lets little kids feel like part of the gang and enjoy stories that they couldn’t read by themselves. It gives me the control to stop and explain whatever iffy material needs explaining. And it helps mold our collective family culture. Win, win, win.

    All that being said, I really agree with everything you said. We all just do the best we can, I guess. And wear out those library cards!

    • Abby, that happens in our house too. I should have clarified that I was mostly speaking about kids reading on their own. Last year Kevin read The Hobbit to the girls and Gabe listened in. It’s the nature of big families, as you said, and we also do a lot of re-reading, so I know Gabe will get the full story again when he’s old enough to appreciate it. The boys still nap (fingers crossed!) so a lot of our older kid reading happens during that time. But a lot happens in the car, with audiobooks! No separating there!

      Sometimes, I hold off on reading something to Gianna/letting her read it because she and Aliya are close in reading level, but not in maturity. As soon as Gianna finishes a book, Aliya snatches it up, and vice versa. So I have to be careful with those two.

  8. This is a constant struggle for us. Sam started reading early, reads far above grade level, and he likes challenging things (especially fantasy and science fiction). It’s hard to find things that are emotionally appropriate for a sensitive boy his age (he’ll be six in September), and the librarian often wants to steer him toward things like Captain Underpants (ugh). We did read The Hobbit aloud together, and that went really well. He also enjoyed The Magician’s Nephew and wanted to go straight on to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, but I held off a few months until I thought he could handle some of the more descriptive battle scenes. I think you are so right that it is critical to know your children and your/their comfort level instead of comparing their reading with what other families are doing. We just finished reading Peter Pan aloud, and I wish we hadn’t…the writing and the vocabulary are so much more challenging than I remembered, and we had to skip some sentences outright (that Tinker Bell is racy!). Thanks for sharing your thoughts and wisdom about this.
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