Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Too old? Too young? Just right?

I've been involved in an interesting conversation about reluctant readers, started in the comments on Jen Robinson's PBS Parents Post, and continued on her blog. One thing all the commentators seemed to agree on was that kids need to find their own level, read the books that speak to them rather than what seems to be popular. And, of course, I agree.

But. I also think reading above one's level is actually a fine thing--if one is the kind of kid who stretches rather than shrinks when confronted with new things. I was that kind of kid, and I read War and Peace when I was twelve, after seeing the Masterpiece Theatre production. I can't say I understood it, but it gave me great pleasure, nonetheless, to cart it around and do my best.

Now A.O. Scott chimes in with a similar, but perhaps even more revolutionary, suggestion--that you let your kids watch movies "above their level." Again, speaking from personal experience, I'm with him: I know I watched things that I wasn't "ready" for, emotionally or intellectually, but that I nonetheless stretched and grew as a result. Of course this all has to do with knowing your own children--Nick found both Harry Potter and The Princess Bride "too scary" the first time he tried to watch them, so we let him stop and he came to them on his own time. But Mariah started watching PG and PG-13 movies long before she was 13, if we thought they were right for her, and Nick has certainly seen his share as well. Perhaps of R movies, too, though it's hard to remember.

Books don't come with ratings or warning labels (usually), of course, but I think the issue is analogous. Share what you like, know your child, and enjoy.


  1. It's definitely been an interesting conversation. I do remember reading David Copperfield in 7th grade, and feeling pretty pleased with myself. I also tried The House of Seven Gables, but that one defeated me. I also read Jane Eyre early, because my mother had a nice, illustrated edition. But I was probably also re-reading much easier books like The Boxcar Children at the same time. I would agree with letting kids read above or below their age level, if that's what pleases them (within some limits about appropriateness of content, of course).

  2. I agree entirely with the idea that one should support one's kids in reading stuff above above their 'level', if they're interested in doing so (or even suggesting it).

    This post did remind me, though, of a comment you made in your column: "Almond's novels will appeal to an older audience than Jones's -- middle schoolers, perhaps;
    though Skellig is fine for ages 8 or 9 and up".

    It sounded remarkably as though you were suggesting Diana Wynne Jones's works were all of one level. There are novels by her that I found challenging at 32, let alone at 16. She's a children's writer, but one who covers a wide range of levels. 'The Year of the Ghost', with its examination of parental neglect, and 'Fire and Hemlock', with constant chopping and changing of period, are not really that good for the younger kids who may love 'Eight Days of Luke' or 'Dogsbody'.

  3. Thanks for your comment, MKCS. I think I was referring specifically to the Chrestomanci books and to "Howl," which are, I think, good middle-grade novels But you're right that there are others that are challenging--as, indeed, these are as well, but in ways that most middle-schoolers, I think, can handle. As always with such things, though, ymmv.