Wednesday, August 04, 2010

A rant about kids and reading

My rule about Lily's reading: Anything she wants. Period. End of discussion. Some of the comments after this Times blog post about summer reading suggest that only "good" books should be allowed. Or, anything they want! (as long as it's age appropriate). Huh?

It's not that I haven't pulled my hair out as she reads (and rereads and rereads again) the Warriors series, or the Clique series -- blech! ugh -- or any of the other yucky stuff out there. When she picked up Twilight at a friend's a year ago, and loved it, and wanted to read the second one, a dear family friend was appalled. "You're too young for that, Lily!" she said. I just shrugged. I don't censor my kid's reading. She can read whatever she wants. Period.

My reading life changed when I was nine and reading (probably the fabulous Laura Ingalls Wilder for the 37th time) in my room late one afternoon when my mother came in and casually tossed Animal Farm on my bed. "You might like this," she said. I read it right then -- it's short -- and it changed my life. I started reading everything Orwell had ever written. A lot of it went over my head, but I loved 1984, (although it was hard to read the torture scenes and I kinda skipped the political treatise by Emmanuel Goldstein), and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and his essays.

I was also nine when I read a letter to the editor in an Archie comic by a kid who went to a school called Summerhill, in California. I immediately wanted to go there too. My mother told me the original school was in England and gave me A.S. Neill's book, Summerhill. I barrelled through that too -- it's mostly short chapters with short scenes and the theory is written simply and concisely. That changed my life too, and I immediately started thinking about education and open classrooms and tradition versus modernity, and all kinds of things. I told Mrs. Benz, my fourth grade teacher, that I knew what she was trying to do -- run an open classroom -- and that it wasn't working. What a brat! But I was right. When I was 11 years old I read The Godfather, much racier than Orwell or Neill, and while some of it was kind of shocking (and some I didn't quite understand), the story was gripping and the characters fascinating.

In a way, I got so much attention for what I was reading that my ego got wrapped up in what a sophisticated reader I was, and how much I read. And perhaps as a result, around age 13 or 14, I kind of stalled out, I hit a bit of a wall; the thrill was gone. I couldn't quite finish a book because I was trying to live up to this idea of myself as a voracious, adult reader. So I largely read stuff that was either over my head or just not interesting to me.

To make matters worse, I knew what I was supposed to be doing: I remember arguing with a friend's father, when I was a high school freshman, about his 8th grade daughter's reading. He wanted her to read literature, whatever that is, and all she wanted to read was mysteries. I took the position that what she read didn't matter, that the important thing was that she was reading. He got quite annoyed at me, as you might imagine, and I don't think I had any affect on either of them -- I don't think she was ever much of a reader. So thinking back, I can see that I knew the theory, but I found it hard to apply it to myself.

Eventually my mom mentioned something about kids rereading books that are very easy for them, books they had read when they were younger, and that's an important aspect of the process of learning to read, a way of reinforcing reading skills. (Along the lines of what my friend Nick Noyes says, "Before every period of tremendous growth is an equal period of regression.") And that helped get me out of my slump -- that, and I went to high school and had plenty of great reading to do for my classes. Reading Pride and Prejudice in Walter McCloskey's 9th grade English class helped hugely to re-inspire me.

As an adult, I've read less at times, such as when I was in a lot of emotional turmoil, or when I was in college, or my first grad school. But I always read, and after I finished grad school I started a book group. That was in 1990, and it's still going; they read great books. I am in another one here, on my block, which has been around for more than 40 years and the discussions are great. I was afraid being a grad student again would deter me, but nope, it might take me longer to finish a book, but I still read. Right now it's Wolf Hall -- it's incredible, you were right, Mum --  and I read maybe a half dozen other books this spring and summer, both fiction and non-.

To be honest, I do 'fess up to some ego about what Lily reads. When she was very little, like 3 or 4, I was a bit concerned because a couple of her friends were reading and she wasn't. But my mom was clear and firm, gear down, Sash, and so was our dear friend Margaret Furber, who, like my mom, was a former elementary school teacher, and simply said, she will learn to read. Don't worry. True, Lily has always loved books -- at two years old we could put her to bed with a few picture books and say, turn the light out when you're through, kiss her goodnight, and leave. And she'd look through them for 20 minutes or so and then go to sleep.

And once she did start reading the words, I'd get a little wigged out about her reading all those crappy series, like Sweet Valley High, ugh. But I kept my mouth shut, mostly. I'd read aloud to her the books I wanted her to know -- Lois Lenski's Indian Captive, The Book of Three, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Gentle Ben, Tom Sawyer -- and I'd complain to my mom or her teachers about how she read the same books over and over, and they were stupid and not challenging, and they'd quite gently give me the same line: Don't worry, she'll move on, trust the process, stay out of it. Sure enough, she has.

I rarely wig out about Lily's reading now, although I do loathe the Clique series. We try to get to the library often, and when we do we pick the brains of the librarians about what to read. She's in two book groups, one at the library and one at school, which I'm also in, as it's for parents and kids. Plus, we're reading two books for family camp later in the month, well, one is for kids+ (The Hunger Games) and the other is for adults and interested teens (The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down).

So, if Lily wants to read The Godfather, I say, via con dios. Read whatever you like. She loves to read, she always has a book going, summer, winter, doesn't matter. Dave reads books, non-fiction. We all read newspapers and magazines. We are a reading family. Oh, and about Twilight? Lily started the second one, New Moon, and put it down after just a few chapters, saying, "I'm too young for this. I'll read it when I'm older." That's my girl.


  1. Bravo! Couldn't agree more.

  2. Me too! (How about Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series? I bet those would be right up her alley...)


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