I was thrilled when my 4 year old started reading “Look Jane, look! Look at Spot run! Run Spot, run!” As someone who had discovered the magic of reading on my own at a young age, I was delighted and excited for my son to start on the journey of independent reading. I still read to him aloud of course, but there is nothing quite like being able to wrap yourself up in the cocoon of a tale and emerge hours later, muzzy headed and time warped, the remnants of the story clinging to you like cobwebs. But, as an early reader myself, I was also a bit nervous. I had first hand experience with reading content that was over my head, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to moderate material for my own child. I wanted him to read things that would encourage his love of reading, be fun and informative as well as take him to new worlds.
At first it was easy. Picture books and early readers that we picked out together at the library were quick enough to vet. Later, short chapter books that I had read with my older son, Magic Tree House, or My Father's Dragon, material that I had already read and was familiar with. But he was catching up with me, and fast. Luckily, around this time I was working in the Children’s Department of our local bookstore, so I had access to the latest releases for kids and I had time to look over them before passing them on or recommending them. Because he was still young I was anxious about giving him books with just pages and pages of text, and right around this time there was an explosion of books for young readers that were a type of chapter book/graphic novel hybrid. Not to mention we are huge fans of comics in my house, so we would check out all the Garfield and Foxtrot the library would let us. But sooner or later he was going to graduate to all text books, and I needed to be ready.
Let me be up front when I say I am never a fan of censoring the reading material of children. My own childhood experiences aside, I do believe that if they can read it, they should be allowed to. Generally there do seem to be two schools of thought. Those that believe that if the content isn’t relevant the child will just “gloss over it” and it won’t make an impact. I recently watched a discussion between Neil Gaimin and N.K Jemisin where they speak about being young, voracious readers. He maintains that “you only take what you need” from a book if the content is too advanced for you. She counters with “or it lodges in your memory” and proceeds to recount her own childhood story. After reading Watership Down she decided to search out more titles by Richard Adams only to encounter the book Maia, which, needless to say, was not age appropriate. I have a friend who tells a story of reading the book “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” long before puberty and being worried about what a “period” is. Or another friend who when she found out that the book her son had borrowed from school exposed Santa Claus, had to hastily remove the pages while he was sleeping and later replace the book. As I have talked about before, reading can leave a lasting impression. What our children read does matter and we should not ignore the fact that it may impact them, potentially negatively as well as positively. I don’t believe in restricting reading, but I do believe it is appropriate to curate and shepherd our young readers material choices for as long as we can.
While working on this blog post, I asked my son to think about what books he remembered reading in second grade. He came back with a memory I’d forgotten, that of him reading a whole series of books about haunted houses and ghosts. Oh, how I hated that phase. He already had an issue with bad dreams and restless sleep. But he would go to school and to the school library and they had these ---books!!! He would read them there, so I had no control over them. I’ve already said I don’t believe in banning books, so it’s not like I was going to go to the school and make them take them off the shelves. They were books intended for the fourth and fifth graders, so it wouldn’t have even been fair to remove them. What could I do? Well, we talked about them. He would tell me the story, and I would listen and wonder aloud if that could really happen, and reinforce that it was just made up. He still maintains those books were never a cause of his sleepless nights. Hummmm…. I am just glad I had a small window into the world he was reading about. This is where teachers can play a huge role. Being mindful of not only the reading levels of your students but making sure that the material in your classroom is both challenging and appropriate.
So what can we do as parents when our children's reading is out of our control? When they are reading so fast and so wide we just can’t keep up? First, be involved. You may not have time to read the whole book, but you can read the back and do a quick search on amazon. Even better if you can read the book along with them. When my son was in middle school he wanted to read Catcher In The Rye, a book I had read when I was 10 and abhorred. Needless to say, I wasn’t excited about him reading it, but… So we read it together, each with our own copy and shared thoughts as we went along. It was a unique experience for me, being able to view the book both through his eyes and the eyes of a mother.
And then? Ask questions. What do they think of the book, the plot, the characters motivation? Use it as an opportunity to have discussion and share your thoughts, but more importantly find out what they are thinking. Listen to what they say, and listen to what they don’t say. If you know a book broaches particular topics, ask them what they thought of that part. Children will only learn to be afraid of some subjects if we refuse to talk about them.
And lastly, keep reading to them. I hear so many stories of people whose parents stopped reading to them after they learned to read, inadvertently turning learning to read into a punishment. Reading together has many benefits beyond the mere sharing of stories. And at some point it may be the ONLY time you can control what stories your children hear.
Early Readers for Early Readers:
Nate The Great series by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat
Minnie and Moo series by Denys Cazet
Commander Toad series by Jane Yolen
Mercy Watson series by Kate DiCamillo
Chapter Books for Early Readers:
Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Brownies: Their Book by Palmer Cox
Stink or Judy Moody series by Megan McDonald
Anything by Dick King-Smith (author of Babe)