This article, entitled “If your child won’t read, find another book”, written by Amanda Craig, appeared in the Telegraph yesterday. The books referenced are UK heavy and not all of her recommendations will be available in the US (it’s too bad, because Malorie Blackman’s Naughts and Crosses is one of the most phenomenal books *not* to cross the Atlantic). The concept of helping children find the ‘right’ book is one we are dedicated to at Eight Cousins. We don’t just shove books into children’s hands and demand that they enjoy them, we take the time to find out what children like to read, what they like, and why types of things interest them. We all have our favorites, to be sure, those books we think are so good that everyone should read them, but we strive to find the right book for the young readers who come in to our store. As such, overall, I agree wholeheartedly with Craig’s title. I think most children’s booksellers, librarians, and teachers would. Finding the book for every individual child is the very often attainable holy grail in children’s books.
What interested me about Craig’s article, however, is the opening paragraph in which she sites a study published by Dundee University. The research shows “that rising numbers of pupils, including the brightest, choose books like Roald Dahl’s The Twits, suitable for seven-year-olds, may confirm many of our fears about dumbing down”. Before you get up in arms, crying “what is wrong with Roald Dahl?”, let me just say, “what is wrong with Roald Dahl?” We keep most of Dahl’s books in stock in our grades 2-4 section. The implicit assumption, then, is that Dahl should be read by kids ages 7-9 and are not appropriate for 10-13 year olds. Well, first, we’re hitting on one of the crucial dilemmas of children’s books. What makes a book ‘a children’s book’? How do we identify ‘age appropriate’ books? I can hear thousands of adult voices declaiming “but I just reread *insert Dahl book here* as an adult and I loved it”. If adults love reading Dahl, then what is the issue with a 12 year old reading his books? And just because our store keeps Dahl in on section, doesn’t mean for a second that we think it should only be read by people who fall into that particular demographic. The term ‘cross-over book’ exists for a reason. Books aren’t very good about keeping themselves to the categories we assign to them. If you want to debate classification in children’s literature further, stop by the store. I find these conversations fascinating.
For now, however, I want to skip over these big questions and move on to something that I think Craig’s article, and the Dundee research is neglecting. Craig talks about the reading rut that children can get in to and how, as a parent, to encourage them out of it. Many of her suggestions are good ones and she demonstrates some excellent “if your kid likes this book, try this book” options. What I think she’s missing, however, is how often books themselves promote other books and encourage further reading. Children’s books are a hot-bed of intertextual references. Have you noticed how often children in children’s books read? Surely someone has done a study on this topic, but fictional characters are perpetually recommending books.
Think of Matilda, for example, she’s the quintessential avid reader. If you hand Matilda to a child, you’re also handing over Moby Dick, Great Expectations, The Secret Garden. Do kids pick up on these internal book recommendations? Well, yeah, I think they do. At least, anecdotally I think they do. I read and re-read Madeleine L’Engle’s books when I was in high school. At Eight Cousins, L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, et al are kept in our 5-7th grade section, which means I was reading below my reading level. L’Engle’s characters, however, often discuss literature, music, art, architecture, theater. I so heavily identified with Vicky Austin, that if she was reading Shakespeare’s As You Like It, then I wanted to read it as well. I don’t see what we’re ‘dumbing down’ here.
What do you think? Do you think that we should discourage young readers from books that are below their reading level? Do you ever read books that are recommended by characters in books? Tell us in the comments.