Like many writers, I had a reading childhood, but I’ve only recently understood how countercultural my mother was about my reading. My brother and sister and I are close in age, so when I was a child there were no big-kid books and little-kid books; no girl books and boy books. All the books belonged to all of us. They were shelved together in the living room, picture books through adult novels, fiction and nonfiction jumbled up in a wonderfully inviting way. My mother read to me extensively until I could read for myself, and then she not only stopped reading to me altogether but stopped supervising my reading. I was let loose to develop my own tastes and check out whatever caught my eye at the library.
When my children were young, I was happy to follow my mother’s lead and not keep books by gender or level or topic. Each of my four children had his or her favorites, and a few, very tattered, books were adored by everyone. When the kids were all younger than ten they moved fluidly among picture books, chapter books, middle grade novels, and nonfiction of all kinds.
Harry Potter was the start of the trouble. My oldest discovered Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when she was in fourth grade and her youngest sister was just learning to walk. The books quickly became favorites that we passed around and discussed at dinner. We invented yard Quidditch for birthday parties and knitted hats for the house-elf rebellion. By the time the long-awaited final book was announced seven years later, my youngest, Madelaine, was dying to get in on the game, and being read to was not good enough. She wanted to read the last book for herself. Furthermore, she decided to read all six of the previous books in her second-grade year before the last book came out in the summer. I was all for the project, excited to see her so motivated, proud that she was reading independently — and yet, there were problems I didn’t foresee.
A five-pound book doesn’t fit the standard second-grader backpack, and it’s a lot to carry when you only weigh forty pounds. Madelaine enjoyed each book and loved being up to speed on all the characters her siblings had been talking about her whole life. Still, it took her so long to read them, as a new reader, that much of the momentum of the stories were lost in the work of decoding, so she never found them as exciting as the older kids had. Because the characters were many years older than she was and often focused on things that didn’t interest her, she never made an emotional connection with them, either. But she was keeping up with the big kids, and that was all she wanted.
On the midnight of the final Harry Potter release, all six of us went to our neighborhood indie, Annie Bloom’s, for the party. The kids were eight, eleven, fourteen, and sixteen. We bought one book and six bookmarks. We made the usual bargain about not talking about what happens until everyone’s bookmark passed that chapter — a good incentive for not hogging the book. It was a magical week that July when we all shared our long-awaited Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows!
And yet I found my own enjoyment of the book lessened because Deathly Hallows was such a dark story—not inappropriately dark, but grim reading for a child who had just lost her first tooth. From my tree-house office that week I watched Madelaine as she read aloud to our chickens. Periodically, she would slam the book shut and say to them, in complete earnestness, “This is one of the awful parts. I’m not going to read it to you. You’re only four months old. Maybe later — when you are big enough to lay eggs.” And then she would go curl up with her big brother in the hammock and work her way through the “awful part.” She managed. We all did, and, as with all the other books, there was yard Quidditch to play and inside jokes to tell and lots of meaty topics to discuss. My youngest did not suffer nightmares, as I had feared. But I did find some unanticipated consequences to letting her read up.
Not surprisingly, it took Madelaine the entire school year to read the first six Harry Potter books, which meant she read no picture books in second grade. Many of the really great picture books are for school-aged children. Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges, The Eleventh Hour by Graeme Base, and The Cats in Krasinski Square by Karen Hesse were favorites of my older children. She also missed out on Encyclopedia Brown and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and My Father’s Dragon. The first Clementine book by Sara Pennypacker came out that year, and I was longing to have someone just the right age with whom to share it. But it’s not so easy to go back to simpler books when you’ve spent a year filling up on richer fare. Madelaine’s reading improved tremendously in terms of both speed and comprehension, and of all the benefits of reading up, that’s by far the most immediately valuable. And yet I’m sorry to see that the classic characters from longer picture books and early chapter books are not part of the architecture of her imagination in the way they are for me and for her older siblings.
Now that my oldest two are in college and the younger girls are in middle- and high school, I’ve been rethinking my laissez-faire approach to reading up. For instance, my younger two often find YA books a little bit stale. John Green, whom they used to love when they were in grade school, seems a little silly to them now. And that’s a shame. It’s not that the books are lacking in any way. But as precocious readers, they took only a shallow spoonful of what was available in the text. If they were of a temperament to reread favorite books, they might have come to appreciate his work more fully in time. But they chose to move on, remembering the fun of their shared jokes from An Abundance of Katherines but not the substance they glossed over at the time.
There’s a lot of really great YA writing that my girls won’t touch because it seems too young. The writing is right on target for them developmentally, but because they’ve already read extensively in the genre, it simply doesn’t appeal to them in the way I’d hoped it would. In the last few years they have gravitated toward genres they didn’t read in grade school: steampunk, graphic novels, and fan fiction. Overall, though, they spend less time reading than their older siblings did.
Reading up is not as simple an issue as I’d once supposed. I’ve noticed a tendency among people in the book professions to scorn parents who advocate withholding older books from younger readers, painting them as rigid, conservative, and insensitive to the needs of the child. I thought so myself at the start, but now I have some sympathy for the longer view of trying to nurture a lifelong reader and not just a temporarily precocious one.
I’m happy to report that my younger girls do find YA books they like from time to time. They discovered Terry Pratchett at exactly the right moment and are avid fans. Fortunately, their older brother and sister remember the fun of shared reading enough to give The Wee Free Men a try, even though it’s “too young” for them. Now when everyone is home from college and they’re all making dinner together, they are full of inside jokes from the Discworld and have loud arguments in Nac Mac Feegle about whether the recipe calls for Special Sheep Liniment!
I have always thought that the social dimension of reading gets the short end of the stick in our current educational climate, one that puts so much emphasis on measurable results. In my opinion, the conversations that occur because of the book are far more valuable than anything on the page. So do I regret letting my younger two read YA books so early? No, not exactly; but I do recognize that they lost something in their childhood reading that I cannot now replace. It’s true that Madelaine, in a moment of rainy-day boredom, recently picked up Clementine and gave it a read, trumpeting the funny bits out loud as my kids often do. Those funny bits were still pretty funny, even from the lofty view of sixth grade. Clementine could have been a literary soul mate to my quirky and keenly observant girl. But that ship sailed years ago during her Harry Potter summer, and she and Clementine will be only passing acquaintances.
On the other hand, my kids feel a deep and lasting camaraderie over their shared reading, even as school and college and adult life pull them in different directions. They have grown apart in their talents and aspirations. They have their own circles of friends and will probably never all live in the same town again. And yet I do hope that the stories they loved together will be their common ground, just as Narnia and Earthsea and Middle-earth are the childhood homes my own siblings and I continue to share.
From the November/December 2012 Horn Book Magazine.