In Rita Williams-Garcia’s P. S. Be Eleven, included on this year’s Fanfare list of the best books of 2013, Delphine, inspired by the example of an admired teacher, decides she is going to read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. But Delphine’s mother Nzila, a complicated woman living semi-estranged from the family in far-away Oakland, cautions her in a letter: “When you are older I want you to find Chinua Achebe. I want you to read Things Fall Apart. Don’t be hardheaded and try to read this book now…Fourteen is a good age to find Chinua Achebe.” In a postscript she writes what she always writes to Delphine: “Be eleven.”
One of the many wonderful things about P. S. Be Eleven is how its adult characters, well-meaning all, take actions and give advice that may or may not be good. In books for young people, we’re used to being nudged if not bludgeoned into whatever position the author might hold. Should Delphine, at eleven, read Things Fall Apart? Or should she wait? The author doesn’t say.
Like any librarian who’s ever seen a ten-year-old haul Moby-Dick, or just some racy adult bestseller, up to the circulation desk, I’m of several minds. Regardless of what we think of the suitability or readability of any given book to any given reader, we of course allow the child to check out and read — or try to — the book he or she wants. But we still worry that a book read by someone too young or otherwise “not ready” for it means that the book won’t get its due; as Nzila writes to Delphine, “It is a bad thing to bite into hard fruit with little teeth. You will say bad things about the fruit when the problem is your teeth.” It also means that the reader may not get what he was hoping for: excited in junior high by all things that might be like Camelot (come on. I was eleven), I bumped smack into The Faerie Queene, didn’t Get It, and never went back for another go.
But another part of me is reluctant to steer the curious Delphines away from whatever book may have caught their eye. (Although one does wonder if Nzila knew that telling a child she’s too young for a book is one of the best ways to get her to read it!) Maybe she’s not ready for the tragedy of Achebe’s novel, or maybe she won’t Get It and will take against it prematurely. So what? Even if it spoils Things Fall Apart for her, it enriches the soil of her reading landscape for the eventual flourishing of other books. I love the solution Nzila finds, sending Delphine (now twelve, thank you very much) a copy of the book along with a note: “I know you’ll read this now, but wait two years.” So even if Delphine does read it now, she does so with her mother’s advice — with her mother’s care — in her heart.
Nobody ever became a better reader by sticking with books they were ready for. And being ready for a book depends less on how old you are than on your ease with the practice itself, which includes being able to recognize when a book has you in the dark and pressing on regardless or — just as important — skipping or even giving up without a bit of shame. There will always be another book to come.