Monday, June 22, 2009

Can vs. Should

Every so often, the kidlitosphere has a flurry of posts about reading to grade level (or above, or below) and the importance that grown-ups attach to it. Even though we've done it before, it's worth going through again as often as possible, which was why I was happy when Jen Robinson kicked this flurry off. She has a round-up of responsive posts and links at PBS's Booklights blog.

I was one of those kids who read above their grade level. Luckily, my parents never put any pressure on me. But I personally bought into the "gifted" label and pressured myself, reading Gone with the Wind in fourth grade and attempting Nicholas Nickleby in seventh, believing that because I could read these books, I should. I hated both and have never gone back to either, even though I love other Dickens novels.

My favorite scene in all of Dickens may be the lurid description of Miss Havisham's wedding cake. Reading it was the first chill-inducing, breath-stealing experience I ever had of the presence of literary genius. But I was seventeen.

That's my greatest objection to pushing kids to read farther and farther above their grade level. Not that kids will encounter sex and violence, but that they may be in the presence of genius that they're not ready for, and in missing it, dismiss it for the rest of their lives.

Of course Dickens, Austen, and Shakespeare are stone-cold geniuses. I'm the last person to deny that. But there's genius of a different kind in Eric Carle, in Frog and Toad, in Ramona Quimby--the kind of genius that's right for the age it's written for. This is not about skill level, but child development.

Sure, there are kids who are developmentally ready for Dickens at ten. Every kid is different, after all. But so many are pushed at it, forced to start and forced to finish by influences outside the simple question of, Does this book speak to me?

As many of you know, my favorite novel is Pride and Prejudice. I started it three different times (at fourteen, at sixteen, and at eighteen) before I finished it. If I'd been pushed through it at fourteen, spurred on by AR points or lexile levels or teachers or parents that said I should read this book, I might have missed and dismissed a novel that's formed a cornerstone of both my reading and my understanding of the world.

You want to talk about tragedy.

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