Monday, April 23, 2018

What Are the "Right" Kind of Books for Children?

I recently got back from a book festival in Hattiesburg, MS at the University of Southern Mississippi, the Fay B. Kaigler Children's Book Festival. It's my favorite thing to do all year, professionally speaking, and this was my third year to attend. They have been hosting this book festival for more than fifty years, and if you are a school or public librarian, an author, or really any kind of children's educator, it is a phenomenal professional development opportunity. My public services supervisor (think floor manager for public libraries; she's my right hand in managing the department) nailed it perfectly when she referred to it as "a tent revival for children's librarians." It's joyful, energetic, passionate, and just fun. Lots of people bonding over a mutual love of building literacy in children, and discussing the hurdles and pitfalls that we commonly see.

Anyway, this year the primary speaker and USM Medallion recipient was Dav Pilkey, who is best known for his graphic novel chapter books, Captain Underpants and the newly released Dog Man books. His books are contentious among parents and educators, but librarians almost universally adore them, because kids love them and can't seem to keep their hands off of them. Kids pleading to read a book, ESPECIALLY tween boys? I'll take it!

Something that Dav Pilkey said in his speech, which discussing the difficulty he had as a child with ADHD in developing a love of reading, was that there has always seemed to be this prevailing theory that in regards to reading, there is an educational equivalent to junk food. That some books aren't "good enough" for kids to be reading. Or magazines. Or graphic novels. Or comic books. You get where I'm going with this. 

I could go on a huge diabtribe about this, how much I agree with Mr. Pilkey, but the best way I have found to explain it is this: 

If your child or children are currently being educated (whether public, private, achievement, charter, homeschool, whatever), then guess what? Your child is reading, and is presumably reading books at the correct grade level, or is working up to the correct grade level. 

Do you want to encourage your child to continue to read and gain the skills to read at or above grade level? If your answer is yes, then what you need to do, rather than force them to continue reading those things, is first help create a love of reading in your child

If your child loves to read, then they will read, whether they like the books the school (and others) are pushing or not. In order to grow a child who loves to read, however, you have to allow that child to read what he or she enjoys. It doesn't matter if you don't understand it, or think that it's quality literature. If they enjoy reading it, then they will grow to love following the journey of the book. They will start to appreciate following a narrative from beginning to end. They will allow themselves to fall in love with stories and characters, and that creates a lover of reading. 

Once you have a reader, then start quietly encouraging them to read more books on their grade level, in addition to the books that they enjoy reading. Not in place of them. In addition to them. Find the characters or genres they enjoy, and seek out books on their level that have similarities. 

Obviously, this works best if you are starting this process with your child at a very young age. I have a 7 year old first grader, who LOVES to read. He is currently reading on an almost fourth grade level. Guess what he loves reading more than anything else in the world?

Dog Man

Yep, he can't put the books down. He laughs out loud, pours over the pages repeatedly, spends literally an hour at a time reading. Think about that. A 7 year old boy. Reading. FOR AN HOUR. 

Guess what his second favorite book is?

Charlotte's Web

That is a classic, 3rd-4th grade level chapter book that he has read twice now (the first time was the summer after he finished kindergarten, because he teacher loaned it to him to read over the summer. We've since bought him his own copy). He reads it on his own, he asks us to read it to him. He loves the story and the characters. I have a child who loves to read, and it's because I don't place boundaries on what he reads. I encourage it. As a result, when he has a book to read for school, it isn't a fighting match to get him to read. The conversation is more like this:

Me: "Son, do you have any reading homework due this week?"
Him: "Oh yeah! Let me go do that."

Then he scampers off and does it. No complaints, because he likes to read, even if he doesn't love the subject matter. (Note: he doesn't really like social studies, which breaks my heart because my degrees are in history, and that's what he's primarily reading for school. However, even though he doesn't have the passion for it, he never balks at reading it. He just does it, then gets back to whatever else he was doing. I can't say the same thing for other forms of homework he has, like math sheets and grammer pages. No problem with the reading though.)

There's a reason that there are now graphic novelizations of popular books like Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series and the Kane Chronicles, A Wrinkle in Time--even the Babysitter's Club books that I grew up with! Just because a book has pictures does not make it any less valid or valuable as an educational tool. So don't discount graphic novels. Don't brush off comic books, or magazines. They too help build literacy, just in a different format, and they allow children to become engaged in a character or scenario that they can then visualize. Sometimes kids need help visualizing characters on a page before they learn how to visualize them in their minds. There's nothing wrong with that. 

Trust me, if you do this, you'll see the growth and critical thinking skills develop right in front of your eyes, and you'll be glad you supported them instead of shaming the things that they love. Don't unwittingly make your child or students think that there is something wrong with the things they find interesting and engaging. Talk to them about what they like to read, and encourage their excitement, no matter the format. Let your kids read what they love. After all, as Dav Pilkey also said in his address: "More than fifty percent of the people who read Young Adult books are over the age of 25. If no one is shaming adults for reading below their level, then why are we doing it to kids?"

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