Half We Recommend, Half Mysterious Quandary, All HELP!

We got an e-mail with a reading conundrum that we have never encountered before, which leaves me…surprised. I mean, just when you think you more or less have a grasp on the spectrum of crazy crap that kids go through, someone comes along and shows you that you've been trying to draw a line, or maybe even construct a plane, when in reality you're throwing together a massive whacked-out three-dimensional shape that can't even, in its ultimate complexity, begin to convey the total broad insanity that is children's development. Perhaps my geometry-based metaphor makes no sense? Probably so. You want to know what else makes no sense? Read on:


This is (a somewhat edited version of) the e-mail we got.

My nearly 4-year-old has, until the last six-ish months or so, been a massively book-loving child.  As in, we couldn't get enough books in the house, he would want us to read everything and anything, we would read to him at meal times, on the potty, on the bus, in restaurants. If he was sad, or bored, or frustrated, or whatever, his refuge was books — he'd bring me a pile of them (or one favourite one) and we would snuggle and read and all would be well (or at least better). He had started reading, enthusiastically, a load of early-readers that my retired-teacher grandmother had given him. The only downside was the fact that I was always on the hunt for new books that
would be long enough and entertaining enough without being too grown-up or scary for him (and I've had help in the past from you and your readers, which brought us the world of My Father's Dragon and Jenny Linsky and Robert McCloskey among other lovely, and much-loved things).
About six months ago, he started getting really restrictive about what he would let us read.  It started with requesting with one or two familiar books over and over, and went on to refusing to let us read any new books.  Now were at a stage where he's not only refusing new books, but he's refusing to let us read all but one (occasionally two) of his old books.  My mother sent him a parcel filled with some of my old books that she had kept and he was almost in tears when he discovered that's what was in it. Fortunately for us, the book that he's letting us read is a Milly-Molly-Mandy compendium with about 40 stories in it, so I'm not stuck reading the same 20 pages over and over again.

It feels like we've lost something.  Stories only come out at bedtime now, and only this one book. They don't provide the all-encompassing role of time-passer, comforter, companion, information-provider, imagination-stirrer.  The self-reading has virtually stopped dead.  My husband has suggested that I'm only sad about this because I want my son to have the relationship with books that I had and have, and that I need to let him (my son) find his own relationship with books. Which is fair enough.  But it seems like he *had* found his own relationship with books, but now it's gone.

I guess what I'm looking for from you and your readers is lots of people to say "Oh yes, my son/daughter was like that for a little while, and now we can't prise the books out of her hands." But I'd be happy with any other comfort/suggestions you might have.

Here's the thing: I have encountered this problem in other realms for sure. Diana, as a baby, used to weep when she saw a bunch of broccoli because we couldn't cook it fast enough to suit her, she loved it so. Then one day: gone. No exceptions. No softening. This goes, as well, for movies for us sometimes. Chestnut as a tiny person was willing to sit through The Wizard of Oz with perfect aplomb, even the terrifying freak-you-out-of-your-mind flying monkeys part. Now? Meet Me in St. Louis has her running out into the hall crying out, "Tell me what's happening! Is it going to be OK?!" It just happens, and (as far as I've found) there isn't much you can do about it.

Which more or less brings me to my not-so-helpful idea: this seems to me like some sort of worry or anxiety. As the parent of another very-early-reading child, I know that it comes with its own burdens: you're different, people (at school and at daycare) make a very big deal about it in a way you might not be comfortable with. People start to expect something different from you, and it's hard. Also, there is a sense of growing up faster, which can be scary. These are all things I witnessed here, but I don't know that it's what is going on there, of course. So we will now move from possibly useless speculation, and go to possible things to do.

It's not entirely clear to me exactly what sorts of things this child is interested in. Magic? Dragons? Trains? If there is anything that is a special love, maybe get a few of those books and (this will only work if your house is as disgustingly messy as mine, where it's never a surprise to sit on a book or a hairbrush or whatever, so there's lots of camoflauge) leave them around, just like friendly little options. Also, maybe ask at school or daycare if the same thing is happening there? Sometimes kids, especially ones who have made massive developmental leaps forward,  just want to be little again, at home and having parents read and read the same thing over and over.

Which brings me to my last, and probably only truly helpful, section: readers, has anything like this happened to you and yours? I am sure we all know the deep comfort that comes from a fellow traveler on a long dark road. Talk it up in the comments, if you can.

8 thoughts on “Half We Recommend, Half Mysterious Quandary, All HELP!

  1. I don’t think I have any suggestions, but I think that it will surely pass because at some point (if its not happening already) teachers are going to pull out new (to him) books and read them to the class. They will also require him to read some books during reading instruction. I am sure that he will hear/read something that will knock his socks off. For now, though, I would just keep doing what you are doing. And, of course leave around some books just like our lovely hostess suggested. Maybe read from the stacks that you have yourself saying, “I feel like reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar right now, would you like to join me?” If he says no, do it anyway. The draw to be with you might be stronger than his resistance, but then again, it might not.

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  2. I would say let it go for a while. Don’t ask him if he would like to read or if he would like you to read to him. I wouldn’t even necessarily leave books around “accidentally,” as kids can sense that stuff a mile away. Just follow his lead and don’t be worried. I have seen this type of thing with kids before, where the thing they loved to do, which almost defined them, is suddenly something they show no interest in. They’re trying on new identities, figuring out where their own boundaries are and how much something they like to do makes them who they are. If you push it, you risk making him feel forced and that could mean pushing him away from books even more. My guess is that he will come back to it on his own. He has plenty of time. Ask him what HE wants to do, and then do it. There are so many activities out there! Playing, cooking, building, riding bikes, going on walks, watching a movie, they are all appropriate and good for a little kid. The more relaxed you are about this transition, the more relaxed he’ll be, and the more comfortable he’ll be in figuring out where books fit in his life. Your relationship with books doesn’t need to change – read what and when you like, just as you always have. But the more relaxed you are about this, the better.

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  3. The restriction to only a few, or one, book sounds pretty right, at least I can say that my daughter did the same thing (and still does, actually). As a toddler and young preschooler she loved lots of books – almost all of them, really. When she got to be 3 1/2 or 4 though, along with all the other asserting-her-independence, button-pushing, drive-me-crazy behavior came obsessions with one book at a time. It is often a book I hate (Berenstain Bears, anyone?).
    I mostly went (go) along with it, although once in a while I insist that we read something I choose before we read her choice AGAIN. I try to make it something I know she will love, and sometimes it even works and the new book becomes the obsession and then I get sick of that one.
    On the refusal to read, my daughter was not an early reader, and as a 7 year old 1st grader she still struggles with it – emotionally if not intellectually. When she was 3 or 4 she said she didn’t want to learn to read because then I would stop reading to her. Of course I assured her this wouldn’t be true, but I don’t think she believed me.
    Now she just says it’s ‘hard’ and she has to read all the time in school and so she doesn’t have to read at home TOO! So there you poopyhead!!
    I guess my bottom line is to Follow The Child. If he doesn’t want to read, don’t make him read. If he only wants to read one book, read that book and before your eyes start to bleed from being sick of it you can try telling him you need a break from that book, or that you’re going to choose one and he can choose the other, or something. This too shall pass.

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  4. I haven’t experienced this with my kids, but if I did, I think I would just try to do everything possible to make it clear that it is okay to limit himself to one book. I wouldn’t want to leave the child alone at this time, because it does sound like something important is going on, something having to do with feeling safe and feeling himself. Instead, I would want to indicate to him in the subtlest way possible that I have noticed and am supportive.
    What about trying to amplify the one book he likes a little bit, checking out books by the same author from the library, recording you reading them with a chime to indicate a page turn, making up his own ending or his own illustrations? Gently, of course. It’s a fine line between being supportive and applying pressure.
    And then what about giving him stories in other forms, like audiobooks, Tumblebooks, Storynory, Storyline, and books with clever illustrations and no words like Zoom by Istvan Banyai and The Red Book by Barbara Lehman?
    If he shows a little interest, what about meta-fiction that does silly things with the idea of a story, like The Book by Mordacia Gerstein, The Bravest Bear Ever by Allah Ahlgren, or The Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein? You could even frame like, “I’m NOT going to read you a book. This LOOKS like a book, but believe me, it’s not.”
    Good luck. This would distress me too, but as long as books are always fun and never a chore or an assignment, I’ve got to think he’ll return to them.

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  5. I’m mostly agreeing w/ the above commenters that this is most likely developmental, and will change…but part of me wonders. Can you call or email his dr. and ask her/him about this? My one thought is that maybe something with his eyes has changed, and maybe he’s going for familiar books b/c he knows what’s coming next–and doesn’t want to read anything new b/c he’s having trouble seeing. Get his eyes checked & make sure he doesn’t need glasses–and if all is fine on that front, chalk it up to developmental/concern about kindergarten starting/etc., and just roll with it.

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  6. Just keep reading that same book! This too shall pass! And it may happen again later with another phase of reading. Kids get stuck in a book or series or subject all the time and I spend a ton of time telling parents to ride it out (I’ve been an elementary librarian for 12 years). It really will be OK.
    One comment above did make me ask – is the school REQUIRING him to read or just encouraging lightly? If there is instruction and requirement and such, that could well be the culprit for the resistance.
    But that said, it is totally normal either way. And now I have the personal anecdote to add to my professional experience – my three year old has been reading for three months and definitely withdrew into familiar books almost immediately. He doesn’t even want me to purchase anything when we are in the bookstore, which is just crazy to me. But we leave it alone and trust that the next phase will come. Just keep reading! Sounds like you’re doing great!

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  7. This is just a thought, but my son started reading very enthusiastically in about kindergarten/first grade, and it was hard to find things that were stimulating intellectually (not insulting to his reading level) but appropriate to his age. Is it possible that he went back to earlier, more familiar books because some of the more exciting ones were too advanced or scary, story-wise? I know that asking a 4-year-old why they do anything is total wasted effort (though I do it all the time anyway), so it’s hard to speculate. But maybe discussing some books he had read and then rejected, might give you some insight into why they’re not okay now.
    Good luck. I understand wanting him to have the same relationship with the printed word that you have, and I hope he’s feeling more comfortable soon.

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