Is It Challenging Enough? or How Reading Is Like a TARDIS

Here's how the question is usually formed (and it comes a lot—in emails, conversations): My kid can read things a lot more difficult than s/he does read. In fact, all s/he reads are comic books/stupid romances/unbearable series name here. Is this OK? Should I, I don't know, do something?

Here's the thing: I am not a teacher. I have no real idea of what they should be reading at school, other than that it should be wonderful. But what we talk about here isn't school. People are writing in about books outside school, that most excellent category, and for those I have made my strong bias clear: kids should read what they want to read. It's one of the few cases in the world where I actually know what I believe with very little doubt.

What makes me crazy is the way the world around them talks about reading. About reading levels.

I hate reading levels.

I understand that teachers need some way of helping kids into books that aren't too much for them. But the idea of saying that Where the Wild Things Are is somehow of a lower level than, say, Nancy Drew, or that a person would be better off reading Pippi Longstocking than The Clique—if The Clique is what is, for whatever crazy reason, calling out to them: this is wrong. At least outside school it is.

We read—well, we read for lots of reasons. To break apart the frozen sea within us. To escape the world and its terrors. To remember that there are other worlds outside our own. If a kid needs to sit and reread every single monstrous Berenstain Bear book even though she's 13, then that's what she needs to do. Who knows why?

Perhaps part of the problem is that when we look at what a book seems to be, we only see the outside. You can look at Little Bear: it says it's an I Can Read! book. And you might think "Oh, that's for little kids, my kid is in 5th grade, maybe he should be reading something else?" But here's where reading—my titles tell no lies!—is like a TARDIS. It may look on the outside like a beginning to read book. But Little Bear, and every single other book in the whole entire world, is much bigger inside than you could ever imagine from looking at the outside. The outside is just a disguise, to prevent people from realizing that you are about to leave this dimension.

So here's the thing: for anyone who writes in and asks whether they should try to get a kid to read more challenging books, I think: nope. As my eminently quotable husband said recently, when we were chewing over which school to send a person to: "The schools all talk about how challenging they are, but what I want them to talk about is how inspiring they are. They talk like those things are equivalent but they're not."

Whatever it is you're seeing when you see your kid splayed out on the living room floor with some dumb book—what you're seeing isn't what you think you're seeing. It's just the outside of the call box, as it were. And the cool thing is, you never find out why a particular book pulls them in and takes them somewhere. It's just between them and the book, forever. 

And also? We've started watching Dr. Who with Diana. In case you couldn't tell.

13 thoughts on “Is It Challenging Enough? or How Reading Is Like a TARDIS

  1. I love this, especially: “… you never find out why a particular book pulls them in and takes them somewhere. It’s just between them and the book, forever.” So true. I don’t even know why a particular book pulls myself in much of the time!
    Also, watching “Doctor Who” is a top-notch move. Well done.


  2. First of all thank you for your quick post connected to me email. This is an excellent post and it reminds me of what I knew. Thank you for serving as a constant resource and inspiration!


  3. The reading level thing really drives me crazy sometimes. I think what drove it home was when, recently, I saw a copy of Bread & Jam for Frances and it had an “I can read: Level 2” brand in the top corner. I silently thanked heaven that we managed to get all of those books before they’d been re-branded.
    For what it’s worth, Kevin Henkes has a new early reader series coming out this spring, and he apparently was quite firm that the books *not* be leveled. Yay, Kevin!


  4. As someone who still reads children’s books for my own pleasure, I absolutely agree. One of the things I worry about with my own kids is that the insistence on leveled reading might dampen their desire TO read. We read nightly with both of our kids and I have my oldest read to me. We read whatever we want. If it’s tougher for her we split the pages. If it’s really tough I read it all. Whatever we do, she’s learning to read, and hopefully more importantly, she’s learning to love to read. I think I’m both trying to supplement what school teaches her and usurp it at the same time.


  5. *I* recently started watching Doctor Who (my husband finally got me to go to there) AND this is the best post ever. Yes. Exactly everything you wrote.


  6. Good to be reminded of this, as I have three kids, all of whom are excellent readers for their age, all of whom read constantly but it is almost all in comic form. Sometimes I am able to feel very peaceful and zen about this, but sometimes it stabs me in my very heart!!
    But here’s a neat story: When their grandfather was a little boy living on the farm, he had gone into (their very small) town and bought a comic book. It was getting dark so he was standing and reading it in the light of the drug store window. One of his teachers walked by and said “Herb, if the town was burning down, you’d be reading your comic book by the light of the fire!” So I guess my kids are really just carrying on a 70 year tradition of compulsive comic reading.
    Though that story kind of ruins my other theory, which is that graphic novels are the literary form of the young generation and we old parents aren’t really meant to understand their allure.
    Anyway, when I pluck their comics from their sleeping hands tonight, I will remember your words. 🙂


  7. Also late to the party, but had to stick nose in to say:
    Best TARDIS metaphor ever.
    And, of course, you are exactly right about kids knowing what they need to be reading. And reading levels being remarkably silly.
    (I just finished a kids’ Tom Baker scarf for Elder. The kids love to hear about the show, but are still worried it’s too scary to actually try to watch. I’m being patient, but I am still way too excited for the day to come when they say: Mom, can we watch a Doctor Who now?)


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