Level Z

As you may know if you've been reading this blog for any length of time, I am extremely uncomfortable with the whole idea of levels in reading, though I do believe it when teachers tell me it's necessary for their teaching. I hate the place in the world where reading meets competition, and having been on both sides of the grade level divide—that is, above and below—I can't help feeling that the whole idea of having your "reading level" named and given a representative letter is irrelevant in a way so deep and thorough that I can't ever find my way back to meaning.

And now, after all these years, we've gotten to the ages when schools regularly include that ultimate destination, than unreachable dream, level Z, in their book lists. And I thought: OK, now we get the good stuff! We get to find out what they've been keeping from us—not that we haven't been on level Z, but more that it hasn't really been included in the overall roster of books. So now that it is, it feels as though we've gotten the map to the secret world, we have the password, they open the gate, and behind it, books and books and books and…oh.


I'll admit right up front, because why not be honest about my own personal failings, that I have not read this book.  I am doing that worst thing of song and story: judging a book by its cover. Oh, and its first page. And its back cover copy. But still—is this really the ultimate in kid reader ability? I know I'm getting all snobby and intolerable, but couldn't they ask a little more of these kids? Of all of us?

I know, I know: they want the books to feel relevant to kids' lives. And…I know we more or less have to trust, in this world, that everyone is doing his or her best at any one time. And heaven knows you can learn from anything you read, there's always something amazing to be gotten from it.

It's also true that they're being asked to read The Pearl, so they have their classic bases covered.

But there's something about seeing this on my coffee table that makes me so unutterably sad. 

9 thoughts on “Level Z

  1. Okay. I hate that cover too. But…I LOVED the book. It is one of my favorites. I don’t know, is in the adult section of the bookstore? I have no idea the level, I just know that I loved her writing and was enveloped in the story. My cover was NOT that cover and I do think it does it a big disservice.


  2. It was a pretty good book before it became a movie. Not a great book, IMO, but a pretty good book anyway. And certainly very representative of a type of book that many women read almost exclusively. I’m not up on the names for these things. I think Chick Lit usually has a martini or a high heel on the cover, doesn’t it? So what do you call this kind of book – Women’s fiction? Something like that? Anyway, it is a good read and a good example of the genre – this genre that I can almost put my finger on but not quite.


  3. I agree with lb. Good book. Quick read. Not great literature, but good. Sad, though. I wonder why so many recommended books must be sad?
    I have a memory of reading The Yearling for summer reading when I was maybe about Diana’s age. I couldn’t finish it. I wept and wept and wept.


  4. Agreed with the others. I read it before it was a movie so my cover was also better/slash/Queen Latifah-less. I call this Oprah Book Club reading and most of the time I avoid it like the plague so I get what you are saying. I can see why this would be upper-echelon junior high-ish reading — it has A Message, self discovery, a bit of laughter and tears, all while being an adult book and so not as easy as something written for younger kids might be. But it is not a Z book. I’d say, like, V. Maybe. Why can’t a Z book be Henry James or something?
    Also, there is so much punctuation in my comment I’m afraid your comment thingie might kick it back to me. Sorry for that.


  5. This is one of the many problems I have with leveling books (and I say this not only as a reader and a mom of a burgeoning reader, but as a former teacher as well). There is no way to accurately level non “reader-style” books, because books are all different, written by different authors of varying skill levels. They use different language and have different storylines, which may be more or less sophisticated. You can have a book with harder words but a completely simplistic (and sometimes stupid) story. You can have an incredibly complex and multi-layered story told in clear, simple words. Yet these books will often end up in the same ‘level.’ So what, then, can be assessed with two extremely different books? And the higher you go through the levels, the harder it becomes, because the books are even more different in language and tone and plot and everything that may make one book acceptable for one reader but not for another.
    Honestly, I would love to go back to the days of the class readers, the books with shorter stories that were written expressively for a specific task: to teach children how to read. We didn’t have to scrap them; all we had to do was get better writers. This would make it easier to assess kids, and the other books would still be there for independent reading, for read-alouds, for reading sitting in a tree on a sunny day, free of school constraints and levels and all that crap. And honestly, by the time you’ve gone past early elementary school, why do you need levels? It seems like the concepts that we want to teach in middle school can be taught in other ways. Leveled books just seem bizarre to me once you get past the point where you’re learning the mechanics of reading. The Secret Life of Bees isn’t a “Z” book; it’s a BOOK, period. And it seems especially ridiculous to place it in the same category as The Pearl, which is a book of a completely different class.


  6. This is an adult book- why aren’t they just honest and say that? I read adult books starting in 6th grade.
    (I have to admit that I read the book and it was…fine. Nothing I would ever read again or recommend. I am sure my daughter would not have wanted to read it while in her teens- or even at any age.)


  7. I find all your comments so … sensible? In the best meaning of the word. I so appreciate all the thoughtful responses, is what I am trying to say. Sadly, I am clearly writing this in the heat without air conditioning, aka level…P?


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