Is It Challenging Enough? Or, How Reading Is Like a TARDIS

Reposting this in honor of Dr. Who Day. Late in the day. But hey, time travel.


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.

7 thoughts on “Is It Challenging Enough? Or, How Reading Is Like a TARDIS

  1. I love this, still. Re-post this every year! It can be a tradition. It needs to be said over and over. And that bit about INSPIRATION. Oh, man. I am swooning.


  2. As the “crazy story lady” at my kids’ elementary school, I have said this so many times. You’re completely spot-on. And also? Adults do the same thing, but no one calls us out. Sometimes we simply need to read for comfort, or escape, or pure bubblegum pleasure. But we are READING.


  3. Honestly, I think challenging is overrated when it comes to school. For some kids, “challenging” causes way too much stress. I agree, inspiration is much more important- finding something you love or that engages you. That is enough.


  4. Natasha was very clear that reading her toddler board books years later was a comfort act for her. Honestly, I think we all read down at least half the time for sundry reasons, and all of them are valid. The rest of the time we’re reading up, for equally valid reasons. Because what are the odds of finding a book that’s theme, subject, and reading level are all perfectly matched to the reader’s at any given time?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.