Let Kids Read by Sergio Ruzzier
As a kid, I was not what was considered a good reader. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like books. In fact, I loved books, but only the ones with a lot of pictures: picture books and comic books. The “long” books, with no or very few illustrations, looked to me incredibly boring and difficult, and I seldom attempted to read one of those. I remember my older brother reading Jules Verne or Emilio Salgari: stories of voyages, wars, pirates, torture, slaves… Good stuff.
But those books had only a few illustrations sprinkled throughout the text. You would have to go through at least twenty pages of words before getting to the next illustration. Pure masochism. The few times I tried to read one, I would very soon skip forward to the pages that were illustrated. But by doing so, I would spoil the only reason I was trying to read that book: to savor the anticipation of the picture that I was slowly approaching. Not worth the pain, honestly. Better stick to my picture books.
When I was five years old I was given a picture book that soon became one of my favorite books ever. It was called Caro bruco capellone (Dear Long-haired Caterpillar). Each page showed a little boy at his desk, writing or thinking, and above him, in big balloons, you could read and see his thoughts or the letters he was writing to a series of different recipients: his older brother, the cooking pot, a dead chicken, a man in prison, and, of course, the long-haired caterpillar, who, in one of the last pages, dies. I was very fond of that book, one I would go back to again and again.
A couple of years after I received it, my mother took me to a children’s bookstore (there was only one in my home town, Milan: “La libreria dei ragazzi”). There, I saw a new picture book, and with my heart pounding I picked it up: Caro maestro capellone (Dear Long-haired Teacher). It was, of course, a follow-up to Caro bruco capellone. I had no doubts that that was the book I wanted.
My mother took it to the register, and that’s when a solicitous bookseller said: “Oh, but he is too old for this book! It’s for little children.” Fortunately, my mother knew better than that and bought me the book nonetheless, but I still remember the shame and humiliation. I liked a book for little children! I’m sure he didn’t mean to belittle me: he was just trying to help a customer. But that’s my point: how can you help customers based merely on their age, without knowing their tastes, their likes and dislikes, their mood at that moment? Nobody would say: Can you suggest a book for a 49-year-old? Why is it different with children?
Similarly, I don’t understand when publishers print on the back of a children’s book its “reading level.” What’s the use of it? Why do they think it’s necessary? I believe it is only to make the adults think they’re making the right choice for their children, when in fact it’s just a marketing tool. And for sure it’s a disservice to the children.
But there are other, more invasive methods for matching the “right” book with the “right” reader, like the Lexile framework. I am scared of such systems, which are coldly based on sentence length and similar quantitative considerations. Besides, critics have said that these systems are not even as accurate as they claim to be, not surprisingly.
This extensive practice of age-labeling books and readers might lead people to think that there is no need anymore for booksellers or librarians (naturally, Amazon and other online retailers utilize the Lexile measures). Everything and everybody can be measured and codified, which makes finding the right product for the right customer a simple mechanical task.
I chose to write about kids who read under their supposed reading level because that is closer to my personal experience, but I am equally concerned with the opposite problem. Kids are told all the time that a book is too difficult for them, or that they are too young to fully appreciate a particular book. As if all adults always understand fully any book they read. What’s wrong with trying to read a “difficult” book, if that’s the book that is inspiring a child to read? They will understand all of it or parts of it, or they might discover something that not even the author was aware of. They might love or hate the book, read it from cover to cover or abandon it after the first few lines. All this happens to any reader anyway, no matter the age.
When I’m doing signings at book fairs, there is always a parent who wants to know if my book is good for his, say, 5-year-old girl, or her 4-year-old boy. It’s such an awkward moment for me. I hate to sound preachy or complicated, but I really don’t know the answer, because I don’t know the kid. I usually end up babbling something without really giving an answer. I would probably be better off if they told me what their kids like to play, or what is their favorite food, instead of their age.
Age-labeling is yet another obstacle to reading, and if we restrict what kids can read freely, many may never come to love books. We should let children read anything they want, without imposing on them our adult insecurities and prejudices.
Sergio Ruzzier has written and illustrated many picture books. His most recent is This Is Not a Picture Book! (Chronicle), about the struggle and rewards of reading. He was a recipient of the 2011 Sendak Fellowship. You can visit him at http://www.ruzzier.com, or follow him on Twitter @SergioRuzzier and Facebook at Sergio Ruzzier Picture Books.
Some good work here , keep the going man.
Outstanding post, couldn’t agree more with your thoughts on leveling
Bravo e mille grazie!
Bravissimo and I second Maria! Grazie! Mille grazie! You are right. Love of books, love of reading, love of ideas and the feeling you get from being captivated by a good story or a new understanding or the opening of your mind to new ideas. All from ALL kinds of books. Whatever entre works, let it be. As a teacher I adore children’s literature. It is delightful and getting better and better but the classics still offer a lot, too. As Donalyn Miller says, “let my people READ!”
Thanks very much for writing this honest and insightful piece. I couldn’t keep myself from nodding and pounding my kitchen table in agreement as I read about your bafflement whenever someone asks you for a “reading level” or about age appropriateness. I’m likewise allergic to this kind of measurement when it’s applied to readers of any age/ background–let them read whatever they choose to read!!!!
I could not agree with this post more. Thank you, thank you for your words!
The acquisition of literacy is so complicated and layered to try to measure and assign numbers to it is futile. And obviously Sergio as a boy had a keen appreciation of pictures, and learning to read images is an important part of the development of literacy that is often overlooked by those trying to measure it.
yes! reading pictures is just as important and rewarding as reading words
Wonderful Post. I am a huge advocate for reading freedom. I was allowed and encouraged to read all over the map. As a child I read the encyclopedia set that was on the bookcase. I couldn’t read everything in there, but I found many fascinating topics to explore. As a high school student I still read my first love (comics…still do).
Sergio, thank you! This is such an eloquent commentary on the practice of “age-labeling” books, or restricting reading to what some “authority” decides is appropriate. It continues to shock & aggravate me to encounter parents in bookstores saying “this book is too young for you” or “you shouldn’t read books with pictures. Pick something more grown-up.” I’m full grown, and I ADORE books with pictures!! I get equally aggravated when my ten-year-old gets push back on her (at times quite mature) reading choices. I hope that posts like this, and the many conversations they spur, will help better educate the public that there is no “wrong book” for a child who enjoys what he is reading.
Sergio, this is so well written and so true. I love this line – “Age-labeling is yet another obstacle to reading.” Next time someone asks you if your books is good for their 4 or 5 year old, you can tell them that a picture book is a book for people of all ages. Wishing you continued success with your beautiful books.
Sergio, I absolutely agree with you! Nothing is worse than a book that isn’t illustrated well enough or not enough. I often see those giant Bible looking books(nothing wrong with the Bible) and am turned away from them in fact a lot of readers I know are turned away from them. It’s great that you fill that void by making picture books, thank you!
Thank you to everyone who commented on and shared my thoughts, here, on Facebook, on Twitter, and elsewhere: teachers, librarians, fellow authors and parents. It’s good to know we are many to think alike on this issue.
Well said. I was that child that if told a book was too hard, would read it just to prove them wrong. I am sure that has helped to develop the person I am today. I am also that person that will go back and reread a beloved book just because, and I am that person that will read books way below where I should be reading. All of these factors have helped to develop the reader in me. We need more people reading, not worrying about the grade level or the Lexile level of a book. Just read.
Working in a public library, I cringe every time a parent tells a child a book is “too easy” or “too hard.” Children can enjoy and benefit from variety in their reading “diets.” Easy books build confidence or allow a child to revisit a happy time in his own young life. Hard books may help a child stretch her vocabulary, or explore new ideas. But beyond that, allowing children to make choices in their reading provides opportunities for children to make independent choices. Children are over-scheduled, over-tested, and micromanaged. This is something they can choose at no cost, with no negative consequences if they find the book is boring or incomprehensible. And they may have a positive reading experience, such as yours, that could stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Terrific. I work with struggling readers at home and in a middle school, and I want kids to read what they want to read, not what they “should” be reading.
Thank you so much for this post. On ABookandaHug.com we don’t advocate for reading levels either. We describe or categorize our books by age range so folks can be aware of content appropriateness.
Independent Reader age 6-8
Middle Reader age 8-10
Older reader 11-13
Mature reader 14 and up
Young people who are discovering reading or searching for a book they WANT to choose to read deserve to browse the books that might stretch them or maybe are running a little bit on easier side. It doesn’t matter a whit.
What matters is that they discover that there are books out there that are right for them…that there are “GOOD” books for THEM.
We believe readers can stretch to read what they WANT to read.
A very good piece, in my opinion. I couldn’t agree more.
Couldn’t agree more about the publishers putting the reading level in print somewhere on the book. Let’s let everyone read whatever book they want, with no discredits indicated.
I can totally relate to Sergio’s post as I was a reluctant reader myself. It wasn’t until fourth grade that I took any interest in it and that was 100% a result of my teacher at the time knowing me so well. She picked out BLACK BEAUTY, STUART LITTLE, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, THE SECRET GARDEN and SUMMER OF THE SWANS for me to read. All books that I still enjoy!