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.