Why you should (allow yourself to) read “below your capabilities.”

Or:  “Reading Without Limits” Goes Both Ways 


This is somewhat of a prelude to my Decade-End Review, and somewhat of a response to:

  • Recent discussions on appropriate tween books (scroll down to the “Clean Teen” section),
  • Debates over appropriate trick-or-treating ages (yes, I do think that’s relevant here), and
  • This one comic I saw in my Facebook feed (see above).

Whenever I see people getting indignant at the idea of limiting children’s access to “mature” books, or bristling at the idea of implicitly labeling certain subjects as “unclean” or “inappropriate,” I naturally pump my fist and say, “Right on!”

right on

But then, another part of my brain launches into a painful flashback to all those times I got flack for the opposite reason:  for reading books that were “beneath” my capabilities.  For not challenging myself enough when I chose books for pleasure rather than for a test.  For daring to set my mature foot in the juvenile section, bookstore gift card in hand.

Now, you may think the Internet doesn’t need another defense of Adults Reading Books Marketed to Children and Teens.  Whether you claim nostalgia, sociological research, a lovingly snarky podcast, or just the love of a good story, it’s no longer so embarrassing for adults to be caught reading Baby-sitters Club books or the latest John Green novel.  This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve raised the subject of crushing the Juv/YA stigma here @ Postcards, and I’m certainly not the only book blogger who feels that way.

Today’s post is is both a little more existential and a little more targeted, though.  Today’s post is about the whole concept of Reading Levels and Growing Up and Challenging Yourself.  

On the one hand, today’s post applies to any reader of any age.  On the other hand, it applies especially:

  • To those middle-graders, tweens, and teens who feel pressured to read only at or above their maturity level.  Those middle-schoolers who get side-eyes from classmates or teachers because they’re still reading the Magic Treehouse books.  Those fifteen-year-olds who feel like hiding their copies of Amber Brown.  The young NeriSirens who learned to pretend they were only re-re-re-reading Jessica’s Mermaid out of nostalgia, and not because they found any unadulterated joy in the experience.
  • To those parents, teachers, and administrators who worry that your children/students aren’t “challenging themselves” enough.  That they’re “stuck in La-La Land” and aren’t preparing themselves for the Real World.
  • And, finally:  to those book-tivists who think it’s only a problem when children are discouraged from reading books that are “too hard” for them.

Read on…


  1. Yes! I LOVE THIS. I tell this to parents ALL. THE. TIME. Especially in regards to comics and graphic novels. Or the, “My kid ONLY reads Geronimo Stilton books. He needs to broaden his horizons a bit.” The important part is that the child is reading! As long as they’re reading, they’re learning. And the more often they read something they enjoy, the more likely they are to associate other learning methods, styles, and events as fun as well! What a great post! Thanks for sharing!

    • Or those people who complain that the media tie-in section is pulling kids away from more *worthy* books like Huck Finn and Charlotte’s Web. As though reading is a zero sum game, and choosing a Spongebob comic means rejecting a Newberry classic. Or that there’s a hard deadline for a person to have read certain books (if my kid hasn’t read [insert classic title] by the time they finish [insert grade], they won’t be prepared for high school/college/life! They’ll be at a disadvantage!)

      There are certain classics I read for the first time in my twenties and thirties (Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz…), and I feel my bookwyrm card is worth just as much as the person who read those books when they were four years old.

      Thank YOU for your insights!

  2. Agreed! Love this post! I enjoy handing out candy to the teens in my neighborhood. They’re having fun in a safe way, so why ruin it by shaming them? The same goes for their reading. Why shame them about a book they love or think they may love? Hopefully discussions like this help create a shift in perspective.

    On a side topic, I’ve started reading / listening to The Unicorn Chronicles 🙂

  3. I love this so much! Now that I think about it, the idea of reading at/above my reading level limited a lot of what I could read from the library in middle and high school. I bet that a lot of books that could’ve changed my life and perception were “off-limits” to me because of this ingrained idea that they were “too easy” and I didn’t realize it until I read this.

    As a side note, I remember that reading-level quizzes focused a lot on word definitions & basic reading comprehension, which are things I test really well on. As a result, I got a really high reading level. But just because I know the definitions of weird words and understand the meaning of a single complex sentence doesn’t necessarily mean I’m mature enough to identify or digest weighty themes in literature. So, because of that, feeling obligated to read at/above my level also introduced me to things that I wasn’t ready to comprehend.

    I read Shakespeare for the first time when I was in early middle school and WAAAAAAY before I could understand its depth. I could read & understand the words, to an extent, but the plot and characters were so random and made no sense! I hated reading it SO MUCH that I refused to read any more of his work unless I was forced. Only when I was really ready to digest Shakespeare (much later, in junior year of college) did I actually enjoy the experience.

    Thank you for posting this!!

    • Right!!! I see the appeal of encouraging kids to develop a wide vocabulary, because it gives them a chance to understand a wide variety of stories. It becomes a problem when we forget about variety and teach them to value “advanced vocabulary” and “complex sentence structure” for their own sake, at the expense of actually saying something. At the expense of choosing stories for their themes and characters and subject matter.

      At the expense of stories that have something really powerful to say in very simple, “basic” language. (Is anyone else having Dead Poet’s Society flashbacks now? 😉 ) This is what I see as “judging a book by its cover” — by its surface-level attributes.

      I see this attitude affecting how we teach kids to treat people. I’m thinking of those news days when all the pundits can focus on is how “elite” or “basic” someone’s language was, or on their accent or dialect or level of fluency or whether the language they’re speaking is their first language — instead of engaging with what the person actually said, or how they behaved.

      When we focus too much on “standardizing” language learning, we forget to appreciate the *variety* of language.

1/100th of an Altairian dollar for your thoughts?

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