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

Ten years ago, I started this blog with the intention of flaunting and celebrating my refusal to “grow up.”  I named the blog “Postcards from La-La Land” as a wink at those people who criticized me for focusing too much on mermaids and unicorns, and not enough on Serious Subjects that would prepare me for Adulthood.  For not obeying the officially assigned age ranges of the books I chose to buy or borrow.  For continuing to read “junk” books that were “unworthy” of a talented reader with So Much Potential.

Let’s talk about that.  Are certain books better than others at turning readers into savvy, articulate, compassionate, successful world citizens?  Answer:  I believe it’s just as possible to challenge yourself with books that look easy or frivolous as it is to challenge yourself with a Pulitzer winner.  I believe that an Easy Reader with short sentences and a size 20 font is just as capable of blasting open your worldview as the latest Oprah’s Book Club pick.

For example:  to a teen who grew up hearing only strict and inflexible definitions of gender and biology, Alex Gino’s middle-grade novel George could be just as world-altering as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.  A picture book like Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote, by Duncan Tonatiuh, could inspire just as much compassion for undocumented migrants as the YA novel Crossing the Wire, by Will Hobbs.

Pancho Rabbit

As Ricki Ginsberg of Unleashing Readers points out, focusing too much on reading levels can actually limit a reader’s understanding of themselves and their participation in the world.  The worst thing you can do, says Ginsberg, is to make a reader “internalize” a reading level.

“A child will tell me, ‘I am a G reader.’ How does this G reader feel when the G reader is surrounded by J reader peers? What does this do for reader confidence? If we must use reading levels, let’s tell kids that they are reading G books and aren’t G readers. Reading levels shouldn’t define them.”

I would flip Ginsberg’s question and ask: how might a “J reader” feel, watching a “G reader” enjoying an interesting book that the J reader’s parents and teachers have deemed off-limits because it’s too easy?

Now, when I talk about the worthiness of “easy” books, I’m not just talking about the books that tackle tough subjects.  I’m also encouraging you not to worry so much about preparing for adulthood.  I’m talking about not putting an age limit on stories — on imagination — for their own sake.

Side track:  This is relevant, I promise!  I’m giving a major side-eye to all those towns with laws “banning” teenage trick-or-treaters.  To be fair, the most extreme case has since been clarified and relaxed — the town of Chesapeake, VA now lets kids trick-or-treat until they’re 14, and says it never intended to actually jail older teens for “safely trick or treating with a younger sibling.”  And, yes, I get that the police department is mainly worried about those teens who choose to spend the night smashing pumpkins and doing drugs.

But besides the flawed logic of condemning an entire demographic for the actions of a few, the whole idea of shaming teens for engaging in a favorite childhood tradition — the idea that they can only justify their participation if they’re accompanied by a younger child — is wrong.

Any attempt to rush kids into no-nonsense adulthood is hypocritical, considering the lengths to which we adults go to reclaim our childhoods.  If you expect people to respect your right to LARP in public, it’s only fair for you to respect the fifteen-year-old who wants to dress up as Elsa and collect Reese’s pumpkins for a few hours.  Even if you’re not the type to dress up like Hello Kitty at any time of the year, you should still respect your local teens’ right to forget about being Too Cool or Too Mature for a few hours.

Sub Side Track (still relevant, I swear!):  I’m also reminded of that Lizzie McGuire episode in which the tween protagonists try to find some socially acceptable excuse to see a live taping of their favorite kids’ show, decide to just go without a child chaperone, and end up starting a nostalgic revolution in their school cafeteria.  Or something.

What I’m getting at is that you shouldn’t need an elaborate excuse (er, I’m doing a sociology paper on 90s pre-teen magazines!) or pretend you’re just doing this to please a member of the target audience (my babysitting charges love Elephant & Piggie!), before you read/watch/play something that interests you.

Parents and teachers:  if your sixth-grader still reads the Disney Fairies books, or if you catch your sixteen-year old curled up with a Wimpy Kid diary, let them be!  They’ve clearly found something worthwhile in their reading choices.  You can certainly talk up the books you’d like them to add to their TBR piles, but don’t…do not…I repeat: DO. NOT. Shame or discourage your reader if their personal choices don’t conform to the highest level they’re capable of.  

library comic

You might even be surprised by some of the insights they gain — even subconsciously — from books that aren’t explicitly about serious subjects.  Seriously, chat me up in the comments about what Bruce Coville’s Unicorn Chronicles can teach us about immigration and religion and extremism and indigenous rights.  Or, notice that those skinny media tie-ins are teaching your reader to value diversity precisely by focusing on zany adventures instead of on the characters’ races or ethnicities or religious backgrounds.

In other words:  don’t worry so much about having a correct or appropriate reading experience.  Just as you can’t fully prevent kids from encountering tough subjects “before they’re ready,” you also can’t force people to “grow up” their reading tastes — especially if your definition of growing up means a strictly linear progression away from the person you were and the stories you liked before.  Read the stories that call to you, no matter which part of the library they’re calling from!

Belle in the bookshop

6 comments

  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.

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