“My son’s teacher won’t let him read graphic novels. He is supposed to read ‘real’ books.”
“I don’t want her to read that—it’s below her level.”
“Can you show me where your Lexile level 800 books are?”
We hear these statements at our library. (I’m sure you do, too!) These concerns tend to increase right after our public schools publish standardized test scores, which include Lexile levels. As a former teacher, and now a Youth Services Associate and parent to two voracious readers, this troubles me. Like the concept of letting children play, I fear that pleasure reading is in danger of becoming extinct.
Every day, I proudly wear a badge that states, “I believe that reading is reading….so read what you want!” Showing it to parents will often be the start of an interesting conversation. Some parents are honestly relieved. Hearing that it is not only okay, but also important, for their child to read what she wants to read alleviates a struggle. Does she want non-fiction? Great! Would he prefer a graphic novel? Here’s a recommendation! (While I’m walking parents to the graphic novel section, I’ll chat about how reading graphic novels builds visual literacy and requires different cognitive functions.) I remind those parents that if our goal is to raise readers (and, yes, we are partners in this goal), then we must allow those readers to have ownership of what they are reading.
Our younger daughter went through a long stretch of reading an endless and, in my opinion, mindless series as a first grader. Each book was formulaic. Each book was repetitive. But she read them. I read them to her. She. Loved. Them. Were there better books out there? Yes. Were these books too easy for her? Yes. Did she grow out of them? Yes—but only when she was ready to move on to the next topic of interest. To this day, she has her nose in a book. (We had to ban books from the dinner table to encourage conversation!) She also shares book recommendations with friends, and she serves on the Teen Advisory Board at our public library.
In the category of “you can’t win ’em all” are the parents who are not relieved to hear me say that “Reading is reading.” They might be those who are asking for a certain Lexile level book or who say that the book I’m recommending is too easy for their advanced reader. Depending on the parent, I may point out that Dad probably doesn’t read Dostoyevsky all the time and that maybe the sports section or People Magazine get more than a furtive glance! Another approach is to suggest that a Lexile score can be one piece of the selection criteria but shouldn’t be the only reason to choose a book for a child. As adults, we take recommendations from friends, read reviews, ask librarians, and simply choose what looks good to us. Using these approaches, I have planted the seeds that, as adults, we retain control over what we read for fun and that we use a variety of criteria to choose the books that will go on our nightstands and in our bookshelves. Of course, we should allow our children those same rights. As Donalyn Miller writes in her great book, Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits, “If we value all readers, we must value all reading.”
Notice that I have said “read for fun” or “pleasure reading.” I understand that teachers feel the need to assign certain reading, to require reading in a variety of genres, and to address the Common Core State Standards. As adults, we often have work-related reading; in the same way, children have reading that is required for school. However, for a teacher to close a student’s choice for free reading time and announce that graphic novels aren’t real books is misinformed and unproductive.
Let’s work together with parents and teachers to encourage children to read what they want, whether it’s the back of a cereal box or the phone book, a graphic novel or a classic, an old favorite or a non-fiction book about the topic du jour. As Neil Gaiman said, “Read. Read anything. Read the things they say are good for you, and the things they claim are junk. You’ll find what you need to find. Just read.”
Guest Columnist Kary Henry is Youth Services Associate and Preschool Outreach Liaison for Deerfield Public Library in Deerfield, Illinois.