Adults are imposing too many rules on what constitutes age-appropriate reading levels for young children. The books we serve-up to our children should push them outside their reading level and into an uncomfortable place that challenges them. Authors are taught to talk “at” children, at their level, and to not lean into where a child “could be” in their learning development. As parents, we all want our child to learn beyond their current capabilities without pushing them too hard or too fast. Children learn best when they are challenged. Books can be boring for a child that is ready to push past pre-defined reading levels. When books become boring, we can’t get our older children to read.
We need to stop imposing so many rules on reading and, instead, put books in front of children that challenge their young minds and how they think in this digital age that has parents scrambling to catch-up to our where our children are. For years, we couldn’t figure out why our son wasn’t reading books, but was still doing exceptionally well in his English classes. By the ninth grade, we finally figured out he was using his online time consuming math and physics articles and watching similar YouTube videos. His vocabulary and reading comprehension wasn’t based on reading books at all; he was literally consuming online material in the written and spoken form from content presented by scholars online.
As a parent, I used big words with my kids when they were little and both of my children spoke in complete sentences by the time they were two. And, that’s why I used bigger words than I was advised to use when I wrote Samuel T. Moore of Corte Magore. An agent once told me, “Seagulls soaring above mocking in flocks,” is too vague and broad a concept for a young child to understand. As it turns out, kids love that line for its alliteration, musicality, and the imagery it conjures up in their minds, and the illustrations clearly depict what all that looks like. Plus, that’s what moms and dads are for. We snuggle in bed and explain concepts to our kids that teach them the world as the author intended them to see, while imposing our own ideals along the way. Mocking is also another word for bullying, and if we want to build a strong vocabulary in our youth, authors need to stretch our word choices beyond a child’s current level of reading comprehension.
And, all that brings me to word count. As an author, we are told to limit word count to keep a young reader interested and engaged. But, as an adult we sit down again to books that we didn’t finish the day before. Why would we teach a child that a book has to be short and has to be finished immediately? Kids always say, “read me the part where…” What they are telling us is they are quite capable of picking up again in the middle, but we don’t listen to them. Rather, authors are instructed to cut down word count to address both exorbitant publishing costs and our assumption that a child needs to be immediately rewarded by a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Interestingly enough, my picture book is loved by children small enough to speak and memorize rhyme, all the way up to middle schoolers who like it read to them in a big, epic voice. Still, I was told by the publishing community to age grade it.
And that brings me to my final thought:
Big words and vivid illustrations lead to concept learning. Through children’s books, hate can be squelched. Cycles can be broken. And, it all starts with education. Early. Our educators have a real opportunity to seek out books that point out social injustices, give them a name, and work to squelch them. Books should be used to talk openly about our nation’s current affairs to readers, even at an early age. Maybe it’s time we broaden the scope of regularly scheduled school and library literacy programming, and add bigger words and broader thematic content into the mix. I know it’s a problem these days getting kids to read. Using real life scenarios may help parents come up with ways to encourage our students to dig into books, and online reading content, voraciously.