When I was growing up, it was just a given that my brother and I would be readers. My mom took us to the library once a week and set us loose in the stacks. I can’t think of a time when I ever questioned how much fun it is to read, or ever felt like reading was something I had to be coerced into doing.
Okay, maybe that’s not true. I was reading for fun at home. The books we were assigned to read in class – those were a different story. Particularly in high school and college, while I might have enjoyed some of the assigned novels to a certain extent, there just isn’t as much joy in reading The Great Gatsby or War & Peace for a grade. And I was an English major. I CHOSE to have reading assigned to me.
There’s just something extra special about getting to choose the books yourself, about coming to reading on your own terms.
One of the difficult and controversial aspects of working with children as a librarian is helping them locate books that are both appropriate and interesting for them. The controversy lies in those situations when the books a child is interested in might be considered by a parent of teacher to be inappropriate for them.
There are multiple reasons this could happen. One reason is based on reading levels. As kids are learning how to read and are growing as readers, their reading “level” grows with them. This level helps guide the child and their parents to books that will challenge them without pushing them too hard. This is certainly valuable from an educational standpoint. But as a librarian, I’m a little biased against reading levels. They are definitely a valuable resource, but they can also be relied on too heavily. If a kid wants to try to read a book that’s past their current skill level, what’s the worst thing that will happen? If it’s for a school assignment, it might not fit with the expectation for their class, and if it isn’t, they might attempt it and realize they’re not ready for it. But what’s the harm in trying? So many of the best experiences in life come from thinking outside the box everyone once in a while.
Another reason is the possible inappropriateness of the book’s content. This is slightly more complicated. As a parent myself, I fully understand and appreciate why a parent might choose to keep their child from reading books that contain certain themes or content that’s a little too “adult.” It’s up to every parent to make this decision for their families.
But as a librarian who was once a kid, I remember how magical it felt to be able to select my own books from the shelves and check them out without my mom second-guessing them. I’m sure if I had grabbed anything truly well beyond what I should be reading, she would have stepped in. And I’m also sure I was just wary enough of her reaction that I wouldn’t have pushed my luck too far. But this way, the library books I checked out got to be MY thing. I got to control it, and having a sense of agency is so important and so valuable for a child.
Many parents come to the library trying to figure out the conundrum of their child’s reading preferences, feeling totally overwhelmed. I would never suggest there’s an easy solution to this challenge, because there are as many reading challenges as there are children. However, as we try to get kids reading by rewarding them for doing it, I suggest taking a slightly different view of things. Instead of rewarding them for reading, make reading the reward. Let them pick out books of their own choice no matter how ridiculous or far-fetched them seem. Let them push boundaries a little bit. Maybe even let them think they’re getting away with reading by flashlight under the covers after bedtime. Give them a chance to make reading their extra special thing. And demonstrate how special it is by rewarding yourself with reading, as well. Show them how much you relish your time to just sit down and relax with a book, and maybe they’ll learn to do the same.