In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

"Just-right" reads

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Here in New York, we are happily wallowing in our post-Christmas reading glut -- the books you sent, coupled with a number of others from relatives and a select few that Jeff and I bought for the girls, are keeping us very happy.  Thank you!

Scrolling through headlines in the New York Times today, I was caught by a feature called "What's 'Just Right' for the Young Reader?" It poses the question, "How do you know the age at which to introduce children to certain books that might have 'big kid' themes?" and then asks eight people with expertise in children's literature -- authors, librarians, a middle-school teacher, academics -- to answer it briefly.  The short response essays are interesting and varied in content.  They touch on some themes we've written about here: what's "too scary" for your younger child? Your chapter-book reading age child? Most of the focus in these mini-essays is on books for kids who are reading on their own, and several mention the Harry Potter problem: the series which begins as appropriate for one age, but by book four becomes weighted with far more adult themes.

The consensus seems to be what we've come to many times over: it's good to be up to date on what your kids are reading, and to be able to have conversations with them about difficult material (see here and here).

This train of thought started me thinking again about what it means for a book to be "just right" for a kid.  There's "just right" content, which is largely what the NYT essays talk about.  There's "just right" reading level, as we're beginning to experience regularly with Eleanor.  Now that she's in kindergarten, she brings home a new set of five books every week, chosen from the bins that have been deemed right for her reading level.  These are tiny paperback books, most of them not terribly interesting in content, which help her practice what she can read on her own and push her to challenge herself a little bit.

There's "just right" in terms of what kids want to have read to them before they can read to themselves: for whatever reason, Isabel recently became enamored with a picture-book version of Dumbo, and we had to read it several times a day so that she could keep engaging with the story.  (Her latest obsession, thank goodness, are the two Alfie treasuries you sent for Christmas.  Much more fun to reread!)

One of the essayists, Deborah Pope, writes about the importance of older kids, even kids who are able to read chapter books alone, returning regularly to picture books.  Happily, I am so often reading the same books to both girls at the same time -- and of course, the arrival of baby #3 will continue the trend -- that Eleanor will be interacting with picture books for years to come.  For Christmas, Eleanor drew a pop-up book for her grandparents, containing a story told entirely through pictures: "Like Flotsam," she told me, when I asked if she wanted to include some words.

Finally, there's "just right" in terms of what a kid gets out of the same book, years or even just months after reading it for the first time.  This week, my in-laws have been staying with us, and Eleanor's Lala read her the third Nancy Drew book.  It was fascinating to see how Eleanor responded differently to Book #3 than to Book #1.  The excitement over possible danger was still there, in spades -- this girl cannot sit still when there's any kind of suspenseful moment -- but added to that was a whole layer of far more active participation.  She kept asking Lala to pause, and then would engage her in conversation about what might happen next, looking ahead and using the pictures and captions to make inferences and predictions.  Her ideas were pretty good, too.  Essentially the same book, but the kid, six months older, engaged with it in a totally different way.

As always, I am left feeling grateful, and feeling like I have a tremendous amount to look forward to in the years ahead.

Love, Annie


  1. Thanks for directing me to the Times discussion. I talk about it and cite your post here:

    I often feel the "just right" school books are just a tad too easy for my kid. There may be pedagogical reasons for this and but I'm never sure the leveling is entirely accurate, or that it wouldn't be better to read something a little harder but more interesting.

    Also - which Alfie Treasuries did you get and are they still in print?

  2. It's great to hear your thoughts on this, Rachel!

    The Alfie treasuries we're reading on repeat at the moment are The Big Alfie and Annie Rose Storybook and The Big Alfie Out of Doors Storybook, both still happily in print. Deborah wrote briefly about the second, including the wonderful story of the stone named Bonting, here: