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.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Les Mis: just right?

Dear Annie,

Happy New Year!

Sometimes we forget that young readers usually have two characteristics we take for granted in older readers.  The first is taste: a preference for a certain kind of story, or a desire to avoid specific genres.   I sometimes see this with the fiction/non-fiction choice.  Some adults define "reading" as "reading fiction."  No matter how voracious a child's appetite is for browsing books crammed with snippets of information, a grown-up can still feel there's something lacking.  Or other times a parent to whom I've recommended a book that I love will come back and say in a disappointed tone that the child didn't like it.  That can be code for it's too hard, or it's too scary, or I don't want to read what everyone else is reading.  But sometimes it can just mean they genuinely don't like it.  My job is to find one s/he does like.

The second aspect of kids' reading -- which your family illustrates effortlessly -- is that children, like adults, often enjoy reading many different things.  Just as an adult will linger over a heart-warming feature in the paper, and on the same day immerse herself in a complex 21st century novel, a kid can read one of those "just right" bland readers, then jump all over the room when a grown-up reads her Nancy Drew.

The discussion of "just right" reading you cited from the NY Times hits some of those points.  In my perfect world, no one would start reading Harry Potter until they were at least 10, then they'd read one book a year until they were 16.  Fat chance.  Lisa Van Drasek's essay has a much more nuanced attitude toward the ubiquitousness of the Harry Potter books in early elementary school -- basically it's, let 'em read them early if they want, and they'll read them again later and have a richer experience on the re-reading.

I keep coming back to parental involvement in kids' reading (and their lives) as the best barometer of what to read.  Lizzie showed an interest in adventure and epic tales early on, starting with her fascination with Davy Crockett at age 4, going on through King Arthur and The Hobbit at 5, and falling into the arms of Victor Hugo beginning in first grade.  We offered some of those choices, and followed her curiosities with others.

We were already listening to many musicals, but a wonderful babysitter brought a CD of the Les Miserables music with her one evening, and we had a new world to discover.  First we found a horrendously chopped 112-page early chapter book telling the story which left out whole plot lines (no Eponine!).  At that point, Lizzie wanted more, and the Fryeburg Maine library had a 500-page abridgement.  I think we didn't make it through that one because Lizzie was wanting the whole thing.  So for eight months of her second grade year, Bob and I alternated reading her the unabridged Les Miserables.  That book is looong.  And it has whole chapters on subjects like the history of the Parisian sewer system, the relationship of Louis Philippe to the bourgeoisie, and (one of my favorites) the evolution of Parisian barricade building from 1832 to 1848.  It's full of religion, poverty and suffering, and humiliation and prostitution.  It's epic.  We all saw the musical, more than once.  Mona was swept along on the musical and discussion of the book ("I knew there was a lot in the book about the bishop," she says now).  All of it was a wonderful experience.  But was it "just right" for Lizzie to have it read to her at age 7?  Could anyone have predicted what it would mean to us?  No way.

Last week all four of us went to the new Les Mis movie.  We all came out of the movie trying to remember what was in the book vs. the stage version vs. the movie.  We debated the casting, the changes to some of the music, the characters, Hugo's intentions.  We each confessed which scene made us cry the most.  It's probably 16 years since Diana the wonderful babysitter grabbed a CD as she headed to our house, but the literary and theatrical journey hasn't ended yet.



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