Not Too… The Conundrum of the “Just Right” Book

The read-aloud is a great parental prize. There's little more delightful than snuggling up and reading a glorious picture book or diving into a chapter book with an eager young person. Yes, there are a few unavoidable pitfalls to the read-aloud gig: chiefly, repetition, parental exhaustion, and occasional boredom. Repetition for the under-five set involves a kind of metaphysical question in the form of how many times can a person really read Moo Baa La-La-La (Sandra Boynton's classic board book) without starting to resent Ms. Boynton her three singing pigs? Repetition later sometimes occurs with one child–the parental read-aloud and re-read-aloud (and for that matter relatives' and babysitters') of L. Frank Baum's the Wizard of Oz–for our eldest son, Ezekiel. And then there's the repetition of wanting to share favorte books with than one child–even a great read-aloud times four kids can sometimes result in a little reader's fatigue. And what parent hasn't found him or herself heavy-lidded, the words on the page blurring, the sound of one's voice an inadvertent lullaby? Geoffrey Kloske's cheeky, smart and very short fairy tales in Once Upon A Time The End: Asleep in Sixty Seconds was inspired, it would seem, by a tired parent for sleepy parents everywhere. As for boredom, there are books that just don't float your boat, from the very same book with technical names for trucks (or knights, or you name it) of all manner to Eric Hill's Spot books (on the back of all Spot books, the tagline goes there's a magic to Spot that all children love–and, as we mutter under our breaths, all parents hate; sorry, Spot).

My friends and nearly-cousins (cousin's partner's sister and partner, got that?) Elizabeth Bluemle and Josie Leavitt co-own the Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vermont. Long ago, when my beloved Globe Bookshop in Northampton closed, I got in touch with Josie and Elizabeth and asked whether–as nearly-cousins–they'd be willing to send me children's books. I ordered books by fax and phone (the Internet, thirteen years ago didn't serve as much purpose as it does now) because I craved a comprehensive children's bookseller after losing my Globe peeps (this, too, was before the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art opened in Amherst with its shop's fabulous selection of picture books). The Flying Pig, then in Charlotte, was brand-new; Josie and Elizabeth were happy to help me. For the record, Northampton friends, I also continued to use the Broadside Bookshop a great deal (wonderful independent bookstore on our Main Street, with a far smaller children's book section than the Globe had, or the Flying Pig or Carle Museum shop have) and since it opened, I also visit Booklink (in Thorne's Market) and Raven (used bookstore, tucked away in plain sight on Old South Street). As this longwinded explanation of my search to support independent booksellers would suggest, I avoid big box booksellers (for the most part). One of the real treasures of relying upon smart booksellers who are voracious readers is that you, the book consumer (or parent, elder friend, grandparent of book consumer), can rely upon their savvy counsel. Countless times I've called to ask, "Ezekiel's really enjoying __ and so now…?" Josie and Elizabeth have always offered the perfect next book or series. And I've always read my copy of the newsletter with pen in hand (now available online). No surprise then that their shared gig at Publisher's Weekly Shelftalker blog makes for some compelling reading.

I was particularly struck this past week by Josie's post about the Twilight series. She explained that at forty-four, she'd enjoyed the book. So, she wasn't a Twilight-basher. Her conundrum was this: is there a way to suggest that a reader's–or in this case, most nine year-old girls–too young for a book? I'll borrow liberally from Josie's post to share her central concern: "My fear is twofold — the first is they are coming to a good book too early and they won't get out of the book what they would if they read it at the right age. The second issue is now that these girls are reading about characters so much older, they won't have patience or the desire to read about children their own age. It saddens me that for three years parents who have put their foot down to their daughters who wanted to read Twilight before they were 12, have lost the will to make their kids wait. I worry that girls will think Harriet the Spy is too young for them, that The Great Gilly Hopkins has nothing to do with their lives, Walk Two Moons isn't relevant. It pains me when nine-year-olds head right back to the young adult section and bypass the riches that make up the middle-grade section." She extolls the virtues of those particular riches, so click and read more of what she has to say.

Now that I've moved into that "older" parent category (who you calling old?), in that I have both older and younger kids (nearly fourteen years down to sixteen months) amongst my friends whose kids are peers with my younger kids, I notice a similar parental read-aloud tendency, especially with first children–the rush to read ahead of a child's developmental comfort zone. A smart, book loving kid can listen to books of all types meant for a wide range of age levels. And obviously, most children of the preschool through early elementary set are able to listen to books with much more complicated language than those they can navigate on their own. And yet, that sentiment Josie articulates–and I'll paraphrase–is really important: it seems sad to steer a child toward a book too early, only to have that child refuse it at a more age-appropriate moment when s/he could get more out of it. With the caveat that we lucked into a first child who inhales books more than reads them, my husband and I have certainly been offenders of the inappropriate read-aloud. I can't say that many books we read early weren't enjoyed; they were, especially all fourteen Wizard of Oz books, which we started reading to Ezekiel at age three. We re-read those to him until he was speeding through the series himself, at age six. But when I think of books I've read or my friends are reading to their four, five or six year-old kids, I wish they'd have gotten suggestions from Josie and Elizabeth (who have many times over steered me to "easier" younger, engaging, wonderful books). Maybe the top contender of a book I think I read too early first time around is Charlotte's Web, my all-time favorite book in the world, by the way (something I have only realized in the last decade, having read it over so many more times). It's such a complex, pitch-perfect book. I know it can be enjoyed again and again, at many ages. But with my younger kids, I did not choose it as one of my very first read-aloud chapter books the way I did with Ezekiel. By then, I'd been turned onto a bunch of simpler, less nuanced books that are better practice for early listeners (preschoolers eager for big kid books). I am offering a few favorites here, although this is merely the tip of a proverbial iceberg.

How I adored reading the very simple pair of Anne Fine's Jamie and Angus Stories to Remy, when he was four. Jamie's the four year-old; Angus his very real (to Jamie) companion, a stuffed sheep toted on all sorts of adventures, completely lovingly. Author Fine depicts a preschooler's mind and universe so authentically that there's delighted recognition from your young listener and Penny Dale's illustrations are simple and sweet. When I think back on reading these aloud, the word that springs to mind is cozy. For a laugh like crazy read-aloud (or big accomplishment for early reader chafing to go past early reader books) Allan Ahlberg's madcap adventure The Children Who Smelled A Rat, with Katherine McEwen's zany illustrations is amongst my favorites (three others in the series are out of print, at least in this country, but worth tracking down; available here through Candlewick Press, the English relative is Walker Books). Wilbur is not the only pig to be cherished, either; Dick King-Smith's pair of stories about Lollipop–Lady Lollipop and Clever Lollipop–are lovely tales of friendship and parental love and magic. King-Smith, of Babe The Gallant Pig fame, has written umpteen books about people and animals, many of which make great early reads, such as The Nine Lives of Aristotle (about a fortunate cat, with illustrations by one of my very favorite author/illustrators, Bob Graham) and A Mouse Called Wolf.

Gina Cowley, first grade teacher of both my older kids, devotes copious attention to her young readers helping them grasp the concept of the "just right" book. In the case of emerging readers, this is, in essence, a book that's not so easy you sail through (although there's huge merit in the thrill and ease of doing so) and not so hard you're struggling the whole way through, but a book that you can read, yet you are still aware of learning more as you're doing so. If you were to make the "just right" read into a physical entity, I think it's kind of brisk walk. She's careful to share the message–to kids and to parents–that there aren't "wrong" books while adhering to her goal of teaching a child to locate "just right." Frankly, I've taken that idea and used it a great many times, and not just about reading. Her generous, gentle reminder that kids don't have to prove themselves with the largest and most challenging achievements in order to grow is really helpful and comforting when parenting during an age when parents are anxious and children are often hurried. Saskia, my youngest, worries not about any of this; she just loves "gooks," and she pulls out board books and cookbooks, picture books, and textbooks with equal enthusiasm. I know she's sailing into a lifetime of happy reading.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

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