Children and reading and a few book recommendations

I think it is done. The school schedule, that is. After hours and hours of thinking and making notes and flipping through books and staring at Pinterest, I think I know how I'm going to make it work. I'm so tired of thinking about it right now, you'll have to wait for the details. I know this will sadden the dozens and dozens of you out whose schools include 5 developmental preschoolers, a 5th grader whose fear is triggered by school work, typically developing 5th, 8th, and 10th graders, and an ESL high school student who are dying to hear my plans.

In one of the past comments, a real life friend asked if I had recommendations for mysteries for her grade school aged son because she was heartily sick of the Hardy Boys. I'm happy to think about books that are not in the piles which have surrounded my desk for the past two weeks, so I'll chat about this instead.

First I need to offer my disclaimer about our family reading policy before I go recommending any books. That way you will know how carefully you will feel you need to prescreen them to meet your family's own criteria. Our policy is pretty liberal. We figure that if a child reads a lot and reads broadly, a few not-so-great books are not going to hurt them. That would be for content or writing or both. We have this policy for a couple of reasons. First, by allowing a wide variety of books, it dilutes the not-great stuff considerably. I do try to recommend and sometimes require my children to read good books. And I only spend time reading aloud good literature to them. They have it in their ear and can tell when a book is poorly written. Very few of my children have much patience for bad writing and will often stop reading a book because of that. In full disclosure, there was the time when J. picked up a Junie B. Jones book that A. had been reading, was so horrified by the grammar that he proclaimed that these books were never to be allowed in the house.

By not making a certain genre or type of book forbidden, it loses some of its appeal. I know this makes some people uncomfortable, but I don't want to give a book more power than it needs to have and allowing it to be read and be discussed takes away some of the illicitness and therefore some of the appeal. Nothing like having to discuss a book with mom to make it not quite so desireable. My children learn discernment by reading broadly and learning how to be careful readers. If I am reading out loud and there is something in the book that I don't agree with, I will pause to point it out right away. It is good to learn to question while you read.

This does not mean my children have complete free rein. There have been times I have spot-checked what someone was reading and asked that person not to finish it and tell them why. There have also been books that received a lot of press and that everyone else was reading and so a child has asked to read them also. Two books in this category leap to mind. The first was when The Golden Compass came out. It was a very well written book with an engaging plot line (I really did enjoy the story), but also a world view at complete odds with our family's. M. was marginally interested in reading it, but I requested she wait just a little bit until she was older because there were some tough ideas cloaked in some really compelling writing that I wanted her to be old enough to really tackle. She agreed to wait and then never went back to read it when she was older because she had lost interest. The other book was the Twilight series. Once again, the world view and ideas presented were not ones I agreed with, but I let her read them because the writing wasn't quite as compelling. She read them, we talked about them, she felt she could converse with friends, and then she gave them all away as she realized that there was really nothing she liked about them after all.

I want my children to be voracious readers and that means logistically there is no way I could keep up with prereading every book they bring home. I will spot check, I will recommend, I will occasionally say no, and all this has created some discerning readers who are all willing to close a book because the writing is bad or because they realize the content is not something they need to read.

If you've made it this far, you must really want the book titles. I've been thinking about this for a couple of days and first off, it's just hard to wean a child off book series at this age. There is a reason why so many series exist that are aimed at mid-grade school readers... it's because that is what these children love to read. There is something comforting and familiar about a series. The characters are the same and usually the plot is the same, and that is their appeal. There are very few surprises and when you are a child on the cusp of adolescence that is exactly what you want. You want the familiar and the safe and the expected. (And if you look at popular adult titles, we aren't really any better, frankly.) I have found the best I can do is to encourage branching out into other books while not making a big deal about the 20th book in a series that a son is reading (or the 20th time he has read the same book).

Sometimes the best way to interrupt a series jag is with another series. All of my children have loved The Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series. (I loved them as a child as well.) They are older (and as far as I know have not been modernized like happens to Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys... I could be wrong, we've been reading old copies), so frankly, the language is written at a slightly higher level. The boys are polite and the mysteries, while at first appearing to have scary or paranormal aspects, always have some rational and reasonable explanation. I have also found that after my children read these, they are not so interested in going back to Frank and Joe. There is another older series of mysteries by Peggy Parish (of Amelia Bedelia fame); Pirate Island Adventure and Key to the Treasure are two of the titles I can come up with off the top of my head. They are light, but appealing, especially to boys.

Still in the series genre, but also well-written and entertaining (and a wee bit silly) are the Freddy the Pig books by Walter R. Brooks. If you have a mystery lover, I would start with Freddy the Detective and perhaps it will be enjoyed enough that the child will try some others. We have listened to more than a few of these on car trips and are particularly amused by the way the narrator voices the cows, Mrs. Wogus, Mrs. Wurzburger, and Mrs. Wiggins.

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett was another car trip find that was entertaining, though I probably would have enjoyed it more if I were reading rather than listening to it. (The narrator is everything and one annoying voice can ruin an otherwise good book.) I have noticed that there are now more books along the same lines, though I haven't read them personally.

Lastly, a book list for this age wouldn't be complere if I didn't include E. Nesbit, who wrote some of my favorite books. While The Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet were written over 100 years ago, they are still incredibly entertaining. But the trouble is they were written over 100 years ago and unless your child is experienced with the language of late Victorian England, they will stare at it they same way they would stare at a book written in a different language. These are books that must be read aloud the first time through. While a child would be unlikely to understand them if reading independently, that is not the case for listening. Children can understand much more complex language if they are hearing it rather than reading it. (Plus, you can stop and clarify and explain certain words or ideas if needed.) The stories are exciting and while it may be a stretch at first, I find children become so engrossed in the story that they stop worrying about the language and just begin to absorb it. (Plus, once that language is in their heads, it's not coming out.) Once you have read the three Five Children books, you can try out some others. The Enchanted Castle is another of my favorites.

I'm sure there are many of you who are waving your hands wanting to share your favorite book or series to help the series obsessed (dependent?) child to broaden his or her horizons. Share away. I'm always on the lookout for new titles to keep the voracious readers satisfied.


Anonymous said…
This is WONDERFUL!!! Really, really great recommendations. First, I like the idea that you don't like to give a book more power than it deserves....(I am wondering: does this rationale apply to video games as well?! They have until now been avoided at our house but I feel like they're always looming on the horizon!). Second, our oldest (the mystery lover) just read "Chasing Vermeer" and really enjoyed it (as well as the sequel). I had never heard of the Alfred Hitchcock or Freddy series, so am just thrilled to give them a go! I do see what you're saying about the appeal of familiarity that you get with a series; a series with a little substance is just the thing! Thank you thank you!! Emily

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