This post is inspired by Liz’s piece about kids reading at an advanced reading level at a young age, through which I also found Alix Flinn’s post on the subject. Go ahead, before reading my story, read those two interesting, informative posts.
I’m writing this from a very different perspective than those two. I’m sixteen, have just recently gotten through all that reading level stuff (in high school they don’t care about your reading level so much as they just think the classics are the only things worth reading), with two younger brothers who have also dealt with all of that. I knew how to read in kindergarten and before, but had to be forced to do so. In first grade, somebody let me read chapter books instead of picture books, and that was when I really started to read a lot. I reached my current level of book-obsession closer to fifth grade, when my teacher (Hi Miss Hoekema!) had all sorts of fantastic books that I’d not seen before (Tamora Pierce!).
Fifth grade was also the first year I took one of those tests that determined your reading level. Before then, it had pretty much been the teacher guessing. My school library had books up to a ninth-grade reading level, and everything was pretty much appropriate for an elementary school student. I don’t remember exactly how high I tested, but it was higher than that and I know kids now, in eleventh grade, who don’t have the reading skills I did then. Contrary to what Liz and Alix have experienced about how all the kids they know seem to be reading above grade level, I went to elementary school in a more low-income district. Also we had a lot of kids who didn’t speak English. My youngest brother just finished elementary school there, and it’s like I remember it–it’s a struggle to get most of those kids reading on grade-level. Reading wasn’t encouraged outside of school the way it was at my house. I’m lucky in that regard.
For those of us who read above a ninth-grade reading level, there wasn’t a whole lot in the school library, so I frequented the public library. The librarians there still know me by name.
The public library did have books that were on my reading level. Needless to say, when I was reading at an eleventh or twelfth grade level at the age of ten, those weren’t too appropriate. I had a friend who had tested at a 12+ reading level–that’s twelfth grade, not twelve years old–at the same age. We both enjoyed some of the stuff closer to our maturity level, but were also interested in the YA and adult books at the library.
My mother made me put back YA books I picked up a few times, seeing sex and swearing upon flipping through them. But she didn’t check all my books, and I was determined to read what I wanted to read, regardless of its appropriateness. So sometimes I’d pick out a big stack of books from the juvenile fiction section, and sneak one or two of those inappropriate YA books into the bag, and make sure my mother didn’t see them. I read all sorts of things I probably shouldn’t have. I read about sex and drugs and violence and swearing. Some of it before middle school.
And you know what? I’m glad my mother didn’t more closely monitor what I was reading. I was sheltered enough (I didn’t see an R-Rated movie until I was about fourteen or fifteen. For most of my friends, that age was a lot younger. I know, you’re not supposed to see them until you’re seventeen, but in our society that’s not how it works.), and that was the only way I learned about some stuff that other kids knew from older siblings and such. I’m not scarred. I’m fine. I was a little shocked at some of what I read, but I’m still glad I read it. I could handle more than she thought. Those books taught me more about life than anything I learned in school or at home.
I know this goes against all the conventional wisdom about making sure your kid doesn’t see anything inappropriate. But you know what? They’re going to see it and hear it anyway. Kids learn a lot more stuff at a young age than you think. My piece of advice is to let them read what they want, and be there to actually discuss the issues and answer questions. I had all sorts of misinformation and wrong ideas in my head, because nobody was there to answer my questions about what I read, because I wasn’t supposed to be reading it. Maybe I was exceptionally rebellious or curious, but that’s my experience. Guidance is good, but censorship will backfire.