“When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”
-Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail (written by Nora Ephron)
When I was in the third grade, I had a pretty high reading level. I read voraciously, and I read everything that held still long enough. (I knew WAY too much about how much riboflavin was in my cereal, but I didn’t know what riboflavin was.) Somehow, I got my hands on The Diary of Anne Frank that spring. When I told my teacher that I was reading it, she told me that I shouldn’t have been reading it because I couldn’t handle it. I’m not sure what she meant by that, but I ignored her and finished the book. Maybe she thought that I couldn’t really understand what was happening to Anne or I was too young to read about such a dark period in history; I don’t know. I had looked Anne Frank up in the dictionary before I read the book (don’t ask why the dictionary and not the encyclopedia) and I knew that she died in a concentration camp. Also, that wasn’t the first book that I’d read about the Holocaust; I had a pretty clear (but sanitized) idea of what was going on in the book.
Fast forward to seventh grade: I found a copy of A Tale of Two Cities (thanks, Mom!), and I wanted to write a book report on it. I’d read the Great Illustrated Classics version around age eight or nine, and I wanted to read the real book. So I asked my seventh grade literature teacher (Liz Davis, you rock wherever you are!) if I could do a book report on it. She said sure. She told me that if I got into it and found it too hard I could change my mind. I didn’t change my mind. I loved it. Mrs. Davis also let me write book reports on Pride and Prejudice and Oliver Twist. She determined that I could read well enough to understand the text, and I’d handle the material pretty well.
There’s a huge difference between those two teachers. One tried to hold me back to the normal third grade reading level and material; the other let me go explore the world of literature at my leisure-but not unsupervised. As an adult, I can well understand that it can be hard to work with students who are reading above grade level. It can be challenging to find them books that are appropriate for their maturity and their reading level. But I wasn’t trying to read Danielle Steele; I wanted to read good literature.
The books that we read as children are vital. I can’t tell you how many times I read P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins books as a child. I read the Jackson District Library’s illustrated copy of Peter Pan numerous times. I read these books because I was looking for books that I enjoyed and that challenged me. As I got older, my mom (an elementary school librarian) helped me to find books that I would read for challenge and enjoyment. Yes, I read plenty of crappy young adult lit that I’ve forgotten, but I also read a good deal of really quality literature that has helped to shape me into the adult that I am today.
I’ve also reread many of those books as an adult and understood them differently. In my twenties, I am able to relate to and understand Anne Frank and Charles Dickens in ways that I couldn’t when I was a child. But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have read those books as a kid. Meeting Sidney Carton as a kid helped me to understand that heroes don’t always look or act like we expect. As an adult, I understand and appreciate him in a fuller way. But that doesn’t mean that my initial encounters with him were negative or pointless. Anne Frank gave me an age-appropriate window into the tragedy of the Holocaust, and I will never resent or regret that.
The best bit of reading advice my mother ever gave me was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle when I was in fifth or sixth grade. (I canNOT wait for the new AWIT movie coming in March 2018.) That book turned me on to one of my favorite authors, and I read L’Engle voraciously. I love exploring the worlds she created and the characters who inhabited them. L’Engle taught me, among many other things, that intelligence and faith could coexist. I learned so much about science, literature, faith, and life from L’Engle.
The books that I read as a child helped to shape the adult that I became (or am becoming). Anne Frank taught me about endurance through suffering. J.M. Barrie and P.L Travers taught me about the power of imagination. Madeleine L’Engle opened the world to me. She introduced me to John Donne, Mr. Rochester, Fortinbras, time travel, and tomato sandwiches. In fact, I think that I need to revisit her very soon. It’s time for another round of hot chocolate, tomato sandwiches, and time travel.