My children love to read. They devour books, and both of them read well above their grade level, with large vocabularies and excellent comprehension skills. I’m not bragging; I’ve met many children in this same situation. The temptation with children like this is to let them read any book they are willing to crack open. After all, reading is good for them, right? Not always.
In watching my children grow, I have discovered that there are three aspects to reading ability. The first is functional: vocabulary, sentence structure, grammar, and things like that. Can they convert letters into words and words into sentences? The second is mental: following a plot, keeping up with multiple characters, understanding imagery or foreshadowing and other subtleties. The first time my daughter read The Secret Garden, she could read all the words, but she couldn’t really follow the story. Same thing happened with a Nancy Drew book. Now, of course, she loves both of those because her mental reading skills have increased.
The third aspect of reading is more social or emotional. And more difficult to gauge. It involves understanding the situation, social context, or implications of the story. Early-reading books revolve around loosing a toy or getting your feelings hurt by a friend. More advanced reading exposes the reader to some of the uglier things in the world: injustice, abuse, prejudice, witchcraft, death. Or sometimes just more mature topics: relationships, sex, struggles with money, eating disorders, mental illness. Even books like The Diary of Anne Frank require a certain level of social and/or historical understanding.
We do a fairly good job of measuring the first aspect of reading. It’s easy to see if our children have the functional ability to read a book. And in a brief conversation, we can know if they have achieved the mental ability to understand that book. The challenge arises in measuring their social/emotional level for reading the same book. Just because they CAN doesn’t mean they SHOULD. Like Paul said, “I have the right to do anything,” you say–but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”–but not everything is constructive (1 Cor 10:23 totally out of context, but it’s the same idea). If we won’t let them watch ‘R’-rated movies, if we protect them from explicit song lyrics, if we instruct them to think on whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, etc. (Phil 4:8), why do we put overly-mature books in their hands without a second thought?
As parents, it’s our job to guard our children’s hearts. Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it (Prov 4:23). There’s an incredible scene in The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom. She and her father are on a train, and she asks her father about sex. Instead of answering, he asks Corrie to pick up the heavy suitcase sitting between them. She can’t. He tells her that some subjects are like that suitcase: too heavy for her right now, but she will grow. She must trust him that, when she is able to “carry” the information about sex, he will give it to her.
It’s not about sheltering our children from the world. It’s about protecting them against things their hearts aren’t ready to manage just yet. For a long time, we didn’t let our first-born read the Harry Potter series. (Not judging here. I read and loved every one of them; we just didn’t think she was ready.) When all her friends read them, we talked about guarding her heart and thinking about things that honor God. I asked her to trust me to know when she was ready. I told her the story about Corrie Ten Boom and her father.
For now, there are SO many excellent, challenging books for my tween-ager. Sure, she reads some “fluff” (she especially likes girl secret agents like Ruby Redfort), but we’re also working on the Newberry Award Winner list. Have you read Carry On, Mr. Bowditch or The Witch of Blackbird Pond? Do you remember Caddie Woodlawn or A Wrinkle in Time? I’d forgotten; these are fantastic books! In general, the Newberry winners are not at all childish (a complaint we sometimes hear from our double-digit-aged kids), but they handle mature topics in a way that’s appropriate for younger readers (think The Scarlet Letter without adultery for The Witch of Blackbird Pond). They generate fantastic discussion topics; they help us engage with the world, and they supply a big dose of American history without any grimaces or complaints.
Also, it’s important to read questionable books before or at least alongside our kids. This includes “Christian” books (e.g. Ted Dekker). If I’ve already read the book, my child knows she can talk with me about anything she doesn’t understand. I can even broach topics or scenes that I think need more light shed on them. Let’s not allow literature to parent our children. That’s our job.
If you were to finish all of the Newberry winners and honor books (which date back to the 1920s, so it should take awhile!), you can start on the AP English reading list. This list, of course, is far more mature, but by the time they get to it, they should be ready. I plan to read these books alongside my child too, so we can filter everything through our faith as she learns to knowledgeably engage the world around her.
By the way, my daughter is going to read Harry Potter this summer. She can handle it now. We’ll talk about it as she goes, and I know she’ll enjoy every minute!