Let Kids Read What They Want To Read

Esther Moreno Martinez/EyeEm/Getty
Esther Moreno Martinez/EyeEm/Getty

My 9-year-old is an avid reader, to say the least. He reads at a ninth grade level, and consumes books like woodchipper. He finished a 400-page book, “The Son of Neptune” (one of those Rick Riordan books about gods I can’t keep track of) in three days — days which included generally being a small boy and doing other things as well.

We have a hard time keeping him stocked with enough books, in fact. He plowed through Bill Brittain’s entire canon in a week (like, 6 books). He loves The Mysterious Benedict Society. But when I tried to give him The Giver for school, which should have been less than his lexile and on the same level as the other books he’d been reading — hard no. “Maybe next year, Mama,” he said.

My 9-year-old also loves to read the Dogman books. Every time there’s a new Dogman, or one of the Narwhal comics, he devours it. He reads it over and over until it falls apart. He also loves to steal his 7-year-old brother’s reading books for school. Right now middle brother is reading the Fly Guy series and Frog and Toad books; we’ve had some major issues with them going missing because big brother took them and can’t remember where they are. These are early-reader books, but he’s stolen and stashed them. He loves them.

So, it doesn’t matter how old or young they are. He’s reading for fun. 

On the other hand, he’ll also read through paleontology books, science books, and cryptozoology books his dad and I get for ourselves. We find them stashed in his bed. We also find that he’s actually consumed the contents. Same thing: he’s reading books he chose, and he’s reading them for fun. Awesome. 

We don’t shame him or overly praise him for either one. We don’t harass him. In our house, no one is ever shamed for what they read, what level they read on, or the reading material they choose — no matter if it’s “right” or not. All reading is good reading. Because reading at any level leads to loving books, and we want kids who love books, not kids who read at a certain level at a certain time. 

My 7-year-old is a slower reader than my other two sons. This is partly because his ADHD prevented him from learning at an earlier age; he was so easily frustrated that reading lessons led to massive tantrums. So while at his age, older brother was beginning The Notebook of Doom series, he’s still at Frog and Toad. Whatevs. But he loves to read, and he’ll pick up Dogman — a little too advanced for him — and read it out loud to his littlest brother. He gets some of the words wrong. But he’s doing it for fun! So we’ve won. 

Given his choice, he’ll tote around science books — about toads and salamanders, generally — that he has no chance in hell of reading. Maybe some little words. But not really the book. We know he’s benefitting from exploring them and we don’t nag. Because all reading is good reading, and eventually, he’ll be able to read these books. Even if now he’s just really looking at the pictures. I remember being where he is.

My kids also pick their own books at the library. This can be a monumental pain in the ass, because no one can find anything until it’s time to go, then there’s a mad scramble. Sometimes my oldest wants Level 1 Star Wars books. He shares them with his middle brother, who can sound out most of the words, and his youngest brother, who begs them to read the books to him or just looks at the pictures.

My oldest has to be pushed to pick out advanced books that aren’t by one of his chosen authors. So when he appears with a stack of ridiculous branded Star Wars books below his reading level, we let it slide. Because he’s not selecting books for school, he’s getting books for leisure. Yeah, I’d rather he read Island of the Blue Dolphins or something. But why push him? Why not let him read for fun? Especially since reading for fun is our goal for him. 

Especially when mama’s in the next room digging for the latest teenage vampire dystopia. It would be like someone shoving the Michelle Obama book at me and saying, “Here, that Y.A. book you’re reading is too young for you. You should read this instead.”

Bullshit.

Y.A. books — like the Hate U Give or Turtles All the Way Down — are spectacular novels and I don’t care that they were written with teenagers in mind. We all have the right to pick what we want to read. All reading is good reading — because it makes your kid love books.

So stop freaking out when your kid brings home a book below their level. Don’t lose it when you find your fourth-grader camped out with The Cat in the Hat. The book that changed my entire life was a book way too old for me to be reading at eleven: Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides. Kids need to read. What they read isn’t so important as them developing a life-long love of books, and they’ll do that regardless of whether they read books far below or far above their so-called reading level, which they’ve proven is mostly inaccurate anyway.

We don’t want to stigmatize or shame them for what/when they choose to read, because that can create long-lasting issues and hesitancy to explore and discuss their literacy.

Give them books. Let them read. Don’t sweat what it is or what it should be. This is one of those battles that evens out in the end: it won’t matter five years from now if your fifth grader read Captain Underpants, or something more advanced. But it will matter if you shamed him for reading Captain Underpants.