Question for the Ages: What Books When?

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 24, 2008

Parents at Green Acres, a private school in Montgomery County, complained this month when a teacher read to a group of third-graders from a book containing gruesome descriptions of violence against enslaved Africans and the conditions on the ships that brought them to the United States. They said the children were too young for the difficult theme and graphic language.

At Deal Junior High School in the District, some parents wondered why their children were reading books this year that they considered too easy for advanced seventh-grade students ("Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson) or books without much literary merit ("The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens" by Sean Covey.)

The episodes illustrate how difficult it is for librarians, teachers and parents to match children with the right book at the right age in an effort to turn young people into lovers of reading. And experts say that process is becoming increasingly complicated.

At a time when more authors are writing more books for young people, fewer children are reading for pleasure. A recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts showed that the percentage of 13- to 17-year-olds who read daily for fun dropped from 31 percent to 22 percent between 1984 and 2004. The amount they read for school has not changed.

Some educators and authors say they believe the emphasis on standardized tests in the No Child Left Behind education law has made teachers less willing to experiment with new or unusual books. "Kids are getting less and less choice, and it's sad," said author Jon Scieszka, the U.S. National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, adding that his son once saw reading as only a school activity.

"He thought every book comes with a test," he said. "There is nothing sadder than making books only a school project. Reluctant readers don't want to be quizzed at the end of every chapter. They don't want to feel like they are stupid."

Picking books appropriate in theme and reading level is an art rather than a science, librarians and educators say. The nonprofit National Council of English Teachers, which issues guidelines for selecting materials for English classes, has another description for the process: problematic.

Age appropriateness must be considered along with the value of the material as a whole, particularly in relation to educational objectives and how much exposure the typical student might have to a subject, the guidelines say. The task has been complicated because today's children are exposed to more difficult themes earlier than ever and are often assumed to be emotionally maturing faster, too.

"I hear that all the time," said Teri S. Lesesne, a professor of young adult and children's literature at Sam Houston State University in Texas and author of the book, "Making the Match: The Right Book for the Right Reader at the Right Time."

"And you hear this about very gifted kids," she said. "If there is anything I try to get across to parents, it is that of course your kid is gifted, but that doesn't mean he or she is ready for certain pieces of literature. It does mean they can get more out of the literature that is developmentally appropriate."

At Green Acres in Rockville, a teacher recently read "From Slave Ships to the Freedom Road" by Julius Lester to third-graders. The book, which tells the story of African Americans, has been lauded for being historically accurate and descriptive.

It starts: "They took the sick and the dead and they dropped them into the sea like empty wine barrels. But wine barrels did not have beating hearts, crying eyes, and screaming mouths. . . . No one knows how many millions died. Except the sharks."

Green Acres head Louis Silvano said the book is not normally read in third grade, when children are usually 8 or 9 years old. But age recommendations for Lester's book are varied. Booklist, published by the American Library Association, says the book is appropriate for grades 5-10. Publisher's Weekly says it's fine for age 8 and up, and Kirkus Review recommends ages 10 to 12.

"What we try to do is find materials that will be developmentally appropriate and take into consideration the maturity levels of the students," he said.

But that isn't easy to do.

A look at the curriculum lists of different schools shows a wide range of grades where particular books are taught. "Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger, for example, is taught in eighth grade, but also in ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th, depending on the school.

Lesesne said she thinks "Catcher in the Rye" is best suited for college, as are "The Scarlet Letter," "Beowulf" and other classics with canonical status in high schools.

"It's often hard to find the appropriate books," said Susan Hearn, a veteran English teacher at private Edmund Burke School in the District. "Young adult literature is a relatively new phenomenon. We just have to keep looking."

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