It was a typical weekday evening. My fifth grader was in her room, drawing pictures to illustrate her report on Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain." Our third grader was putting up his usual fuss about bedtime. "Just let me finish this chapter," he pleaded, clutching a dogeared copy of "Remembrance of Things Past."
No, it hasn't happened -- yet. But it's the sort of scene I'm beginning to have nightmarish fantasies about.
It all started at breakfast a few weeks ago. Avi, my third grader, informed me that there was a book he had to have from the library right away. I immediately seized upon the essential points: "Why didn't you mention this at the library yesterday, and hurry up or you'll be late for school." It was only when I found out that his teacher wanted him to read Katherine Paterson's "Bridge to Terebithia" that I hit the ceiling.
"Bridge to Terebithia" is a terrific book. It's moving, sensitive, funny, and upsetting. It certainly deserved the Newbery Award, which it received for excellence in children's literature. But it's not for third graders.
Granted, Avi is in a class for academically talented youngsters. He and his classmates may be bright, but in terms of experience and emotional level, they are still second and third graders.
Parents are constantly begin told that, as far as education goes, the earlier the better. Bright youngsters, in particular, are often treated as if they were two or three years older than they actually are. While this may be acceptable in math or history or language arts, it seldom works in literature, where a child's emotions and experience are brought into play.
"Bridge to Terebithia" deals with the friendship of two fifh graders, one of whom dies near the end. I don't mind Avi's dealing with fictional death. But I woulkd like him to deal with it on the emotional level of a third grader, not that of a fifth or sixth grader. There is also much in the book that would pass Avi by because he doesn't know how fifth graders act and feel. Most of all, I would hate to ruin a good book for him by having him read it much too early. I must say that Avi's teacher reacted quite pleasantly to my objections. We agreed to disagree, and Avi will not read "Terebithia."
You can imagine my reaction upon reading William Raspberry's column on Dec. 3. He described a Chicago school where third graders read Chaucer, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Goethe, Dante and Plutarch.
I'm sure that third graders can be taught to understand Dostoevsky of Flaubert. But a good book is not merely to be understood. The reader should have enough experience of life that he can respond to a book with something on his own. "How true," he might say. "That's what life is really like." Or "What horrible conditions that character had to put up with. I can imagine reacting the same way he did."
Children respond to books in similar fashion, but out of their own experience and their own needs. A child laughs at Beverly Cleary's "Ramona" books because they capture so well and so amusingly what life is like -- to a child, not to an adult. When reading the "Narnia" books by C. S. Lewis, what child does not long to share the adventures of Lucy or Peter? I could list dozens of other well-written books that feed a child's imagination and intellect.
If third graders are absorbed in "Crime and Punishment," when will they visit the imaginary kingdom of Narnia? There will always be time for "The Brothers Karamazov." There will not always be a time for the brothers Grimm.
Children, even bright children, need to be intellectually nourished, but not from an adult menu. There is much to be said for not pushing our children into precocious literary experience.
No wonder Marbe Collins, the head of the Chicago school described in Raspberry's column, finds it such a hard job to get children interested in books. I'm sure the children in herschool benefit from the attention she obviously lavishes upon them. But I would hate to see other elementary schools imitate her Great Books approach.
My fifth grader is a voracious reader. Ilana reads everything from Danny Dunn to Dickens -- at least some Dickens. Unlike Erica, the fifth-grade studen in Collins' school, my daughter found "A Tale of Two Cities" to hard to understand. "I guess I'm not ready for it yet," she decided. Ilana knows that a good book will not go out of style. There's nothing to be lost by waiting to grow into it. In fact, there's much to be gained.