In the early days, choosing books to read with my kids was an easy two-step process: I’d choose, they’d listen. These days, at ages 9 and 12, they’re apt to bring a book to me.
Delightful as it is to see your kids become independent readers, it can be a mixed bag. For one thing, they now have both choice and veto power. As a result, I’ve seen my reading standards humbled somewhat. It’s a matter of pragmatism. Book blurbs and Newberrys don’t mean much in the face of those three dreaded words: “This is boring.” I don’t want to say my standards have lowered; let’s go with “softened.” Choose Your Own Adventures? Fine. Graphic novels? No problem. The only thing I ask is that we read something I can enjoy too, because boredom goes both ways. As a result, some of what we’ve ended up reading together is more of a collaboration.
My 9 year-old son is an avid nonfiction fan, so much of our joint reading time tends to revolve around his current subject-matter obsession. Scintillating as it is to read about Civil War Battleships and the 100 Deadliest Animals (spoiler alert: metal trumps wood and the Black Mamba), I prefer our reading time to include fiction. So at times, as I’ve done recently, I’ll ask him to bring me something he thinks we’ll all enjoy.
He first brought me “39 Clues: Maze of Bones” by Rick Riordan. Since we’d just read the first three books in Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, this seemed like a good call. Riordan’s trademark vividly-drawn scenes and swift pacing made for a fun read. The pacing was so brisk, in fact, that my son grew impatient with our read-aloud pace and ended up finishing it on his own. It happens.
He then shifted gears to a Roald Dahl book he’d read awhile back, but I never had: “The BFG (Big Friendly Giant)”. A classic author is generally a safe bet, and Dahl didn’t disappoint. While I was a little put off by the scenario of a young girl abducted from her bed by a giant, my son enjoyed seeing the initially scary ogre gradually revealed to be a well-meaning, oversized goofball. As the story progresses, the little girl, Sophie, becomes a powerful pint-sized protagonist as she masterminds a plan to bring down the more malevolent giants in the world to which she’s been spirited off. As always, Dahl’s language and sprightliness lightens the darker undertones of the story. We giggled together over words like “whizzpopper,” “gobblefunk,” and “puddlenuts.”
My daughter, age 12, sidled into my bedroom one night as we were reading. “Why are you reading that? Everyone knows Matilda is the best Roald Dahl book there is.” I braced myself for her brother’s response, which would not be gentle. “Ohhh. Matilda! She’s a prankster girl.” His eyes lit up. I couldn’t remember Matilda, though I had a vague recollection that there was a movie adaptation that passed me right by. The kids rushed to tell me all about it: “She borrowed her friend’s parrot, so her parents would think there was a ghost in the chimney.” “Her parents are really mean,” my daughter said. “They watch TV all the time, and they won’t let her read because they think it turns your brain to mush.” “Irony alert,” said my son, with a classic tween eye-roll.
It turns out this prankster girl, Matilda, is only four. I wouldn’t have guessed my 9 year-old son would go for a book about a 4-year-old girl, but it looks like my expectations are about due for some more tweaking, because now he wants us to read Matilda next. With a tag-team rave review like that, how can I resist?
Besides, it was between Matilda and The World’s Deadliest Snakes. There was really no contest.
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