My daughter (7-and-a-half) has the auditory equivalent of a photographic memory. She could recite huge swaths of Mary Poppins and nailed Julie Andrews’ accent after just one viewing. She had just turned four. She loves to try on accents, and can quickly mimic any dialect or lilt she hears.
Catherine plays with words and morphs them into new things the way other kids play with molding clay and action figures. She also likes to “become” the characters that she sees. For example, when she was five, we had to put away Cinderella because Catherine preferred to be the evil step sisters. The rest of the Princess stories followed suit … all shelved for months and months. It is one thing to take on those roles at home, playing in the tub or with your toys. It is quite another to replicate the scenes with/on your peers during play dates.
Now that Catherine is reading, she wants to do the same thing with the characters she discovers in books. She can instantly absorb, process, and repeat what she reads. She is reading well above grade level, in part because she loves words and stories and pushes herself to read “everything” she possibly can. She will lock on a word or phrase and repeat and repeat and repeat it until she has tested out all its possible uses and gauged every possible reaction to using them. It is both gratifying and terrifying.
As experts and teachers have told us – and as we have repeatedly observed – Catherine lacks the filters to understand what the rest of us consider basic social norms/acceptance. If someone laughs at potty talk, then it must be funny, and funny is good. If people are laughing, then they are happy. Isn’t it more fun to be happy? That is her logic. She cannot “automatically” recognize what is appropriate. On top of that, her brain doesn’t naturally have the ability to identify and react to everyday nonverbal signals or communication. She can’t read the facial expression of her best friend when it says “you’re invading my space” or “please stop saying that.” For most of us these kind of observations are instinctive (or have become that). Catherine is waiting for the most extreme reaction (verbal or nonverbal), because that is the cue that she has gone too far.
Several months ago, Catherine came home with a book catalog and a bunch of books circled. “Mom, can I buy these?” As you can imagine, we have more than a few books around the house and in my office. Still, we want Catherine to feel like she can have some independence from “Mom’s books” and create her own library. So we agreed to let her buy two books. One was a picture book about a princess, one was a chapter book for a very popular series. The first was completely predictable; the second was a surprise.
Given Catherine’s propensities, I was a little concerned about the chapter book because it is filled and illustrated with slapstick events and low-brow humor. These are not the people I would normally include in my reading community. Still, I decided to think positive: this is a signal that Catherine was starting to select more challenging books. Hoorah!
She was so excited about that book and stayed up well past her bedtime reading it. She kept coming out of her room giggling, repeating the bathroom humor so that she could share it with us. Over the past several months, we’ve read other books – some Catherine picked at the library, some that come to me for the Reading Tub. I can’t tell you how many times my husband has asked “who writes this stuff?” and “do they really sell a lot of this crap?”
When I wear my parent hat, I can see his point. It seems that there are a lot of books for emergent and transitional readers that start with physical comedy and add in some lowbrow “jokes.” Some stir in poor spelling and grammar; and in a few, the path to a happy ending can be riddled with meanness and harmful pranks. Parents are frequently caricatures or victims. The characters in the starring roles talk a lot, and the majority of the text is conversation.
When I wear my literacy hat, I understand that these books have the “secrets” that can tip the scales in favor of reading (v. other activities). I grew up in a house with two uber-reluctant readers (my brothers). Had these books been around in the late 1960s/early 1970s, would they have reduced the daily struggles between parent and son about reading? Maybe. Probably. Would my dad, a devout Catholic and educator considered letting my brothers read these books in the interest of “progress”? I don’t know.
Wearing both hats, I rationalize that these books are just a phase. They are a stepping stone to helping kids become readers; that as they grow as readers they’ll find humor in other places and get hooked on richer stories.
This isn’t to suggest that these are the only choices. We read lots of different books, with lots of different stories. Still, raises (for me at least) the question of character. How do you balance feeding a personally-motivated passion for reading with minimizing the impact of people you hope don’t become her “friends”?
For now I sit at a crossroads. I want my daughter to keep picking books that get her excited about reading. I don’t want to police her selections, in part, because saying “no X books” achieves the opposite goal. I want her to enjoy all types of books; but I don’t want to shelter her, because books introduce her to worlds and people that stretch her imagination and help her decide things for herself. I want Catherine to be able to converse with her peers about the books “everybody” likes; but I don’t want her pulling some of those pranks or calling her classmates names.
We will do what we have always done: read together and talk about choices, feelings, and behavior. We’ll practice, practice, practice, whether it’s picking different words or acting out the scene in a different way. We will continue to balance her reading diet with other kinds of stories. And we will hope that she will find and connect with characters who help her grow and laugh and soar.
I’d love to hear your thoughts …
Sidebar. As I was putting the finishing touches on this post, this came across the reader this morning: 300s: Do the Right Thing: Series Nonfiction on Character in the School Library Journal.