Friday, April 2, 2010

Age Appropriate

A few weeks ago, I received a lovely e-mail from a sophomore at a college in Buffalo, New York, telling me how much he enjoyed reading Bull’s-Eye, my biography of Annie Oakley. “I was sitting in the college library the other night at a computer that was located right across from the Education Center's collection of children's literature,” the young man explained. “In a display case for Women's History Month was your book, it immediately caught my eye.” The student, who grew up only a mile or two from Annie’s Ohio hometown, took a break from his statistics homework to check it out. “Although it's a story I've heard thousands of times it felt inspiring and new once again in your book.”

Interestingly enough, just a days before, I had presented Annie’s story to a class of second graders, each of whom received a paperback copy of
Bull’s-Eye to take home, courtesy of their school’s PTA. Many of these seven-year-olds immediately opened their copies and started reading.

Besides being great for my ego, these anecdotes are noteworthy because they involve readers who are seven and 19 years old, clearly outside of the publicized audience for the book, stated on the back cover flap as “Ages 10 and up.” So what’s going on here?

I have always known that those labels were arbitrary, provided more for marketing purposes than as a strict guideline. But I am a veteran of the educational publishing industry, including more than a few years in the early 1980s when I regularly had to use readability formulas to “level” my articles for Scholastic’s classroom magazines. Besides being a pain in the neck, it was a practice that I found distasteful and undignified. I love math, but the idea of applying a mathematical formula based on syllable counts and sentence lengths to a piece of writing reduces the art of reporting to a mechanical act.

Good writing, for kids or adults, is based on clarity and rhythm and content, not formulas. If someone is interested in the topic of a book or an article, they’ll read it, no matter what the readability formula says. I doubt that living through those years of “leveling” articles helped me internalize any insights about how to write for kids. Rather, I learned from writing a lot, reading my colleagues’ work, and listening to my editor, the wonderful Carol Drisko, about whom Karen Romano Young wrote a while back in this blog.

Still, those who think writing-by-numbers is the best way to reach kids persist. Four or five years ago, I broke my rule against writing for textbooks by taking an assignment to do an eight-page “leveled biography” for second graders that was to be an ancillary in a California social studies program. The subject was the late Dr. Wilson Riles, a pioneering educator who became the state’s superintendent of public instruction. The job appealed to me for personal reasons. I had worked on a project with Dr. Riles years before, and I liked the idea of learning more about him and presenting his story to young readers. But the guidelines for writing this 500-word “book” were much longer than the anticipated book itself, specifying the average words per sentence, maximum words per sentence, and even some vocabulary words to be used. What’s more, I had to write four versions, reducing the number of words per sentence and the total words significantly each time. It was like being locked in a room whose air was being sucked out. With each iteration, the storytelling grew shorter and more labored until the simplest version was told in short, desperate gasps. Dr. Riles deserved better.

I realize that changing the way textbooks are written is a tall order. And I understand that teachers, librarians, parents, and kids themselves may want to know that a trade book is somewhat age-appropriate before they choose it. But relying too heavily on labels or formulas can rob readers of the chance to connect with a story that will inform and inspire them. Great rewards await those who cast aside "magic numbers" and base their selections on something more intuitive.


Vicki Cobb said...

Terrific piece, Sue! I'm reminded of a story where a little boy was given a Ray Bradbury book to take home. When he returned it, the teacher asked him how he liked it. "Oh," he said. "It was great! It's so much better than reading."

Marfe Ferguson Delano said...

Sue, your post today was just the inspiration I needed to nudge aside my worries about keeping my current project age appropriate and instead just focus on telling the story. Thanks!

christinemm said...

I cannot imagine writing a leveled reader. What a challenge! But as a (homeschooling) mother who taught her children to read I know there are issues with kids and their reading ability and the leveled readers were so convenient for me the adult to pick out and provide quickly to my kids---and the kids confidence grows when they can read what is presented to them.

(Some kids resist reading fiction as part of their reading practice. One of mine thrived on reading nonfiction independently so thank goodness there was some out there. Oddly he loved having fiction read aloud to him.)

With that said I also know that young kids with their vocabulary more broad than their independent reading level are often interested in 'harder' content and can listen to deeper and longer stories (fiction and nonfiction and biography) being read aloud.

An entirely different issue is what the content is and if it is appropriate for children of a certain age. I am reading a pre-publication copy of a book whose first two in the series were huge bestsellers. I am mortified at some sexual content in two biographies in the collection as IMO they are very inappropriate for kids 9-12 for independent reading and they are most definately not right for reading aloud to kids 8 and younger. What is this major publisher thinking?!?

I am also sick of the public thinking kids are stupid and not interested in nonfiction topics at young ages. I used to read my kids aloud books at age two marketed toward independent reading for ages 9-12 and they loved it.

Linda Zajac said...

Sue, I'm right there with you on this one. I've never counted syllables or paid attention to readability charts and I'm all the more happier for it. Your description of suffocation is spot on for me at least.

Loreen Leedy said...

Years ago I worked on a leveled story or two for a textbook company, had to look up words in some sort of reference book to find out how “hard” they were. Tedious, but apparently those kind of texts are supposedly useful in certain situations with certain readers. Or so they say. Personally, as a kid I was bored silly by hyper-controlled texts (remember SRA?) and read pretty much whatever was handy regardless of age level. Didn't always knew every word, got the gist anyway.