Too Much, Too Soon by Kathie Johnson

FIRST BOOKS by Kathie Johnson

Too Much, Too Soon

Among the people who use my children's library, I have noticed something that raises a recurring concern. Often the parents who come grew up reading widely. They generally have favorite books from their childhood and are eager to share those favorites with their kids. That's a good thing. The problem, in my opinion, is that, too often, these parents are not patient enough; they want to read their beloved books to their children at ages I consider
too young.

Here, I'm generally talking about wonderful books, so I understand parents' eagerness to share them with their children as soon as they feel there will be some understanding. I don't take issue with the quality of their choices, but rather with the timing. So, for example, a parent may begin to read the Narnia series to a five-year-old. Now an intelligent five-year-old may be able to follow the story and even enter into it to a degree. But there are many aspects of the books that will be lost on him (e.g., the big themes, the lovely descriptions, the character formation taking place).

In addition, once a child has had a book read to him, he is often allowed to see the movie. So when the child turns eight or nine and is reading at the right level for the Narnia series, and would be able to understand all the nuances of the story, he may figure that he already knows it well and see no point in bothering to read it for himself. And so he will miss out on some of the best aspects of these books.

This is my greatest concern. When children encounter great (or even just good) books at too early an age, they imagine they know them well, when actually they have only a slim idea of what the books are truly about.

Another concern is that children (and their parents), in their eagerness to get into the meatier books, too often jump over a wide variety of books that are written expressly for the younger elementary-school child. These books can be a rich source of reading pleasure, with content that speaks to the understanding and concerns of children of those ages. I have found that children who read widely in the range of books most suited to their age gain depths of understanding as they are exposed to different times and places and people. And as they grow older, they progress naturally to longer books with more complex and mature themes.

Good Books for the Younger Set

So let me suggest some books that work well with the K–3 age range. First, some good read-alouds: Charlotte's Web by E. B. White, of course; also, Esther Averill's books about Jenny the Cat and the Cat Club; Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach; Marguerite Henry's Misty of Chincoteague; Richard and Florence Atwater's Mr. Popper's Penguins; and Beverly Cleary's Ramona series and Henry Huggins books. Some of the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder work well, as do Carolyn Haywood's two series (Betsy for the girls and Eddie for the boys).

Then there are the books that younger children may be able to read independently. John Peterson's The Littles can prepare them for later reading The Borrowers. The Boxcar Children is a great first chapter-book series, and Jill Barklem's Brambly Hedge books, with their detailed illustrations, are delightful. Marguerite de Angeli has written a number of middle-level stories, mostly about Quaker children; Clyde Robert Bulla writes almost entirely for this age range, with varied time and place settings; Avi has a brief series that includes The End of the Beginning; and Rumer Godden has several good books for this age, including The Fairy Doll.

Patricia MacLachlan's Sarah, Plain and Tall is a lovely story, with two sequels to round it out. Children who enjoy her writing at this stage may later look for some of her writing for older children—also quite fine. Tomie de Paola has written three or four engaging books about his childhood, including 26 Fairmount Avenue. Children who grew up on his books may become especially interested in these.

There are also The Knight of the Golden Plain by Mollie Hunter; Lois Lowry's funny and inspiring series about Gooney Bird Greene; Sheila Greenwald's Rosy Cole series; Johanna Hurwitz's books about Russell and Elisa; Janwillem van de Wetering's Hugh Pine books (Hugh is a porcupine); and Julia Cunningham's Maybe, a Mole, and others. A current favorite is the Mercy Watson series by Kate di Camillo. Mercy is a pig who lives with a couple as if she were a child. Both boys and girls like these.

Wait a Year or Two

Kathie Johnson has always had a love for children's books. She collected many as a teacher and began sharing them with other teachers. In 1986, she opened a children's library in her home, and it has continued to expand over the years. Many home-schooled and schooled children borrow books from it, and she takes great pleasure in finding the "right" book for a child. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.

more on childrens books from the online archives

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