Thursday, June 07, 2007

Reading is scary and unregulated

When my daughter turned four she asked begged me to learn to read. I'm a big reader myself. I had this inkling that maybe it was kinda young but she was really eager. We started off kinda haltingly as I tried phonics without success. Then we figured out she was more of a sight reader. By the time she turned five she could pick up a picture book and read it.

She also wanted to learn to write so I got her some writing workbooks. Through writing she's learning phonics. I found the workbooks vary a lot in quality. Some have directions that *I* found hard to understand. I recommend Spectrum which you can buy at Amazon or Borders.

Now she's a reader. She reads to herself all the time. She goes to the library and checks out tons of books. She really prefers books "with a picture on every page" aka picture books. As I've discovered the reading level on picture books varies a great deal and she can read all of them.

I've also discovered that I can no longer read my email in front of my daughter. No I don't get porn or anything but the odd Cialis ad makes it through my spam filter. Once my daughter walked up to the screen at just the right moment as I was deleting spam. She asked "Mommy why are you getting email about pills?" Long pause while I try to think of a truthful answer that doesn't get into much detail. "Well honey it's a commercial (we've talked about commercials before) They think I might want those pills but I really don't need them." "Oh" she said and walked away. Now I don't read email in front of her unless I know who it's from and what it's about.

The other day I talked to a librarian about my daughter's sticking to picture books. I wondered if it was okay. She said "Sure. Picture books go all the way from preschool to sixth grade in both reading level and content." I nodded my head. The librarian gave me a really serious look. She said "You need to be careful with these early readers. They can start reading subject matter that they have no idea how to deal with." I nodded my head thinking of Cialis. She looked even more serious. "You need to read the book before you let her read it."

I must have looked confused. I do watch an episode of every show I allow my kids to watch. I vetoed "Jon and Kate plus Eight" because those parents just snipe at each other constantly. They just seem so stressed to have eight kids with no other help. But picture books? I mean they're just picture books. Right?

The librarian walked me over to the picture book section. She gave me this book called The Tin Heart. The cover had a sweet picture of two girls and a tin heart with two pieces. I skimmed the beginning of the book. It started out innocently enough. Two girls in the Civil War. The father of one made a tin heart and gave each of the girls half of the heart. It talked a lot about their impending separation. All sweet and sad. Just at my daughter's level.

Then suddenly with no warning in the middle of the book.....runaway slaves. Now I understand slavery is part of the Civil War and part of our nation's history. And someday I will explain slaves to my daughter. And genocide. And torture. And Vietnam. And Guantanamo. But she's only five. She's still having trouble with the concept of "I won't be your friend anymore."

To say I was shocked is compare slavery to "I won't be your friend anymore." I was calling my husband on the phone as soon as I was home alone and babbling incoherently to him. It's not that I think picture books must cover subject matter appropriate to a five year old. It's that I expected there to be some warning. Some indication that the content is other than for preschoolers.

For example another book called Team Mates had on the cover an African American man in a baseball uniform and a white man in a baseball uniform. On the back it contained words like "segregation" and the "Negro Baseball Leagues". I skimmed that book and it talked about segregation and how there were two leagues and such. Nothing about slavery. As the sister of a special needs brother my daughter already unfortunately knows that sometimes people are mean to other people just because of the way they look or act. I told her she could read that one with a grownup.

Anyway I want to thank that librarian for giving me an education. You can bet that I'll be reading skimming all my daughter's books until I feel she's old enough to deal with any subject matter that might come up.

Even chapter books that feature sweet photos of a fluffy dog are not five-year-old safe. The back merely said it was about a dog from the pound and some sort of mystery. Midway through the book another dog dies. I asked my daughter if she wanted to read a book about a dog that dies. "No" she said firmly. That book went away too.

I'm also a little angry. I ask myself why books for kids aren't rated. I personally find reading and then imagining something to be infinitely more scary than anything I could watch or hear. I think it's because books are undervalued.

Don't get me wrong. I think the rating system for visual and aural media is far from perfect. I still have to watch/hear it before I'll give it to my daughter. However right there on the cover I have a good idea of what I might be getting into. I don't have to go halfway through before I realize "not appropriate".

Crossposted to Silicon Valley Moms Blog


Anonymous said...

I started learning about slavery and the civil rights movement when I was five, and it definitely wasn't too soon.

Thida said...

I'm glad that worked for you. My girl is different.

Charlotte's Mom said...

Believe it or not, because so many American students do not read at grade level, librarians and teachers are asking children's book authors to write non-fiction *picture books* for middle grade and high school students.

Seriously. Rather than improve their reading, our educational professionals want to cater to it.

Definitely read before she reads.

bibliogrrl said...

That librarian was GOLD. You're a great mom.

There are so many wonderful picture books for reading levels out there, but parents really don't check content. But with so many different publishers, it would be great to see some sort of 'rating' on content, just for ease of access.