Teach My Kid to Read members and librarian Faye Lieberman, holding a stuffed bear

Hey Teacher! Let the Kids Read What They Want

What does a librarian say when parents of struggling readers say their children won’t read anything? What’s it like to hear parents tell their children they can only read books at certain levels? Why do all the young adult books seem to include themes that are so difficult for our tweens and teens to grapple with? Struggling readers in this age range are often facing enough challenges, so why are so many of the books written for them so brutal?

Recently, a few Teach My Kid to Read volunteers and I sat down with Faye Lieberman, Children’s Librarian at Franklin Square Public Library in Franklin Square, New York, for a discussion about children’s books and the questions librarians hear the most. Following are excerpts from a transcript of the discussion:

Ask the Librarian!

My name is Faye Lieberman. I’ve been a children’s librarian for nearly forty years. In my experience, things have gotten much worse for children with and without dyslexia. Most schools teach reading using sight words, leveled readers, and standardized tests. There is minimal attempt to adjust to the needs of individual children. I’m finding fewer children who want to read for pleasure. It’s not always the teacher’s fault. Sometimes it’s the parent’s fault, too. Every day I hear, “You can’t read that, it’s not on your level.”

When teachers assign a novel, they tend to choose books like Bud Not Buddy, Holes, and Bridge to Terabithia. All of these novels have characters who die or are put in scary situations. This is very depressing, and many children are upset and even traumatized by the books. Teachers assume that if a book isn’t serious, there’s nothing to discuss. Our library runs five book discussions a month for kindergarten through first grade, second and third grades, third and fourth grades, and fifth and sixth grades. The librarian in charge doesn’t use depressing books. Each month they choose a common theme. For example, in March it’s pets. Each group has a choice of three or four books. and everyone has a great time talking about what they’ve read. All of the kids get 100 on their Accelerated Reader tests on book discussion items.

Books for the older children are available on CD so that reading problems don’t keep kids from participating. I spend a lot of time consoling parents and kids who hate the books the schools assign. Summer reading is worse than regular school assignments. Many teachers assign limited lists with old titles that are even out of print. In grades six, seven, and eight, each grade has to read the same book. The sixth grade has to read The Witch of Blackbird Pond about The Salem Witch Trials. The vocabulary is difficult for many of the children, and so many of the children have no interest in the subject. I’m on the Nassau Library System booklist committee. We do graded booklists every three years and try to make them with books the kids want to read. All of the lists are sent to the school districts, but most teachers don’t choose any of the books on the list. I have been told it’s too much trouble for the teachers to change lesson plans.

Librarians and publishers are partly the reason for this trend towards depressing children’s literature. We select the books to order from what is published and we tend to select books that receive the Newbery Awards. The Newbery Awards recipients are notoriously depressing; just about every book has dead or seriously ill characters. At least this year, The New Kid was selected. It is a graphic novel with no dead relatives.

Look at the books that the kids pick out for themselves. They pick out graphic novels and titles such as Captain Underpants, Dork Diaries, Cupcake Diaries, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Magic Treehouse; books in the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series; and books by authors such as Dan Gutman, and Matt Christopher. I’ve replaced all of these multiple times and the award winning, depressing books are the original copies. It would be fantastic if the kids could vote on the books to be read by the class. Unfortunately, it won’t happen. Teachers are too confined by Common Core and the emphasis on standardized tests. The Accelerated Readers use numbers that correspond to year and month. For example, 3.5 would be fifth month of third grade.

Children tend to get pigeonholed, and children who don’t fit into nice little slots are not given much sympathy. For example, I have seen too many class visits where the teachers insist that the kids only pick easy readers. If you are a good reader, you may not be able to choose a chapter book. Kids who aren’t good readers aren’t given much guidance from the teachers, and they can’t easily find books that they can read or that they may like. My staff and I try to help but it’s hard with twenty-five kids in thirty minutes.

It would help if publishers published a greater variety of books. The trend seems to be publishing books with dead relatives, major trauma, or focusing on the latest social trends.

Teachers: Lighten up and let the kids read the kind of things they like.

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