We read every night to our kids. They love books. And because we’ve been reading to them since pretty much the day they were born, their comprehension is incredible. As an example, we began reading Harry Potter to our four year old. We thought at first that he probably wouldn’t be grasping all of the story, but then he began asking questions and predicting what would happen next and we knew that when the story came orally, he was ready. His little sister, occasionally, will listen in when we read to him and so has a grasp of brooms, wands and spells. The two of them dress up in their bath “robes” and run around with their wands quite regularly. While Alex can grasp the themes of the book and understand the “fiction” of it, we hesitate to expose Kay to the darker elements. Even though she loves the bibbity bobbity of the magic, the boo is often too much for her.
We confirmed as much as we tried to read The BFG, by Roald Dahl. This is a story that starts with a dark and scary giant stealing kids from their beds at night. In the end, the giant turns out to be friendly and the heroine works with him to rid the world of evil. But the dark nature of the start of this book really gave Kay nightmares and we never got to finish it. Now some might argue that perhaps the language of the book was just too much, but since we just finished the original 1880 version of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, I don’t think that was the issue. Instead I think it was a little girl who internalizes the fictional world too thoroughly and couldn’t get the giant out of her head as she laid down to sleep.
We had a similar experience, although less dramatic, with Owls in the Family. There was a fairly graphic depiction early on in that book of the boys hunting the forest for wild birds eggs and a rather unfiltered depiction of the killing of a number of wild birds. In the story it was just normal course…something everybody did. Today, of course, that’s seen as rather barbaric. In our circles at least. The rest of the story was about a deep and unabiding love that developed between the boys and some wild owl. This, at least, Kay could understand and appreciate. But I wonder at the difference between modern novels for kids and these older ones. It seems that things are much gentler now, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
So as we continue to read books to our kids that are far above grade-level I continue to watch their reaction to what today would be considered adult topics. I open the conversation with them when they’re concerned with a subject or I am. Especially with Alex, but increasingly with Kay, these topics can spark some fascinating conversations where I often as not learn something too. So here’s your homework folks, pick up a book that you normally wouldn’t read to your kids and try it out. Here are a couple of our favorites: