“Is He Reading?”

Josie Leavitt -- May 8th, 2013

I ask this question just about every day. Customers come in seeking books for five to seven-year olds and we often ask “are they reading?” to clarify what section of the store to find books. It is not meant as judgment. I am very quick to let folks know that I really didn’t get the hang of reading until well into my eighth year, so there’s no shame in a seven-year-old who isn’t reading yet.

But there always is. I’m not really sure when it happened that it was expected that every six-year-old should already know how to read. The rush to be on grade-level, even if that grade is kindergarten, is rampant. More often than not the answer to the “is she reading?” is met with a very quick, “She precocious. She’s just finished the Harry Potter series.” Really? At six? Hmmm. I bet every bookseller hears this at least a hundred times a year.

Once I was helping a woman get a book for her son’s friend’s birthday. He was five. I was told he was a very precocious child. I asked if he was reading yet and she said, “Well, not yet.” And I countered with, “Well, then, he’s not that precocious.” I waited for her to get angry with my quip. Instead, she laughed and regrouped on the book idea, settling instead for a lovely Bill Peet book. If you’re not familiar with Bill Peet, go get some of his books.

From Wump World, The Whingdingdilly, Big Bad Bruce to The Caboose Who Got Loose and so many more great titles, his books are playfully illustrated long stories. There is nothing more fun tha0395287154n introducing a family to Bill Peet. His picture books are text-heavy, which is a good thing to get for the older child who isn’t reading yet, but feels too old for picture books. Oh, how I hate that moment when kids eschew picture books because they keep hearing that picture books are for babies. Handing a family a 48-page picture book is a gift. Peet’s books are long and that only makes them skew older. Let’s face it, not many three-year-olds can sit still that long.

But the reading question is one all booksellers grapple with every day. We have to ask about a child’s reading level. We are not doing it to judge, we are doing it find the perfect book. Honestly, I think we should steer away from reading levels, but we can’t. If a first grader is reading at first grade level why do some think that’s bad? The kid is in first grade! Let them read at that level and enjoy all the books written for first graders. There is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with that.

And I love it when people respond to the “Is he reading?” by answering, “No, he’s a regular five-year-old.” That response kind of puts in perspective, doesn’t it?


6 thoughts on ““Is He Reading?”

  1. Carol Chittenden

    And I’m still praying that there will soon be new editions of the Bill Peet classics, possibly as attractive and economical as the brilliant Galdone revivals that HMH has underway.

    As far as those almost-readers, agreed with all comments. There is much to be said for working out diplomatic wording.

  2. Kat Kan

    I’m a school librarian in a small private school. I have first graders who are reading chapter books, and first graders who are struggling with beginning level reader books. I work hard to make sure they can all find books that engage their interest. I’m finding that – no matter their reading ability – they love the graphic novels published by TOON Books and Capstone/Stone Arch. Sometimes a good quality graphic novel will be the right reading solution.

  3. Heather

    I agree with Trish, above. Back in the day when I was a Children’s Book Specialist and someone asked for a book for a 6 year old girl or a 5 year old boy or whatever, I asked if the child would read the book him/herself or if the book would be read to the child. If the child was reading on their own, I asked, “what was the last book the child read and liked?” That question allowed me to judge the child’s reading level without actually asking. Also, reading level isn’t everything. A child might excitedly tackle a book above their current level if the book is on a favorite subject, or might read slightly below their ability to finish a favorite series. The most important thing is to make sure the child will love the book! That will always bring happy parents and grandparents (and aunts and uncles and godparents and the kids themselves) back to buy more books!

  4. Rachel

    I really appreciated this as a parent of an average 1st grader. My 7 year old really enjoy reading books that he finds hilarious, and that we have read him before. THe comfort of remembering the words and of also being able to read them seems to be a good combination. All of Mo Willems Elephant and Piggie books fill this bill very well.

  5. Trish Brown

    We usually ask “Would you like a book for him to read himself, or something to be read to him?” If they say they want something for him to read himself, then we talk about the wide variation in reading levels at the beginning stages of reading. It doesn’t completely solve the problem, but sometimes makes the conversation easier.

  6. Richard Owen

    I greatly appreciate Josie’s piece “Is He Reading?” We do have a problem with expectations. Being six and not a reader is considered not a good thing. Time for an intervention. Maybe. I have a high regard for Reading Recovery. Those teachers are a wonderful support for children. For most other interventions it seems like reading TO the child and reading WITH the child and giving opportunity for reading BY the child continues to have merit beyond the latest and greatest program on the market. I agree with Josie about “text-heavy” picture books if the parent or another fluent reader is reading TO the non-reader, but I believe that the young child trying to become an independent reader needs real books of limited length. Could be as short as 30 or 40 words in an eight page book. But the story must have charm, magic, impact, and appeal. It must engage the child and motivate him to stay with it. Nothing will have greater impact on the willingness of the child to pick up the second book than completing the first one with a feeling of success.

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