“She’s Not a Strong Reader”

Josie Leavitt -- August 2nd, 2011

It amazes me how often parents just make blanket statements in the store, in front of other customers. Yesterday, this very earnest, friendly teenager, maybe 14 or so, was busily looking at the Young Adult section. She’d bring up a book to the counter and ask if we had it in paperback. We didn’t. Or if we had the first in the series, we didn’t. It seems every teenage girl had been devouring Jenny Han and Carrie Jones this weekend and our restock shipment had not come in yet.

She resisted help at first. But after two failed attempts to get the book she wanted, she finally let me help her. I got her a wonderful stack of Libba Bray and Sarah Dessen and left her alone, only to have her mother announce to me, “She’s not a strong reader.” As if that explained why her daughter was taking her time to choose the right book.

I cannot say enough how much this irritates and saddens me. As someone who grew up “not a strong reader” until I was 10 or so, I can recall the sting of hearing that from careless teachers. But to have a parent just blurt it out in the middle of a crowded store in front of siblings must be terrible. I told the mom her daughter was picking great, age-appropriate books. She sighed and said, “She just has the hardest time finishing a book.”

I told the mom that there are lots of reasons kids don’t finish books, mostly it’s because they just don’t like them. Not liking a book and being a poor reader are not the same thing. Some kids need more time to choose books, and that can seem like indecision, which makes some parents anxious. This young woman was the opposite of “not a strong reader.” She carefully choose books, reading the back and the first few pages of each book. Strong readers do this. They are deliberate in what they want to read. She would pop to the register and ask me questions about several titles and then just as fast would retreat to the happy world of our YA section.

She paid for her Sarah Dessen book with her own money, kept the receipt, and gently hugged the book to her chest. She smiled as she left the store. I noticed that she had started  reading on the way out the door.

40 thoughts on ““She’s Not a Strong Reader”

  1. anieva

    It’s really sad when a smart kid has a dumb parent. It’s like when you know more than your boss does, but it’s worse because this ‘boss’ is the one who helps give you self-esteem and guidance or who takes the self-esteem away and guides poorly.

    Nice post. How nice it’d be if that young girl read it. And the mother could learn something if she read it herself.

  2. Jane

    A third party always complicates the reader’s advisory process. I find it’s best to tactfully focus on the reader and anticipate parent reaction to certain kinds of books.

  3. Ann

    I run into this in bookstores, also. Recently, I was behind a preteen girl and her mother in a bookstore. They had a display of classics near the line and the three of us were discussing them. The young girl mentioned that she might like to read To Kill a Mockingbird. The mother told her daughter she was too young to read the book. I politely mentioned that I had read a lot of the classics when I was about the daughter’s age. I also said that when I reread these books as an adult, many times I discovered things that had gone over my head at a younger age.

    I also tell parents that complain that their children “aren’t readers,” that they just need to find the right thing to hook them. Just because someone enjoyed Laura Ingalls Wilder as a child doesn’t mean that their children will enjoy it as well.

    This type of discouragement irks me as much as hearing a parent tell a male child, “boys don’t play with dolls,” etc. When I’ve been asked at fast food restaurants whether I wanted a boy or girl toy to go with the children’s meal, I always make a point of asking my niece and/or nephew, which toy they want and describe the toys to them, i.e. Do you want Batman or Barbie? Not boy or girl toys.

  4. Stephanie Davis

    I teach 8th grade language arts. I have an odd reputation for turning students into bookworms. Ironically, I don’t really DO anything but provide them a massive variety of books to read and time to read them. I want the kids to enjoy reading, but most of these so-called nonreaders simply don’t know how to find a book. The more titles I read and the more time I spend getting to know a student, the easier it is to recommend a title, genre, or author.

    But I dread Open House because that is the night where parents will announce to me and everyone else in the room that their kid is a bad reader, or hates reading, or isn’t a strong reader. (With an attitude like that, no wonder the kid thinks he can’t read!)

    Then there are the parents who announce their child’s IQ or that their summer reading list included Shakespeare, Hawthorne, & Hemingway. (Many of these kids are actually more adept at reading sparknotes summaries, but we won’t go there right now).

    When it is time for a child to choose a book to read for pleasure, what difference does it make what “level” some outside agency has labeled it? In the program we use, The Color Purple is assigned a 4th grade reading level. Is The Color Purple a book I would have in a 4th grade classroom? No. But our “reading levels” are based on vocabulary. So am I supposed to deny an 8th grade student the chance to read The Color Purple simply because it has 4th grade vocabulary? I think not, my friend.

    Maybe I have that weird reputation for inspiring reluctant readers because I will never tell a student to put down that Sarah Dessen book and read Mark Twain (or vice versa). I will also never claim that a book is a great read simply because it is on some old dusty list of classics that my teachers’ teachers had to read in high school.

    Let me step down from my soap box, I have a book to read.

  5. Kay Winters

    Talk about encouraging reading….
    I was doing a booksigning last Thursday at a local independent bookstore, when a mother comes up and says with a big sigh of disgust… He loves to read… pointing at her 8 year old.
    I looked at her and said, Isn’t that wonderful! You are so lucky!”
    She said….” Well…. I don’t get it…. it’s all he wants to do. ”
    Then she picked up my Voices of Ancient Egypt, and said… “Well he’s always wanting to go to Egypt. Maybe I should get this. Get over here Oscar. ”
    Oscar came, eyes downward…
    “Do you want this?” she demanded?
    “YES!” he said. So I signed it for him and said,” It’s great to meet another reader. You will never be bored.”
    His mother, looking extremely bored ushered him out of the store.

  6. Theresa M. Moore

    There was another instance where, when I was attending college, a classmate was having trouble getting her son to read. When I asked her what he was interested in, she replied, “he’s really into puzzles and rockets.” When his birthday came around I bought him a pile of science books aimed toward young readers and chief among them was books about the stars and about space. I told his mother that getting him to read wasn’t that hard as long as the books were about things he liked, and that soon he would be reading everything else as soon as he finished the ones I gave him. Sometimes all it takes is a nudge in the right direction. I hope he grew up to be an astrophysical engineer, but I haven’t seen him since then. His mother graduated and moved on with her life, taking her happy and excited son with her.

  7. Rachael

    My mom (thankfully) isn’t like that, but my cousin’s parents are. Not finishing every book they read and taking a long time to choose books does not necessarily equal a teen that’s not a strong reader. I could spend hours in a bookstore reading the backs of books, picking one up, putting it back, picking up three more, putting back a couple. It doesn’t mean I’m not a strong reader; it means I’m selective about what I’m taking the money to buy and the time to read.

  8. Elizabeth

    I teach junior high and we work on finding “just right books”. When choosing a book, the students are encouraged to read the blurb, check out the cover, ask a friend and try the “five finger rule”. To do this, they turn to any page and read it with their hand in a high five position. Each time that they come across a word that they don’t know, or can’t figure out using context clues, they put down a finger. If they run out of fingers before they finish the page, then that book is probably too hard for them right now and they should try another one.

    I also do at least one project a year where they kids have to pick a book and then have one week to change their mind. After that week, they MUST stick with the book they have chosen. I do this because I find that a lot of my kids will read the first few chapters (or pages!) and then give up. Which usually means that those kids very rarely finish a book and miss out on some great reading experiences. Making them choose a book, read it to the end and then complete a book review on it forces the students to push through the difficult parts and, more often than not, they come back telling me “that was the best book I ever read” and hopefully, “does this author have any more books?”

    I don’t believe in the term “weak readers”. I believe that these are simply kids who have not found their “just right book” (or “just right medium” newspapers, magazines and graphic novels are all valid as well). I openly discuss books with my students and explain that most people simply need to find a genre that they enjoy. I love fiction, particularly Modern Fantasy (or Paranormal Fiction), my husband, on the other hand, only reads non-fiction, usually history or biography. I don’t ask that my students love every genre, I just ask that they explore enough so that they don’t miss out on something that they never thought they would love.

    1. Elizabeth Moon

      I was fine with this until the “five finger rule.” If the book is interesting, and you want to keep reading it, then all you need is a dictionary for the words you don’t know, or a helpful friend/relative/teacher who will simply tell you what the word means so you can quickly insert the meaning in the sentence and keep reading. Unfamiliar vocabulary does not equal “too hard”–it means you have a chance to learn a lot of new words really fast.

      How else do you think people learn new vocabulary? We learn new words in context (conversation or reading), often asking “What’s that mean?”

      Some kids are more willing to look up words in the course of reading than others…but five in a page is not excessive if the kid really wants to read that book on that subject.

  9. david e

    from my retail children’s bookstore experience the phrase i heard most was “my child reads above grade level” and then they would try to shove their kids into books they didn’t want to read. or worse, they had convinced their children that books specifically for them and their grade level were beneath them and that only classics would do.

    if i could divide and conquer – if i could get the child away from the parent for a conversation – i could usually find books the child was interested in before the parents could veto them. sadly, many parents persisted in vetoing books the kids were interested in. most of the time, in libraries and bookstores, i think parents need to shut up and get out of the way.

      1. Bibliovore

        I had this experience at work in a public library the other day. The mom was walking around picking out picture books (not easy readers) for her daughter and telling me, “Well, she’s just not a strong reader.” I then watched the daughter fluently and expressively read an Elephant and Piggie book to our library’s therapy reading dog, while the mother hovered over her shoulder, pointing out every word she’d skipped or mispronounced. At one point, the mom put her finger on the page to point one out. Daughter smacked her mom’s hand away and doggedly (no pun intended) kept reading.

        It was clear to me that she was a strong reader and more than that, she was into it! But when she looked at the books her mother had picked out for her, she turned up her nose, even as the mother coaxed, “Oh, but it’s so cute!” (Does any kid actually want cute? I ask you.) I took daughter over to the easy readers and pointed out the rest of Elephant and Piggie, most of which went home with her. They came back the next week and mom said in amazement that daughter had read every single book she’d picked out for herself that same night.

        Guess what, Mom? It’s not that she doesn’t like to read. She just doesn’t share your taste. She also knows what’s important – not pronunciation, not making sure you read every word on the page. It’s all about the story.

  10. T

    There’s definitely a strong bias against graphic novels; one summer while working in a public library I noted a mom and son in a heated discussion over whether or not his graphic novel selections were “real” books. I was able to pull the mom aside and tactfully fill her in on the finer points of graphic novels, as well as make some additional recommendations for her son.

    It’s amazing the influence that adults can have on children’s reading choices. I recently visited my 7-year-old niece and asked her whether she was still enjoying the Magic Tree House series. She replied “No” and when I questioned her further, she added “They’re first-grade chapter books and I’m going into second grade.” Really? I tried my best to reassure her that she can read anything she likes regardless of the grade she’s in! (I also just sent her a few books we discussed during my visit that I thought she would appreciate.)

    As a school librarian, I hear way too many little ones loudly proclaiming they no longer read picture books and only will read chapter books. They’re only repeating what’s being pounded into their heads by parents. I tell students all the time–picture books are for everyone; you’re never too old to enjoy them!

    1. Stephanie Davis

      I teach 8th grade language arts. I have the Magic Tree House series (and a lot of other “below grade level” books in my classroom library and a TON of graphic novels (the vocabulary in some of them eclipse some of the “grade-level” literature).

      And I love picture books. I read some of them aloud to my 8th grade classroom (yes, also to my accelerated “gifted” readers). I still sit in front and read to them and show the pictures. Reading picture books to students is such a bonding experience. One of the kids’ favorite activities is trying to successfully read aloud Fox in Socks. You are SO right that we are never too old to enjoy them!

  11. Alison's Book Marks

    Stories like this make me sad, yet so grateful that you were there to help this girl and her mom! I’m the “book guru” among my friends/neighbors, and I routinely have moms come to me with their frustrations…I dig deep for patience and then try to open their minds a bit. I can only hope I help their kids as much as you helped this girl. (I have two boys who are readers…and I have moms look at me like I hold some secret magic. Nope, just let them read what they WANT to read. Isn’t that half the battle?!?)

  12. Theresa M. Moore

    When I was young my mother and I had an ongoing argument about what was appropriate for me to read. She hated Nancy Drew and the Hardy boys, while I loved them. She did not want me to read books by Melville or London because “those are adult books”. Nonsense. I was eight and I wanted to read, so I went to the library and read whatever I wanted to. It was the adventure and travel books that got my attention, and I managed to get through “Lawrence of Arabia” one chapter at a time without much damage. That was the spark I needed to start writing my own adventures. So when a mother tells her daughter (or son) that something is above their comprehension she needs to get an education. Children are not stupid. They want to learn, and deprecating remarks only stunt their growth as people.

    1. Amanda

      Lindsey -My mother uses that one a lot. But now I don’t mind because I’m old enough that I pay for all of my own books except for when I get them as presents. From a person who has a habit of buying way too many books, I can understand where parents are coming from. It’s one thing if a kid has read majority of their books, but when a kid has 10 new books sitting on their shelf waiting to be read it’s entirely different. However, as a kid it was frustrating my parents would say that because I tore through books so I constantly need/wanted more books.

      1. mclicious

        One thing I love about my upbringing is that my parents never spoiled me with anything but nearly always bought me books if I asked for them. But, same thing as Kerry–we weren’t anywhere near wealthy, and we live in a city with a major used bookstore chain and a number of public libraries. I’ve had my library card number memorized since I was a child and I used to beg them to let me over my 25-book limit. So yes, that’s a sad statement to make, but I think it’s not something that can be judged unless you can look into that person’s house and see if they are overflowing with bookshelves or if the parent really just can’t afford it.

    2. Rachael

      Our house is stacked, literally, with books. I could read my daughter a different book every night for several years with the number of books that we have. I am certain that this has come out of my mouth, in some form or another. My daughter knows that I don’t actually mean she has too many books. It means she has too many books that she hasn’t read yet to justify buying another right now. I have the same issue with my own books. We still often buy books and add to our “too many books,” but there are days when it just can’t happen. So when you hear it, don’t assume it’s a bookless or book hating household. It could be a situation like ours, where we all love books, our house is drenched in books, and we just can’t do another right at that moment and instead of saying all of that, we just cut to the chase.

      1. Kerry

        Agreed.

        If I tried to keep my son in books by buying them, I’d be broke in a week. Kids’ books are surprisingly expensive and he’ll read one in a day easy, sometimes in a few hours. I can’t keep up with that expense. If I could, I’d buy him every book he ever took a liking to.

        Instead, we go to the library ever week and on average he has about 20 books borrowed at any time.

        So if I say I’m not buying him a book, it’s a finance thing, not a comment on his reading.

  13. Tracy Rozzlynn

    I’m so glad you were there to redirect the mom’s thinking. My seven-year-old claimed to hate chapter books. They were boring. I’d tried a variety of them. I tried reading them to her even. But she just wasn’t interested until she read “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” I had been giving her books I would have liked as a child. It turns out she likes funny chapter books. I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a poor reader, just a disinterested one.

    1. Kitti

      I concur! My daughter didn’t like reading either, at first. She has trouble reading, but also just flat out didn’t like most of the books she was given. I keep encouraging her to try new authors in the hopes she’ll find the right ones. She loves “Wimpy Kid” too, and has discovered Andrew Clemens!

  14. mclicious

    I get so sad when I see parents blatantly insult their children right in front of them. I used to work with pre-adolescents who had gotten arrested, and one kid’s stepfather told me as he dropped him off, “I tell him all the time he’s a terrible kid, and he just won’t change. And his mother won’t let me hit him.” That’s obviously a bit different, but it has the same root. I’m so glad you didn’t let that mother win and that that girl left with a book, feeling proud of her purchase (even if I think Dessen is dull and writes the same book every time). And Misti, I totally agree! My parents used to berate me for reading so many series books instead of Newbery winners, but I turned out just fine. And with a degree in literature to boot.

    1. Laer Carroll

      YOUR opinion about Sarah Dessen’s writing is not the important one here. It is the young girl’s opinion. SHE may find SD’s writing fun, and actually want “the same book every time.”

      And if she comes to agree with you – then that is simply part of her maturing as a reader.

      1. mclicious

        Is that really the most important part of my comment? It was in parentheses for a reason, just an aside. It was not meant to be the focus of my comment, and it was not meant to be a judgment on the girl’s reading (hence the word “even,” meaning that this is my opinion and mine alone). Please don’t lecture me when you don’t know me.

  15. Nathan

    I thought that taking a long time to pick a book meant you wanted to find the right book. We often go to the bookstore and don’t buy a book, and in fact do that with many stores. (The message we give our daughter is that walking through the door to a store doesn’t mean you owe the store money or a purchase.)

    But my daughter is seven and reading Judy Moody and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and sleeps with a couple dozen books in her bed so we’re pretty sure not buying a book every time in a store hasn’t hurt her reading ability.

  16. puddlelib

    I love that you shared your knowledge and educated the mom who may have come up with the phrase of “not a strong reader” or may also have heard this from her child’s school so often that she was unaware of her using it as a label and the effect it could be having. Pointing out the daughter’s strong reader characteristics – priceless.

  17. Cathy Ogren

    It makes my heart happy to know you were there to provide guidance and patience so this young girl was able to find a “just right book.” I’m sure she’ll be back for more.

    Always encourage. Never discourage.

  18. Misti

    Perhaps just as annoying are the parents who insist that their children *are* strong readers, and as a result, won’t let the kids read what they are interested in because it is on too low a level. This bothers me particularly in the summer. I mean, I think reading should be fun all the time, but when school is out most of all.

  19. bookzilla

    Agreed: not finishing a book means it didn’t engage you throughout, not that you “aren’t a strong reader.” I practically interview kids in order to make educated and targeted recommendations, and always try to get them to consider one outside their wheelhouse.

    Parental interference is a new-ish thing, think. My parents NEVER came to the bookstore/library and hovered while I chose books. As a result, I read some things that I probably shouldn’t have (Jackie Suzanne at 12 years old!?), but I was allowed to develop my own tastes. It also allowed me to read way over my head, as no one was judging my abilities and therefore limiting them.

    1. Persepone

      For bookzilla “I read some things that I probably shouldn’t have…”

      My daughter kept her “forbidden reading” (I never forbade anything, so this was her classification, I guess) between the mattress and platform of her loft bed… Periodically I snooped it and found stuff like The Communist Manifesto and Thorsten Veblen!!! What can I say? Her kids also keep books between the mattress and box springs! Many come from my “high shelves”
      My parents kept some books on high shelves–Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was one I remember… Chaucer lived on a high shelf (of course you had to read Middle English to read it, but I’d learned Old French so Middle English was easy at a young age)… If I think they should read it, it goes on a “high shelf.”
      Parental influence? You betcha! Have a house full of books that you want your children to read! They will hunt through them and find reading material. If they want to plow through stuff like The Theory of the Leisure Class, why stop them? I’m always interested in what children will read–specialized engineering books, college level literature, books in foreign languages (yes, they have learned the languages, but it is still difficult to read books in a foreign language when you’ve had only a couple of years of middle school/high school language courses… Having the good bilingual dictionaries helps…
      Children’s reading abilities are very difficult for others to judge. And if they are interested in a topic, they will read far beyond “grade level” or perhaps “age appropriateness.” If the little kid is passionate about Alexander the Great or Galileo or the Human Genome Mapping Project, go ahead and let them read!

  20. Monica

    This. This drives me nuts at the library, parents proudly/angrily announcing to the world that their kid doesn’t read, that they aren’t a good reader, etc. I have kids looking at picture books dragged to the chapter books they aren’t ready for and kids in the chapter books dragged to the picture books they don’t want. I get parents telling kids who are great readers “let’s get you a 1st grade book” and when I explain that our readers are not leveled by grade, I get “oh” and when I turn away, “Ok, let’s get you a 2nd grade book instead.”

    I’m glad you spoke up to the mom and that your customer got what she wanted. Victory!

    1. Stephanie Scott

      “let’s get you a second grade book instead.”

      This made me laugh. You can’t make up stories from time spent in retail/customer service. People are so weird.

    2. Alana Abbott

      When I worked at my local library (and particularly loved doing readers advisory for YA readers and their parents), I frequently defended graphic novels as totally valid reading. Parents are typically quick to dismiss comics as “not books,” but the reading experience is still totally valid. And if the teens are enjoying the books, why complain? (I also checked out pretty much every new graphic novel we owned as we made the purchases, which made book talking them a *lot* easier!)

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