If children’s librarians have a mantra, it’s “the right book for the right child at the right time.” We dedicate ourselves to knowing books and knowing children and knowing how to bring them together. Nothing brings us more pleasure than putting just the thing into a young reader’s hands.
Many of us remember our own transformative reading experiences when reading changed from a pastime to a passion (for me at was Wilson Rawls’s heartbreaker “Where the Red Fern Grows”), and we are zealous to help new generations of readers discover just how deeply a book can change how we see the world.
Children are learning readers, developing the muscles and skills to decode and interpret text. Part of our role in their reading lives becomes supporting that emerging literacy. We help them navigate the shelves, where thousands of new books for kids and teens are added every year, and that work takes on a number of different functions: We categorize our collections, sorting picture books, beginning readers, early chapter books, children’s fiction, young adult fiction, nonfiction and various audiovisual formats into distinct groups, for easier browsing; we read widely and deeply, ever adding to our familiarity with the canon; and we talk to kids, paying attention to what they like and what they’re curious about.
Through this work, we have learned that the best predictor for whether a book will resonate with a young reader is choice. The more we involve a child in her reading choices, the more likely she is to respond to the books at hand, and the more likely she is to become an avid, voracious reader.
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Learning to read requires practice, and with that practice comes increased proficiency, fluency and enjoyment. As a culture, we stratify these proficiencies, in order to track progress. We think of reading as climbing a ladder, each rung representing a new achievement, and we encourage constant upward movement.
Unfortunately, we sometimes discourage movement in the other direction, pointing children away from books that are “too young” for them. And we discourage climbing too fast, worrying that kids will travel too high, too soon. The main problem with such discouragements is that they threaten that all-important choice, making the “difficulty” of the book its most important attribute.
Instead of a ladder, I see reading as a pasture, penned by a fence that delimits our reading capacity. As we become stronger readers, that fence expands, encompassing more and more territory, all of it available to us. On any given day we can push at the boundaries, stretching our abilities, and return to the center, finding comfort in the familiar. The more there is to choose from, the happier readers we are. It’s all good.
Of course, as a librarian, I will help you find what you need. If you need a book at a specific Lexile range, a book with a particular Fountas & Pinnell level, I’ll help you find something great. But let’s not stop there. The beauty of the public library is that you can take home as much as you can carry.
Take your leveled book. Take a couple. Take a favorite picture book from years ago. Take the book your friends are talking about. Take something to read to your little brother. Take something different from what you usually choose, just to see what it’s like. Take all you can carry, and when you bring it back, we’ll give you some more. Figure out what you love to read, and share the joy.
Thom Barthelmess is the youth services manager at Whatcom County Library System.