Monday, March 10, 2014

Appropriate for Children?

As a writer in this day and age, I think that I am sailing through a minefield on the issue of whether a book is right for children. Many people have asked me whether Theodosia and the Pirates is a children's book, and my answer is definitely not. It is not intended for a child audience, though I do have some other books that are.

In Case There's a Fox is a picture book appropriate for reading to very small children, even when they are not yet literate.

If you do not want to read it to your child, it is even available in an audio format. Of course, just because it is nice for children does not mean that an adult might not enjoy it, too.

When Sword Met Bow is another of my children's stories. It is based on my real experiences of adopting a baby chimpanzee, and it is a good book to give to a toddler when a new baby is expected in the family.

My third children's book is Ping & the Snirkelly People. It is a chapter book about a little girl from China who learns English by total immersion in a first grade classroom in the United States.

Now some reviewers of Ping & the Snirkelly People have expressed the opinion that though the language in the book might be right for an early chapter book, the ideas are too sophisticated and might be disturbing. Mind you, there is nothing sexual in the book, though the word infidelity does get parsed. The disturbing element is the clash between cultures and a protagonist, who though a child , is not religious.

The question of whether a book is right for children is rather involved, and I have written about it before  here:

In discussions about what books are appropriate for children, three issues dominate:

1) Reading Fluency
2) Reading Comprehension
3) Taboo Subject Matter

Ping & the Snirkelly People is a book that shows how reading fluency can sometimes predate reading comprehension. If Ping had been forced to show good comprehension right at the start of the year, she would not have ended in a high reading group, despite her fluency, which was better than that of most native speakers.

Hyperlexic children are often better at fluency than comprehension. Dyslexics have far better comprehension than fluency. Sometimes an older illiterate who is trying to learn how to read is embarrassed by the childish subject matter he is expected to master. This is touched on briefly in Theodosia and the Pirates. 

Today I came across a shocking blog post about what passes for third grade reading in Tennessee schools under the AR reading program:

What I find most shocking is not the subject matter but the crudeness and vulgarity of excerpts such as these:

The Accelerated Reader is a computer program put out by Renaissance Learning. Along with an assessment testing system called STAR Reading Assessment, this private company has cornered the market in defining the reading levels, books that students can read for school credit and testing for assessment of reading achievement. Since they are the ones who write the tests that determine how a student is doing, they know exactly how to prepare a student for the eventual testing. The daily tests that students are given as AR tests involve the same sort of process that students will undergo once a year to determine their level of achievement. Their assessed reading level then determines which books they are allowed to read.

According to the MommaBears blog, Renaissance Learning has four registered lobbyists in the state of Tennessee alone. They have received a forty million dollar investment from Google. Under mandatory public education and crony capitalism, they have a virtual monopoly on setting both the reading and math curricula in public schools throughout the country.

Because teachers have nothing to do with selecting the reading material or testing the children on what they have read, it is possible for third grade children to be educated in the finer points of sexual slang and crudities without anyone being any the wiser, except for the ever-watchful computers at Renaissance Learning who keep a cloud-based database on each child.

 When someone did notice and complain, Renaissance Learning replied that there was a technical difference between "reading level" and "interest level", implying that this comic book was intended for socially or sexually advanced children with a  below-grade reading level rather than for the average child reading at grade level. To forestall any further complaints, they had now set the "interest level" to sixth grade, rather than third grade. But it was still a third grade reader, because of the lack of grammatical complexity in the sentences.

Here is where it might help us to refer to the old McGuffey Readers to see how low we have sunk.

A sample page from the third grade reader reveals a rather challenging level of grammatical complexity and diction.

Both the level of interest and the reading level appear to be much higher than in the Accelerated Reader.

What is an appropriate book for a third grader? Ultimately, it depends on the individual third grader and the parents of the child. That's why the government and the corporations that lobby it should have no say in the matter.

Is Theodosia and the Pirates a book for children? No, it is not. But I cannot help but think that it is far less vulgar than what is passing for children's books in the public school system these days.


  1. Do people think Theodosia and the Pirates is a children's book because of that one review on amazon? I still think the reviewer was a bit contradictory anyway because in one breath he said it was like Dallas, and then the next minute he said it was for kids. I read a lot of children's books, and I think most at the third grade level are pretty tame. It is in the middle grades where things get more graphic, but parents who worry about a couple of sex scenes in a book seem to have no problem with their kids playing games with bucko amounts of fantasy violence, or reading the Hunger Games, which has a very dark message. So to me it is all about what a family thinks is best for their kids, and allowing them to read a few books that are not AR approved. The parents who never allow their kids to pick out a book they want to read are not doing them any favors. Some parents think their kids should only read books on the AR list, and to me this is taking things a bit too rigid.

    1. No, it was not just that one reviewer, Julia. I've been asked that by people who have not read the book, because they think the title sounds like a children's book. I have even been asked if it was a children's book by someone who read the prologue but did not proceed further. Apparently Aaron Burr as a ten year old runaway convinced them that the whole book was for children. Of course, there is a whole world of difference between a book with children in it and a book for children.

  2. I visited that vlog about the books in the Tennessee school, and whoever stocked those books in an elementary library is out of touch. Those books would be in the YA section in most California libraries I have been too, with a warning that the content was for older children. Many books such as graphic novels have a low AR reading level, but the person acquiring the books needs to have some common sense.

    1. Hi, Julia, you would have acted responsibly, but many schools order books for the AR program without reading them. They rely entirely on the grade level designation provided by Renaissance Learning.

      I think the AR program has served to debase and dumb down the national reading ability. For one thing, elementary school teachers seldom listen to children reading, and the tests do not at all address issues of reading fluency. Children do not learn to write book reports, which can express their own view of what they read, but they have to pick the "correct" interpretation of every book by answering multiple choice questions. This way they are being socialized and indoctrinated in "correct" thinking right from first grade. Also, once they are given an official reading level, they are discouraged from reading above that level, lest they fail to comprehend and do poorly on a test. But the way we learn is by stretching and going beyond our comfort zone.

      I think the graphic novel shown in the blog does not belong in a public school library. It's not because the content is sexual. It's just that the language is vulgar and crude. They can learn those terms on TV, at home, or in the school yard, but they do not need to be tested on them for a grade by a government subsidized program.

  3. Well from what I have seen every school library I have ever met goes through the books they are ordering, and even determines if they should keep certain books that might have out of date info. There are stories of libraries where outdated science books are still shelved in the library, but these are far and few between. The book Stuck in the Middle is written at a third grade level, but it is marketed on its Amazon page to seven through twelfth graders. I am not into the graphic novel phenomenon, but these do have a place in libraries. Some high school kids with reading disabilities do read these books, and take tests on these. Middle school and high school boys often have that kind of humor, and it is not unknown. The writers of this book where middle school kids once, and basically the graphic novel is a compilation of their life experiences, etc. I do not get the content of this book, but do not find it any more or less offensive than books with gratuitous violence, but we all have different ideas of what we consider vulgar and crude.

    I have never heard of an elementary school student taking a test on a book such as Stuck in the Middle, and as I said, I do think that this book is actually banned in quite a few places. There is some major over sights at this one school that allowed this book, and I almost feel the blogger who is getting upset about it did not investigate how this is more of an isolated event that a common problem.

    1. As I said, Julia, it's not the subject matter that I find crude and vulgar. It's the language. If this had been a biology textbook dealing with some of those same practices, it would have been completely different. For those students who only know slang, school is a place to learn standard English. A school book should not be accommodating to the lowest common denominator. Recreational reading is different, of course, but it should not be mandatory and read for a grade.

      I feel that many people are confused about the distinction between book banning and not buying and maintaining a book at government expense. I am a libertarian. I am totally against book banning, Book banning is when the government forbids one to publish, write, sell, promote or buy a particular book in the open in a legal transaction between a private buyer and a private seller.

      I would fight to the death to support the right of the writers and publishers of Stuck in the Middle to publish, promote and sell that book on the open market. I fully support the right of all people to buy and read that book.

      What I am opposed to is Renaissance Learning promoting this book at government expense, getting it lots of book orders not from parents, students or curious readers, but from bureaucrats in school libraries. I am opposed to telling children who are forced to read so many books a year -- whether they want to or not --- for a grade -- that they have the option of reading this book rather than the ones I put out or many other books of a much higher caliber. And I am opposed to the skewing toward morons that the educational system has brought into effect.

      If a high school student can't read above this level, then that student either does not need to be in high school or requires a vocational school choice. But this is what the government is intentionally foisting on all of us. And that's why American students are behind.

    2. I guess we have a different opinion on this one. I believe there is a place for recreational reading and reading for enjoyment at the high school level. Of course there should be vocational education programs, and it is ridiculous we do not have these. By the way, I do not agree with any entity, whether it be the government or a person who tries to keep others from reading a certain book by banning or burning. Taking away all free libraries would also be a way of banning books, and making it more difficult for people who want to read to obtain access to these. The idea of public libraries were founded in many communities centuries ago for this reason, and of all things in the public domain, it is one near and dear to my heart, like public parks.

      I think the book is ridiculous, but there are high school libraries that have banned it because of the content, and that is what I do not agree with. There are also high school libraries in conservative communities that ban Harry Potter as well, and many other books that one parent, or a group of parents rally against. As I said, I fully support public libraries and these being financed by the public. It has been this way in many California communities for over a hundred years and many other states, and public libraries are institutions near and dear to us. If you do not like public libraries in your state that is one thing, but do not expect other communities to give up their ways of being. Many city libraries receive no federal funding, and this are financed by states, counties, and often today, by wealthy people who make donations. I know you have different view points on this issue on this one. I do not think people should treat AR like

    3. Banning a book is indeed a very serious thing. But misusing the word "book banning": to apply to refusal to buy a book is to make mockery of the original horror of book banning. It's akin to confusing real rape -- a violation of person's every right -- and statutory rape, which is just a made up crime and can apply to two consenting people one or both of whom are underage. I deeply object to the misuse of language so as to rob it of all meaning. Refusing to put a book on a shelf you control is not book banning. Not letting someone print, publish or read a book at their own expense or put the book on their own shelf is a book banning.

      I understand that library shelf space is limited. I understand that not all books can go in every library. The people who own the library should decide which books should be stocked on the shelves. If the owner is the public, then the public should decide.

      Also, I don't think old books should routinely be thrown out in favor of new. Mary Dolan's "Hannibal of Carthage" was a classic. Throwing it out because it is old is senseless. There is nothing about Hannibal that has changed.

  4. I cut off what I was writing. I do not think people should treat AR tests like the final determination on whether a book should be in a library, or whether a child should read it. Parents still need to be aware of what their kids are reading, and good elementary school libraries and good teachers do look through books.

    1. Parents are responsible for what their children are reading. But if this kind of book is in the school library, the parent may not know that the child is reading it. So the only way to make sure is to take the child out of the public school.

      Whether the book is in the library and whether it is available for AR testing are two different issues. Many fine books in the library are not available for the AR program.

      The problem is with the AR program and the public school's reliance on it.