Should Edward, aged 7, be reading ‘The Hobbit’ by JRR Tolkein? Should young kids read books written for older kids/adults? Even if younger kids enjoy reading books originally written for an older audience, are these wonderful books spoiled for them in later years because they’ve been read ‘too early’?
A friend of Edward’s, a girl who’s a couple of years older than him, recently read and adored Tolkein’s ‘The Hobbit’. I can’t remember how she came to this book but she suddenly had a strong desire to read it and her mother chased around Bahrain to find a copy (boy, would I do that too if my son expressed a strong desire to read a particular book!). Just before we went on holiday, Edward heard from her that ‘The Hobbit’ is a great story. He heard from me that a movie of it was being released soon. He really wanted to watch the movie. His immediate default position was to want to watch the movie rather than wanting to read the book. Well, he is a 7 year old boy after all I guess! The deal is that he can watch the movie after he’s read the book. This was also the deal with the Harry Potter series, but he was a bit younger and so I read the books to him, then he watched the movie. I’m dying for him to go back to them though, to want to read these books alone. I think he’ll love them even more.
Whilst we were on holiday, Edward watched a trailer of ‘The Hobbit’ on ‘You Tube’ and his interest in it exploded. He bugged me and bugged me to get the book for him. I didn’t think a copy in Dutch was what he was after so he had to wait until we got home! Whilst he waited impatiently, I waited anxiously lest he lose interest before I got a chance to get a copy into his hands. But as thrilled as I was that he was keen to read a ‘more challenging’ book, a classic book, like ‘The Hobbit’ (regardless of his slightly impure literary motives!) and a book with even more challenging, even more classic sequels, the ‘Lord of the Rings’ Trilogy – I worried that he wasn’t ready for Tolkein. But if his slightly older friend had enjoyed it, even though she’s a girl and therefore stereotypically more mature, he might A) also have the reading ability to do so alone and B) enjoy reading it. BUT even if I was right about A and B, SHOULD Edward be reading ‘The Hobbit’, let alone any of the ‘Rings’ books? Does it spoil an older child/adult’s enjoyment of really good books (and I include ‘Harry Potter’ here) and classics, if they read them (or have them read to them) when they’re very young? Why might this be the case?
A 7 year old boy is obviously not going to ‘get’ ‘The Hobbit’ in many, many ways because he just hasn’t had enough experience of life. But Edward’s really enjoying it. The absolute best measure of this is when he suddenly sits down to read it, entirely unprompted. These days, I never make my son read anything but I do prompt him to do so, for example by saying ‘Would you like to read your book now?’ or ‘When you wake up before everyone else, could you read for a bit?’ and strewing all sorts of books around. If he doesn’t take the bait, I don’t push it. But even though I’m delighted that Edward’s really enjoying ‘The Hobbit’, choosing to read it without any encouragement, I worry that I’m going to spoil really great books like these for him in the future.
Am I too focused on wanting Edward to read more and more challenging books, as long as he enjoys them, at the expense of these books being fully appreciated/learned from in the future? I believe really good books and so-called ‘classic’ books are one of life’s greatest pleasures and provide some of life’s most valuable lessons. I don’t want to spoil that for him. Equally though, if he wants to read these kinds of books won’t they improve his vocabulary, his spelling, his ability to craft his own stories, immeasurably? As an unschooler, I love the idea of this happening without worksheets or Susan Wise Bauer writing programmes! I love the idea that reading and enjoying great literature results, over time, in great literacy! It seems almost too easy to be true! But I hear that’s the case over and over again; voracious reading often results in voracious writing or at least competent writing. The more literary the reading, the more literary the writing.
I’ve talked to a few friends about my anxiety and none of them share my fears, or ‘over-analysis’ as one friend put it, i.e. worrywarting! They all say that they have read a particular book at different stages of their lives and enjoyed it each time, for different reasons, getting more and more from it as they got older. None of them thought that knowing the story from when they were younger spoilt their enjoyment of the book when they were older. None of them thought that only understanding half the book or understanding it superficially spoiled their enjoyment of the book when they re-read it years later. Perhaps this is because some missed certain crucial aspects of the story when they were younger, because they were too young to understand its more subtle nuances, and so when they re-read the book the story was actually quite a bit different from the one they remembered and so the book felt almost new to them. But everyone said, knowing the story correctly or incorrectly or only partially understanding the book, didn’t impact their enjoyment of the book whatever age they came to it again.
The book that introduced me to this dilemma was ‘Charlotte’s Web’ by E. B. White. By the way, can you believe they made a video game of it? My God, is nothing sacred to those gamers 😉 I think most people would agree this is a book written for children but I think probably older than age 7 (boys especially should probably come to this book when they’re a bit older, when they have perhaps developed a greater appreciation or at least understanding of e.g. altruism/self-sacrifice).
I had a free copy of the author reading his book, unabridged, on CD. We listened to it on long car rides in the Netherlands. My kids, especially my son, really enjoyed it. As soon as we got in the car he’d say, “Mum, can we listen to Wilbur’s story?” But at the end, when so many people I know sobbed and sobbed, he seemed totally unaffected. He didn’t talk about the story and I didn’t want to try and push a deeper understanding of it by trying to explain things further. Instead, I decided that I would introduce the book to him when he’s older and see if he’ll be more affected by it then. BUT won’t the impact of this wonderful story be lessened because he now knows the ending? He won’t be reading it, in the dark as Wilbur was, about Charlotte’s fate. Wouldn’t it have been better to have never let him hear/read ‘Charlotte’s Web’ until I thought he might be ready to cry at the ending – or at least be deeply affected by it?
When I’ve talked to friends they seem nonplussed about my worries. They don’t seem to think knowing the ending will affect his enjoyment of the book in the future. So why am I still racked with anxiety that I’ve spoiled not only this book for him but future others like ‘The Hobbit’, by introducing them to him too early? I’m especially surprised by my anxiety because I can’t remember having any book spoiled by reading it too early. I remember my father reading ‘The Wind in the Willows’ to me as a child at around this age and not enjoying it because I hardly understood what was going on, but when I recently tried this on CD for the kids, it again left me cold, so I don’t think that was so much a matter of being introduced to it too young but the wrong choice of book at any age!
One reason I think Edward wouldn’t enjoy ‘The Hobbit’ as much now as he would when he’s older is because he’s not yet ready to read a book almost in one sitting, which I think increases its enjoyment exponentially. There are few things I enjoy more, few things I find more relaxing, than thoroughly immersing myself in another world, especially a totally different, fantasy world, and this is best achieved by reading a story almost in one sitting (l like watching TV series on DVD like this too. I finished Series 2 of ‘Downton Abbey’ in 2 nights. I’m tired now from the late nights but it was delicious!). Yes of course, when Edward’s older, he could do this with ‘The Hobbit’, but since he’ll know the story will it be as compelling as if he’d come to it as a Hobbit virgin?! Worse, if he ends up enjoying but not loving the book will he bother to pick it up again, even though he might absolutely adore it when he’s older? The only comfort I have is that since I never MAKE him read, he’ll only ever read a book that he’s enjoying really quite a lot, so hopefully he WILL pick it up again, and hopefully again and again, when he’s older..and older still – having that wonderful pleasure of being totally immersed in it, reading it almost continuously over a day or two, putting the rest of life on hold, stopping only for the necessities.
A few months ago, when I’d just started homeschooling and was EVEN more insecure than I am now, I felt compelled to follow the lead of many homeschoolers I was reading about and introduce my son to children’s classics like ‘Treasure Island’. Having read a few pages of ‘Treasure Island’ in the library, I didn’t expect him to read, or even have read to him, a book like this in its original form, so I borrowed an abridged version (and abridged versions of a couple of other ‘harder’ classics, ‘harder’ in part being defined by whether the first few pages of the original made my eyes gloss over!) When I told a friend I was doing this she was absolutely horrified! She felt I was spoiling the classics for him. She said he should come to the originals when he was ready, because classics aren’t just about stories, no books are, but about the language they’re written in, the way the story is crafted. Shamefaced, I totally agreed with her and will never have abridged books in my house again!
BUT when IS the right time to introduce the classics in their original form, or more challenging ‘really good books’? Is one prerequisite for a child to be ready to read them for himself? I read ‘Harry Potter’ to Edward. He absolutely adored it (but I stopped at ‘The Order of Phoenix’ – the story was getting very complicated and more age in-appropriate I felt, as the books’ characters became older themselves). Should he only have entered the magical world of Hogwarts once he was old enough to read the books for himself? Have I spoiled ‘Harry Potter’ by introducing it too early, far too early if he couldn’t even yet read it himself? Edward was keen to read ‘The Hobbit’ of his own volition, and unlike ‘Harry Potter’, can now read it alone BUT should I have said he had to wait a few years until he was ready to read it ‘properly’ to avoid ‘spoiling’ it for him later? How is ‘properly’ defined or ‘spoiling’?
I hadn’t got the answer from friends. I was still feeling uneasy about my decision to let Edward at both ‘Charlotte’s Web’ and ‘The Hobbit’ (let alone ‘Harry Potter’), so I turned to the internet for answers. I read a couple of interesting posts here and here but I STILL don’t feel I have a satisfactory answer: I am not persuaded that knowing the story already, meeting the characters when you’re very young, doesn’t spoil a book when you come to it later. Yes, I realize a book is about more than its plot. But shouldn’t these wonderful books be put into one’s hands when we’re ready for them? How do we know when our kids are ‘ready for them’? This is the hard question.
Certainly, a vitally important aspect of being ready for a particular book is when we’re able to enjoy it. Young readers must not be put off reading by being, in the slightest bit, forced to read. Gently nudged to, encouraged to, yes. But they must not be forced to read one particular book even if their friends enjoyed it or however worthy it is. In fact, they must not be forced to read anything. Forcing kids to read is a recipe for disaster I think. When we’re older, we can easily force ourselves to read both for knowledge and, interestingly, for pleasure. As you get older you learn that sometimes you need to persevere with a book because ultimately it will be a great read. I wonder if my son’s having the opportunity to read a bit beyond his years, whilst enjoying it, will help with this. For instance, ‘The Hobbit’ and the two Narnia books he read must be somewhat challenging. I’m sure he persevered with them because he wanted to watch the movies but then he found he enjoyed reading them. This seems a useful life-lesson, to read books that stretch him initially but ultimately lead to satisfaction.
For the time being my policy will be that as long as Edward is happily reading something, anything, that is great. I don’t make my son read anything anymore. Forcing him to read killed any enjoyment of reading for him. I forced him to read from anxiety-that-my-son -had-to-keep-up-with-other kids-at-school sickness (the school were sick with this too, the teachers infected me I think!) Homeschooling cured me of that nonsense! Over the last six months, since we started homeschooling, my son has recovered at least an enjoyment of reading if not, as much as I am desperate for it, a love, a passion like mine, of reading. But it’s only been six months of ‘free reading’, so it’s not bad going, and of course he’s not me and may never have a passion for reading and the time may come when I have to accept that. But I won’t assume it’s not possible (because we’re told boys are rarely avid readers, especially of great literature). Edward adores stories and all the experts say, if kids love stories, with the right approach, which I think I have now, including not forcing reading, all kids will come to love reading. Fingers crossed!
For now, unless I am persuaded otherwise, I will allow Edward to read, within reason, whatever he’s interested in reading and hope that for some reason, that I don’t understand, knowing the story in advance, reading a book on a superficial level, doesn’t spoil a book when you come to it later in life. Having said that, I will no more allow him to read some books, as watch some movies, if I don’t think they’re suitable (the definition of suitability varies widely between families but I’m pretty clear on what this means for us). The book that’s discussed quite widely in this context on the internet is ‘The Hunger Games’, given not only its explosive popularity as a book but also its recent release as a movie. A quick google search threw up this for instance. I will be avoiding it, given my aversion to violence.
What do you think? Am I right or wrong to let Edward read, providing it’s suitable, anything? What’s your policy on introducing the more challenging ‘good books’ or classics to young kids? If it’s been successful, how do you go about it? Do you find reading more challenging books TO your kids helps with their literacy as much as if they read them alone? Comments PLEASE and make them as long as you like! I am in a real quandary about this! I HATE feeling like I’m a bad mother, a poor homeschooler, however well intentioned, especially when it comes to a personal passion of mine; reading and writing!!
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