Opinions on the National Book Award Nominees

Back in September, when the National Book Foundation released the longlists for the 2016 National Book Awards, I tasked myself with the lofty goal of reading all ten nominees for the Young People’s Literature award before the shortlist was announced. At this, I failed dismally. It didn’t help that The Sun is Also a Star wasn’t even released until November 1. I really need to work on setting more realistic goals. Even now, just a few hours before the winner is to be announced, I have only read eight of the ten. (Plus the first few chapters of a ninth) But this will not stop me from inflicting my opinions on you.

 

Booked by Kwame Alexander, 2016

I read this and blogged about it long before I was thinking about the National Book Award. You can see my original blog post here. Admittedly, I have not revisited the book to compare it to the other nominees, but I’m sticking with my original opinion that it’s good, but not quite award material. The judges evidently agree with me, because this book did not make the shortlist and is therefore no longer in the running for the award.

 

Raymie NightingaleRaymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo, 2016

This is another one that I had already read, and I blogged about it here. It’s a good book. It has memorable characters, an interesting plot, an appealing writing style, and enough nuances to stand up to quite a bit of analysis and discussion. Although I’ve come across a few 2016 books that I think are more significant contributions to young people’s literature by an infinitesimal margin, this is my top pick for the National Book Award.

 

march-book-threeMarch: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, 2016

This graphic novel completes a nonfiction trilogy about the Civil Rights Movement as experienced by the author, an activist who played a major role in several different events of the movement. I love the fact that someone who is so historically significant (and still working for the people of our country as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives) decided to tell his story in the form of graphic novels. Over the past generation or so, graphic novels have branched out into a variety of genres and topics and have proved that they aren’t necessarily inferior to “normal” books, but the March books still deserve attention as an especially informative graphic novel series. Not only do they manage to include quite a lot of facts and dates and numbers, but they do an excellent job of conveying the emotions and personalities of the people they portray. My main reasons for cheering for Raymie Nightingale over March are that 1) this book does strike me as being a little dry when compared to middle-grade novels, and 2) I feel that it’s much more meaningful as part of the series than as a standalone book, and the award is just for the individual book. This would be my second choice.

 

when-the-sea-turned-to-silverWhen the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin, 2016

I can’t quite explain why this book just didn’t do a good job of keeping my interest. The basic plot was interesting, there was nothing lacking in the characterization, and there was a twist near the ending that brought together several elements from earlier in the book, which is something that I always like in a novel. I asked myself whether maybe the aspect that I didn’t quite like was the fragmentation. (The book includes many folk stories interspersed throughout the text, which do break up the flow of the story just a little, even though it’s the main characters who are telling the shorter stories.) But I’ve liked fragmentation in other books. The best explanation I can give is that the writing style and the plot didn’t quite seem to work well together. According to my reading preferences, a historical-fantasy-adventure like this would be more interesting if it were told in a more dramatic fashion, but this tale is told in a calm, even-paced manner. That was probably done intentionally to reflect the folklore tradition from which many of the motifs and subplots come. So I can accept that my ambivalence towards this book is a matter of personal opinion, and that it may very well be an excellent, award-worthy book from a more objective or collective viewpoint. It is one of the five finalists, so it could be the winner of the National Book Award.

 

When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore, 2016

This is the one that I’m reading now, and I’m not far along enough to give an accurate plot description or to have formed an opinion about it. It’s clear from the very beginning that it’s magical realism; that is, it’s set in the real world, but it has elements of fantasy that are presented as if they’re believable, even normal. The main characters are Sam and Miel, also known as Moon and Honey. They have been best friends since childhood, when Miel mysteriously appeared in the water that spilled out of an old water tower. Miel is an unusual girl who has roses growing from her wrists and who has a phobia of pumpkins, but she’s not quite as odd as the four Bonner girls, believed to be witches. The plot summary on the book jacket suggests that the main conflict in the book is that the Bonner sisters want Miel’s roses. I’m enjoying this book so far, but it didn’t make the shortlist for the National Book Award.

 

Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina, 2016

This was one of the first YA books of 2016 to attract my attention as A Book that I Have to Read. Somehow, though, I didn’t get around to reading it until this fall when it showed up on the National Book Award longlist. It didn’t make its way onto the shortlist, which means it’s no longer in the running, but I’m glad I read it and I’m expecting it to be a contender for the Printz when the ALA awards come around in January. It’s set in the spring and summer of 1977 in New York, a time and place characterized by arson, serial killings, and a blackout that led to massive looting. These events are described from the perspective of Nora Lopez, an almost-eighteen-year-old girl who has her own problems at home, mostly centering around her younger brother Hector. Meanwhile, Nora is finishing up high school, falling in love with the cute new guy at work, and trying to maintain her relationship with her long-time best friend Kathleen. The best trait of this book is the thorough and vivid description of the setting. It would be cliché to say that I could really see the peeling paint in Nora’s shabby apartment or feel the stifling heat that tormented New York that summer, but I can’t think of any better way to explain how this book draws the reader in. The serial killer element adds an element of suspense and mystery. Not gonna lie, after finishing this book, I stayed up quite late researching that true historical story online.

 

Pax by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen, 2016

You can read my initial review here. This is definitely a good book, but to be honest, I don’t feel that it deserves quite the degree of accolades that it has received, and I’m not disappointed that it didn’t make the National Book Award shortlist. In fact, I probably will be disappointed if it does win a major award such as the Newbery, not because I actually dislike it, but just because there are a number of contenders that I think are more interesting, more memorable, and more significant as contributions to children’s literature. Besides, Pax has a very unsatisfying ending. But I suppose that it’s a matter of opinion whether an unsatisfying ending is actually a negative trait in a book.

 

ghostGhost by Jason Reynolds, 2016

This book, intended as the first in a series, describes the experiences of a middle-school boy who has been recruited to join an elite track team. Even before receiving any training, he is an incredibly fast sprinter, which he attributes to his early childhood experience of running away from his violent father. Since then, Castle (known by the nickname Ghost) has been dealing with all of his problems by running away from them, at least figuratively. His new coach is determined not only to teach Ghost how to be the best sprinter he can be, but to teach him some life lessons. While this book does have the positive messages, complex characters, and down-to-earth tone that we’ve come to expect from author Jason Reynolds, it didn’t quite strike me as a unique or exceptional book. As much as I liked it, this would not be one of my top National Book Award picks. I’m undecided as to whether I’d rank it third or fourth of the four finalists that I have read.

 

Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Carol Stelson, 2016

The National Book Award nominees sometimes do include books that hadn’t gotten a lot of attention prior to their appearance on that longlist, and Sachiko is an example of this. I still haven’t been aware of it getting much notice from anyone besides the National Book Foundation. As the title implies, it’s the biography of a woman who experienced the atomic bomb that the U.S. military dropped on Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Although Sachiko (six years old when the bomb fell) and most of her family survived the initial blast, nearly everyone in her family eventually succumbed to radiation sickness or cancer caused by the radiation. Sachiko herself developed thyroid cancer as a young adult, but she survived thanks to a throat operation that led to a slow, frustrating recovery. In addition to describing Sachiko’s own experiences, the book includes contextual historical information about World War II, the atomic bomb, the aftermath of the war in Japan, and the backstories of Gandhi and Hellen Keller, figures that had a profound influence on Sachiko. The book is interesting, informative, and well-researched, so I would recommend it to readers who have an interest in any of the topics it touches, but I wouldn’t have really expected it to win a major award, so I am neither surprised nor disappointed that it wasn’t one of the five finalists.

 

the-sun-is-also-a-starThe Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, 2016

Rounding out the Young People’s Literature longlist, we have the one that I haven’t even started yet, and since it also made the shortlist, I’m disappointed in myself for not getting to it yet. In my defense, I’ve had it on hold for a while and it just came in for me yesterday evening as I had already clocked out and was on my way out of the library. Obviously, I don’t have much of anything to say about it, although I know it’s a YA romance. I look forward to reading it and finding out what makes it special among other YA romance novels published this year.

A Brief History of Learning to Read

reading child.pngLibrarians and educators use the term “early literacy” to refer to the skills that children need to pick up before they are capable of learning to read, and the practices that build those skills. Although different sources list slightly different lists of skills or practices in terms of early literacy, the Every Child Ready to Read initiative is generally treated as the definitive word. The first edition of ECRR came out in 2004, offering a list of six skills: print motivation, print awareness, letter knowledge, vocabulary, narrative skills, and phonological awareness. The second edition, launched in 2011, simplified and summarized its approach by listing five practices that promote early literacy: talking, singing, reading, writing, and playing. The six skills and five practices dovetail nicely, and most public library’s children’s departments make a point of informing parents and caregivers on how to effectively use these practices with children and help build these skills. Of course, ECRR is based on extensive research and is backed by the Public Library Association and Association for Library Service to Children. I intend to write more about early literacy in the future, ­­and in the meantime, if you’re interested in more information, go to www.everychildreadytoread.org or talk to the children’s librarians at your local public library.

This blog post is about something different: history. Because, after all, children were learning how to read long before 2004. Early literacy has existed for as long as literacy has existed, and yet the term wasn’t widely used until relatively recently. Just for fun, I thought I’d explore the various ways in which children have learned to read over the ages.

hieroglyphicsIn the ancient world, many cultures had some form of writing, such as Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics, or various syllabary writing systems. Not everyone had formal education, and only a select few people learned how to read and write. For those who did, it took a number of years. We don’t have a lot of specific information about how literacy was taught in different cultures, how long it took to train to become a scribe, and exactly what proportion of the population was literate. We do know that at least the Sumerians primarily learned to read and write by copying lists of words from one side of their tablet to the other. Certainly, in every culture, memorization was key.

The invention of the alphabet was a major historical turning point. Scholars debate what the first alphabet was, not only because it’s historically uncertain, but because it depends upon how exactly one defines an alphabet. Egyptians began the system of phonetic spelling through their use of symbols for consonants. Slightly later, the Ugarit writing system, used in modern day Syria, took a step closer to a phonetic alphabet. It was derived from the Akkadian cuneiform, which in turn came from the Sumerian writing. The Ugarit writing system was a large influence on the Phoenician alphabet, which in turn influenced the Greek alphabet, which some linguists herald as the first completely phonetic alphabet. Meanwhile, the Hebrews developed an alphabet for consonants only, and they are worth mentioning as a culture that had a particularly high literacy rate.

One advantage to an alphabet system is that it takes far less time to learn than cuneiform, hieroglyphics, or syllabaries. In fact, it relies on entirely different cognitive processes. Prior to phonetic alphabets, reading had to be learned by associating the written word with its meaning, but the phonetic alphabet allows readers to start with individual sounds, form those sounds into syllables and those syllables into words, and suddenly have a the capability of sounding out any word, even if it is unfamiliar. Of course, that’s an oversimplification, and learning to read is still challenging. But young students are now capable of reading whole sentences by the time they’ve had a couple years of formal education. People can become proficient readers earlier in life and can read and write with greater efficiency. Historically, this has had a substantial impact on societies’ rate of innovation, progress, and academic achievement.

However, it resulted in a loss or oral tradition. We now remember the Greeks more for their advances in literacy than for their excellent memory for oral tradition, but many of them would have valued the latter far more. In fact, Socrates opposed the spread of literacy for reasons that are very interesting, but probably best saved for a separate blog post.

In Greek and Roman culture, formal education was usually only available to boys from rich families. These boys usually attended school from about the ages of seven to thirteen. (In Rome, the wealthiest families hired private tutors, at least for students under the age of about nine.) In Sparta, education focused on physical training, and much of the population was illiterate. However, both in Athenian culture and in Roman culture, reading and writing were taught together, starting with letters, then syllables, then words, and finally sentences. Once students were reading longer works, they were expected to memorize and recite literature. In Rome, young scholars were expected to be literate by the time they were about nine, at which time their education focused on literature and rhetoric. They were expected to know both Greek and Latin.

The Roman empire had a relatively high literacy rate, although much ground was lost in that regard in the early middle ages. Once again, education was available only to the most wealthy, although some places had grammar school for even the middle class. Unlike in Rome, where teachers were often slaves, in the middle ages, the clergy was largely responsible for education. After 1179, the church provided free education that covered at least the most basic academic skills. Generally, children would start school at the age of seven. The schoolday lasted from sunup to sundown. Because of the scarcity of parchment, students practiced writing on wax tablets, as in earlier Roman schools.

hornbookBy the end of the fifteenth century, the hornbook was widespread as a tool for teaching children to read and write. A hornbook was a wooden board with a sheet of paper attached to it, covered with a layer of animal horn, thus giving the hornbook its name. The paper had the alphabet and the Lord’s Prayer. Once a student mastered the alphabet, they would move on to a speller, a book that had syllables for the student to read. For example, a young reader would learn ab, eb, and ib before learning to read whole words that contain those syllables. This was in keeping with the Greek and Roman system for learning to read.

literacy chartIn the sixteenth century, formal education became much more common. Not surprisingly, literacy rates rose sharply by the middle of the century, and they have been rising ever since, as demonstrated in this lovely chart by Max Roser. (Go to the website http://ourworldindata.org/data/education-knowledge/literacy/ for the full article and plenty of other relevant and interesting graphics) There were a few other changes to the pedagogy of reading in the sixteenth century. The biggest was that people started to read and write in their native language rather than Latin. Another innovation, at least for the English language, that occurred at the very end of the sixteenth century, was standardized spelling.

Although it certainly was positive to teach people to read in their own language and to standardize spelling, it led indirectly to what we now know as sight words, because it made it possible for the young reader to guess words without the painstaking process of sounding it out. In 1826, the first sight-word primers were published, and within a few years, it was the norm. Although all fluent readers can recognize a word without taking the time to sound it out, it is debatable whether this practice is helpful to the beginning reader.

Many educators and researchers, as early as Joseph Rice in the 1880s, found that students weren’t performing as well as they had under a phonics-based approach. It was around 1900 when spelling began to be taught as a separate subject from reading, largely because of this deterioration in phonetic awareness. A book called “Why Johnny Can’t Read” by Rudolf Flesch, published in 1955, argued for the return of a phonics-based system of teaching children to read. This debate still has not been entirely settled. Although research overwhelmingly shows the benefit of learning to read by phonics, schools still rely on sight words and whole-language approaches.

According to this 2009 article, libraries’ roles in early literacy didn’t really begin until the 1940s, when libraries began offering storytimes to support reading readiness. In 1954, the Newark Public Library in New Jersey put out a list of skills and activities learned in storytimes, including “Enjoying looking at picture books”, “Listening to stories”, “Counting”, “Distinguishing between colors”, and “Practicing the concept of rhythm”, among a number of others. This list is comparable, although not identical, to early literacy skills as promoted by modern public libraries.

Research on literacy and early literacy has moved forward remarkably quickly over the last generation, but most of the activities recommended now have been in practice for a while. For example, songs and rhymes have always been popular with young children and have been used by parents, but we now know that this builds phonological awareness. It is now widely established that even infants can enjoy books and that the number one thing that a parent can do to encourage a love for reading is to expose children to books at a young age, which many parents have done for as long as books have been readily available.

Choosing Books at the Right Reading Level

As a children’s librarian, I frequently work with parents who want advice on books that are the correct reading level for their kids. For the record, librarians like giving book recommendations, so if you are one of those parents, by all means continue asking those questions! But keep in mind that, for a personalized reading suggestion, we need a little more information than just your child’s age or grade level. Different children progress at different paces. And the child’s interests really do make a difference; most kids will have an easier time reading a book that they find interesting than one that they find boring.

As a librarian, the best way for me to make a good, individualized book recommendation is to ask the child (or the adult who is book-searching on the child’s behalf) questions about what books he or she has read recently and what he or she thought of them. At some point in the interaction, if the child seems interested in reading, I’m probably just going to hand a book to the child and ask if it looks good. But if the child isn’t there in person, that isn’t an option, and if the child isn’t a very enthusiastic reader, it’s up to me to find something that catches his or her interest, which often requires that it has to be at just the right reading level. It can’t be too overwhelming or too babyish, or else the reluctant reader will instinctively dislike it.

I know that a lot of parents and teachers are very concerned about finding books at the exact right level, so I’m offering a few tips for grownups on how to evaluate the reading level of a children’s book. Most of this information comes from personal experience, but I am also referring to the book From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Book by Kathleen T. Horning. This book is considered a definitive resource and was used in several of my graduate classes, but it’s not too technical for non-professionals, so I would recommend it to parents who are looking for such a resource. (My copy is the second edition, which is from 2010. I assume that the 1997 edition is just as good, but out-of-date in terms of the specific books it mentions.)

Choosing Books for Babies

There are benefits to reading aloud to even newborn babies, and it’s generally true that any books are better than no books, but it still is a good idea to keep in mind that babies get more out of baby books than “big kid” books. Because of the limitations of a baby’s eyesight, books with large, simple, brightly colored pictures are usually more appealing than realistic or highly nuanced art. Babies generally can’t comprehend plot, so concept books (i.e. books about colors, shapes, animals, or household objects) are more logical choices. Adults might not be particularly fascinated by a books where the text is a list of words rather than a story, but those types of books are age-appropriate for very young children and can help them build vocabulary and other verbal skills. Even at that age, rhymes and alliteration are great for building early literacy skills.

Board books are often the best choice for babies because, let’s face it, baby books are going to end up in baby mouths. It’s a great idea to let a young child handle his or her own books, but that doesn’t mean that a standard picture book is off-limits for babies. Plenty of picture books, like those by Byron Barton, are also great choices for babies.

Choosing Books for Toddlers

By the time a child is walking and running around, the length of the book becomes a major factor. If you are the parent or caregiver of the child in question, you know better than anyone else how long that child is able to sit and listen. For toddler storytimes, I typically use picture books (generally 32 pages long) that have about one sentence or phrase per page, but at home, you may be able to read longer books to your own toddler.

Bright, simple pictures are still preferable, and plots should be pretty simple. For example, Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown or Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin are both good choices, and Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar is fine in terms of plot, although it’s a bit long. But most fairy tales are a bit too complex for most children younger than about three. A lot of toddlers already have certain topics they’re interested in, such as a favorite animal, a favorite color, a favorite food, trains, trucks, princesses, fairies, etc. It’s a smart idea for caregivers to cater to those interests when selecting books. Also, by the time a child is talking, it’s recommended to let them pick out their own reading materials, at least on occasion.

Choosing Books for Preschoolers

Just like every other age range, preschoolers exhibit a wide range of attention spans. As with toddlers, the parent or primary caregiver knows best, but in general, two or three sentences per page is a good average for that age range. The context also matters; bedtime stories for one or two children can often be longer than a book for a classroom or library storytime. Some preschool-aged children have a long attention span for books and can listen to books with multiple paragraphs per page, but it’s fine if your preschooler isn’t ready for that.

It’s fine and even beneficial to read books to a preschooler that contain unfamiliar words or somewhat complex sentence structure. Plots can also be more complicated than in books for toddlers. Rhyming and alliteration is still great; many of Dr. Seuss’s books are perfect for preschoolers. Most (although not all) picture books are age-appropriate. Again, it’s very good for kids at this age to pick their own books and/or their favorite subjects. Many preschoolers will have a favorite book that they want to read all the time, or a favorite character, and it’s fine for parents to cater to that interest.

Choosing Books for Beginning Readers

Some children start recognizing letters and sounding out words when they’re preschoolers; others are in kindergarten before they start reading on their own, and some kids are in first or second grade before they’re reading very fluently. For that range from advanced preschoolers to less advanced second graders, picture books are still a valid option, but levelled readers are ideal. Readers are generally smaller than picture books, often six and a half inches by nine inches, and have large text and controlled vocabulary suited for someone who is just learning how to read.

Unfortunately for parents, each publisher has their own system for delineating levels. I tend to think of these books as coming in three distinct levels. The easiest ones generally have sentences of no more than five monosyllabic words, with one sentence per page, very large text, and lots of blank space. A good example is the Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems. The next level up has slightly smaller text and slightly longer sentences with some multi-syllable words, but still has no more than a few words per line. There can be multiple lines of text per page, but generally no more than four or five. Because of the controlled vocabulary and simple sentence structure, the language will sound stilted and repetitive. That’s the biggest difference between the second and third level. The most advanced of this category of books, such as Cynthia Rylant’s many titles, will have smaller pictures, several lines of text on most pages, more natural-sounding language, and perhaps even some unfamiliar vocabulary. However, there will still be pictures on every page, and the text size will be larger than an adult would consider normal. Text size is key; most children instinctively evaluate the reading level of a book by text size and will make judgements about whether a book is too “babyish”, too hard, or just right, largely based on that factor.

Choosing Books for Young Independent Readers

For many readers, the transition into chapter books is fairly gradual. Some kids are ready for chapter books as early as first grade; others aren’t comfortable at that level until about third grade. From Cover to Cover uses the term transitional books to refer to the easy chapter books that make a good intermediate step. At many libraries, some books of this type, such as the Nate the Great series, are shelved with the readers, while others, especially if they’re paperbacks, are with the chapter books. These books are still characterized by large text size, short sentences without long words, and pictures, but they often also have chapters. The text will be divided into paragraphs, but there will be large margins. Typically, there will be about fifteen lines per page, and sentences will be arranged into paragraphs.

Many books at this level come in long series. One of my favorite series to recommend to this age level is Mary Pope Osbourne’s Magic Tree House series. Other good choices include Ron Roy’s two mystery series, some of Jon Scieszka’s shorter chapter books, the American Girls books, and the extremely popular Rainbow Magic Fairy series by Daisy Meadows. Even at this age, picture books are fine. Reading longer books aloud, one chapter at a time, is a good idea, too.

Choosing Books for Older Independent Readers

By the time a child is in third or fourth grade, he or she will probably be comfortable reading a book with smaller text, less white space, and no pictures. Sentence structure will be still a bit more complex and varied, and vocabulary a bit more advanced, than in early chapter books, and the books will be longer. By this reading level, they will vary greatly in length; anything between about 120 and about 300 pages is in what I’d consider the normal range. As at other ages, third-through-fifth graders show a wide range of reading level and interest. If you’re an adult picking books for kids at that age, the number of pages and the size of the font are your quickest clue as to the reading level. (Even at that age, small text is intimidating to reluctant readers) If you have time to read the book for yourself in order to evaluate the level, watch for potentially unfamiliar vocabulary words and complexity of sentence structure, but also keep an eye out for metaphors, social commentary, and other intellectual factors that might mean the book is geared for advanced readers.

Choosing Books for Tweens and Teens

Frankly, my suggestion is that anyone older than about ten or eleven should always be allowed to choose their own reading materials, unless it’s an educational reading assignment or the book is being given to them as a gift. But if you are in a situation where you’re choosing a book for a preteen or teen, the topic and the likability of the protagonist are probably more important factors than the reading level. There are still plenty of tweens and teens who don’t like long books or books with small text, so that may or may not be a factor to keep in mind, but avid readers usually have no problem with big books by the time they’re in sixth or seventh grade. Intelligent high schoolers can generally read anything adults can read; in fact, books written for adult audiences are often no more advanced than YA books. That doesn’t mean that a teen will like just anything, but reading preference is not the same thing as reading level, and that’s a topic for a different time.

The Trouble with Lexiles

I have mixed feelings about Lexile scores and other ways of quantifying reading levels. I understand the benefits of putting leveling systems in place, and I can understand why parents and teachers find such information extremely useful, especially when working with a child who is a reluctant reader. But as a children’s librarian, I avoid using these kinds of tools, and I find it a bit concerning when I deal with people who rely too heavily on them. Before I explain why, let me take a minute to acknowledge the value of such leveling systems.

Reading abilities are highly individual. When a book is said to be, for example, recommended for grades three through five, that doesn’t mean that no first or second grader would be capable of reading or enjoying it, or that a middle schooler would find it babyish or too easy. Quantifying reading levels apart from grade is a great way to individualize recommended books. It makes life easier for the young reader, who can access books at his or her level without getting frustrated or overwhelmed trying to read books that are too hard, or getting annoyed or bored with books that are too easy. It’s a good way for parents and teachers to make sure that their young readers are being challenged enough to grow in their reading ability without struggling through tough books that they aren’t ready for yet. And everyone who works with kids knows that helping kids to find books at their exact level promotes literacy by allowing kids to enjoy their reading material to the fullest. (As long as the topics and plots are of interest to the reader)

In essence, assigning a Lexile measure or other reading level to an individual book or individual child is a shortcut to determining what books are right for what readers. In the library, we call that readers’ advisory, and we take a very different approach, focusing more heavily on topic than reading level. As a librarian, when a child comes to me looking for a book recommendation, I need determine both the child’s approximate reading level and his or her areas of interest, but it will be the areas of interest that will give me ideas about specific titles to recommend. The reading level is just a way of narrowing the field down a little to what’s developmentally appropriate. And as a professional with knowledge of children’s literature, I feel that I do a better job of making good book recommendations when I’m not using shortcuts like Lexile measures or other reading level systems. There’s some value to using the human element in book selection.

So part of it comes down to the difference between a teacher and a librarian. Both are professionals who want to help children learn to read and love to read, but a teacher will be focusing more heavily on the educational aspect, while a librarian will often lean a little on the enjoyment side, especially when it comes to people old enough to read independently. So, from a librarian’s perspective, it’s perfectly okay for a child to read a little above or below his or her reading level, as long as that child likes the book. In fact, research shows that the number one best way to foster a love for reading is to let a child pick his or her own reading materials.

But my real complaint about assigning specific reading levels to books or to children is that they aren’t always completely accurate. They can’t take every factor into consideration. I am more familiar with Lexile scores than with other systems of leveling books, so for the moment, I’m going to talk specifically about the shortcomings of the Lexile system. Although, overall, I think that Lexiles are among the better ones, since they range on a spectrum from approximately 0 to approximately 2000, while most other systems have a much more limited number of levels. (In the near future, I will do more reading on other leveling systems, both for the sake of this blog and for my own professional development.)

The Lexile score of a book is analyzed by a complex algorithm that mainly looks at sentence length and word frequency. A book with short sentences and common words is considered easier and has a lower Lexile score while a book with more long sentences and a larger number of uncommon words is considered harder and has a higher Lexile score. That might sound like a pretty accurate way of determining a book’s difficulty level, but it leaves out some important things. One obvious flaw is that picture books for preschoolers often have higher Lexile scores than books for young independent readers. This is because books that are designed to be read aloud can have longer and more complicated sentences and still be developmentally appropriate. Lexiles also do not take into consideration the size of the text and the amount of pictures, which contribute greatly to a book’s reading level. Adults may think that those traits only determine how hard a book looks, but a young reader’s eye movements have a harder time reading small text or dense text, so a book with large text and plenty of white space or pictures is genuinely easier to read. Also, Lexile scores do not and cannot take content into consideration. A book can be highly intellectual, or contain mature content, and still have a relatively low Lexile score if it manages to use simple terms and short sentences.

I’m perfectly okay with people using Lexiles and other reading levels as a way of starting their search for the right book, and I’m even in favor of teachers using such systems as a tool for selecting books to assign. But I would appreciate it if adults understood that they cannot rely entirely on such quantifications. At some point, in order to determine a book’s reading level, you have to simply read it yourself or get your information from someone who has read it. If you’re in the library looking for a book for a child, your best bet is to have the child with you and let the child participate in selecting the book. Not only does this contribute to the child’s enthusiasm for reading, but the child will instinctively assess factors such as text size and sentence length, probably without even realizing that he or she is doing so. For children who are already avid readers, none of the above discussion is really even particularly relevant. Young book-lovers can be surprisingly adept at picking out good books, and at surviving not-so-good books.

My biggest problem with Lexile scores and other quantified reading level systems is nothing inherent in those systems at all, but rather, an abuse of them that is all too common. Many parents and even some teachers and librarians act as if it’s okay to tell children not to read certain books because they’re “not your level.” As a librarian, I can’t tell you how often I hear that phrase from parents. While parents obviously have the right to determine what their children may read, much more so than teachers or librarians do, it is in no way helpful to eliminate certain books from the realm of options simply because of reading level. I can certainly understand a parent making a judgment call that their children shouldn’t read books with objectionable content, but “too easy” or “too hard” should not be objectionable. And for the record, the developers of leveled reading systems tend to agree with me on that.

It had been my intention to share a few articles from scholarly sources explaining the research behind much of what I’ve said, but unfortunately, those articles are hard to locate and impossible to read when you’re not logged into any library-provided databases. In the interest of getting this post out there a little faster, I will post it as is. Down the road, I promise to provide sources for my assertions on topics such as literacy. In the meantime, if this information is of interest and relevance to you, please refer to this powerpoint I found online that explains how Lexiles work and how they can be properly used for the benefit of young readers.

Newbery Surprise

Last Stop on Market StreetI’ve been speculating about the 2016 Youth Media Awards for a whole year now, but some of the results still took me by surprise. The biggest surprise, of course, was the biggest winner, a book that received the Newbery medal, a Caldecott honor, and a Coretta Scott King illustrator honor. That is Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena with illustrations by Christian Robinson. To be honest, even though I had read it earlier in the year, Last Stop on Market Street wasn’t even on my radar as a potential award winner. After checking it out and giving it a reread, though, I can see why three different committees liked it more than I do. The artwork is distinctive, child-friendly, and emotive, even if it doesn’t fit my conception of beautiful artwork. The plot may be much shorter and much simpler than other Newbery winners, but it is well-written, and it is full of positive messages that are meaningful without being pedantic. And, although it’s too long for a preschool storytime and too short to challenge an independent reader, it still speaks to a wide audience of early elementary school kids and their caregivers. I’m still a little disappointed that none of my favorites won the 2016 Newbery award, but I’m content with the outcome. If you had a vested interest in the 2016 Newbery, feel free to weigh in with a comment.