Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Joys of Indiscriminate Reading by Claudia Mills

When I went with my sister on our every-Saturday-morning pilgrimage to the small public library in North Plainfield, N.J., where we grew up, we went alone. It was a time when children could walk anywhere by themselves, and so we did. Patrons were allowed to check out only four books at a time back then, so we chose our four books and carried them home in our bent arms (no backpacks yet). And - this is for me the most striking thing - nobody told us which books to select. Nobody at all.

I do remember that the fifth-grade teacher told me that I would love The Yearling, and although I balked at the recommendation - I didn't seek out books about boys, or about animals - she was right, and I did. And one friend at school told me I would love Anne of Green Gables, and she was right, too. But those are the only two times I can remember even a suggestion about what I should read. My own mother, elementary school teacher and avid reader herself, never supervised our reading in any way.

Nobody told me that a book was too young for me, or too old, or that I had already read it twenty times so why didn't I read something else, or that it was series fiction, and so "trash." My sister and I just read whatever we stumbled upon, often drawn to books for the strangest of reasons. We fell in love with the "Shoes" books of Noel Streatfeild (Ballet Shoes, Theater Shoes, Dancing Shoes, Movie Shoes) because Skating Shoes had a character that shared my name: Aunt Claudia. I first read From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs.Basil E. Frankweiler for the same reason: it's a girl named Claudia who runs away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Of course, once we found something we adored - the "Adventure" books of Enid Blyton, or the Betsy-Tacy books of Maud Hart Lovelace - we were set for weeks or months, devouring each week's next installment with ravenous gluttony.

Today when I go to book signings, I'll hear parents dismiss a book as "below your reading level," or "You don't want that one; it's about a girl." I had one friend tell me that she had decided her ten-year-old was now finally "ready" for Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia. Another previewed every single book for her child by reading it herself first. Now, these are caring parents, no doubt about it, and I love that parents and children can be reading the same books and sharing them together: hooray for mother-daughter book clubs! Yet there is something to be said for just reading willy-nilly, impulsively, compulsively - reading whatever, however, just because.

Years later, when I would take my own very young boys to the library, my older son tended to want to check out books we already owned: "This one is good!" My three-year-old granddaughter now grabs for checkout any picture book on the shelf at random, and whatever books happen to be next to it. And you know what? I let them.

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