Saturday, March 22, 2014

Reading comprehension

This afternoon as we were driving home from "The Great Day of Service" Rachel asked us what I consider to be a remarkable question about the Harry Potter series: "If Harry was a horcrux the whole time, why didn't the basalisk venom kill the horcrux inside hime when he got bitten in the second book?"

Neither Andrew or I had ever bothered to think about that but we talked about it for a while and decided that because Harry was saved from the precipice of death by Fawkes that the horcrux was never fully destroyed either.

This is just one example of the questions Rachel asks about books. She's a deep thinker.

I wasn't sure about letting her loose on the Harry Potter series—she is, after all, six years old and that's a tender age—but she was sure about wanting to read them. Some (a lot) of the subject matter gets a bit deep but so does a swimming pool so we decided we could let Rachel jump in.

One of the benefits of literature is that you only have to dive in as deep as you are ready to go. You can tread water near the surface or you can scuba dive. Now that I'm rereading my childhood favourites as an adult I've found that I was a water-treader when I was younger. Like Rachel and Miriam, I soaked up the storyline of The Little House on the Prairie series as a child and even learned a few life lessons (like that it's okay to have brown hair) but rereading it as an adult is when the story was impactful for me.

I saw a lot of deep—and rather terrifying—issues in the book: miscarriage, postpartum depression, life on the frontier, near-starvation, missing persons, romance, illness, intense sibling rivalry, the prejudice against and mistreatment of Native Americans, and so forth.

We talked about these books all the time. Rachel was quite worried about Mrs. Brewster's little wielding spree. I could see that the poor woman was going through some serious postpartum (or other) depression and I explained that to Rachel. "She just had a baby and she lives far away from her friends and family and her husband is so busy working the farm that he can't help out at home. She just went a little crazy."

Rachel's jaw dropped when she recognized the parallels to our own situation.

"But Mom!" she gasped. "You just had a baby and moved far away from your friends and family and Daddy's so busy that he can't help out at home. You're not going to go crazy, are you?" she wanted to know.

Truthfully I probably was a little crazy then but certainly not as crazy as poor Mrs. Brewster who, by the way, is based on a real person. Still, it was healing for me to read about Mrs. Brewster when I was going through a little postpartum depression myself. I was able, as an adult, to dive into the literature. My children and I got completely different things out of reading those books together. I think Rachel will be quite surprised when she rereads them (something she's been unwilling to do quite yet since they are still so fresh on her mind).

My point is that when you read a book you're able to ignore a lot or to soak in a lot but the choice is up to you.

Rachel went to the dentist on Thursday and brought Harry Potter 7 with her. The hygienist was quite surprised to see a six-year-old child intently reading such a tome and said to her, "What do you do when you come across a word you don't know?"

"Oh, there aren't any words I don't know," Rachel said, quite sure of herself.

Andrew did his best not to crack up. There are plenty of words that Rachel doesn't know. Sometimes she'll ask us what they mean but sometimes she'll just sound them out the best she can and assign some semblance of a definition to them. Just yesterday when she started a new book she sighed heavily and said, "Prolidge. I hate the prolidge! Why can't they just start the story already?"

"Prolidge?" I asked.

"Yeah," she said, showing me her page. "See?"

"Prologue," I told her.

She may not have known how to pronounce it but she knew that it meant "stuff that comes before the story that's loosely important." I didn't know how to pronounce epitome until college (I was actually still in high school but in a college class—does that make it any better?) so I will give her ample room and time to expand her vocabulary. Besides, I love it when my kids mispronounce things.

Anyway, my point is that although Rachel read Harry Potter and although some parts had her worried and although she had to read nonstop to get through it because it's an intense story, she was treading water most of the time. She didn't dwell on the parts she didn't understand. She rushed through the snogging because "why would they even want to do that with each other?!" She kept a running death count in the final books and came to talk with us every time someone new died. She asked questions about things that were important to her. She noticed things that Andrew and I didn't. She ignored things that we thought she should remember.

She read it with six-year-old eyes, imagining six-year-old-appropriate pictures to go along with the story. In years to come, when she rereads the series (as I'm quite certain she will) she will see different things.

For now she's content to organize quidditch games in the backyard and correct the neighbourhood children when they say they're riding on a firepower rather than a firebolt. For now she's content to pretend a concoction of orange juice and cinnamon is felix felicis (liquid luck) before her first soccer game. For now she's content to collect twigs and set up Olivander's wand shop in the play house. She's content to dress up in her robes and shout "Alohomora!" at doorknobs and carry around a copy of The Tales of Beadle the Bard while dreaming of opening up her own joke shop.

She loves the story. She loves the characters. She loves pretending she's in the story. And I think that's fine.

It's true that the deaths in the books bothered her but I think it's healthy to experience a few tragic literary deaths at a young age so that when a real tragedy strikes she has an idea of how to handle her emotions. That being said, I don't think she'll be watching the movies any time soon because I think movies are scarier than books because you're not in charge of the image being played in your mind. But I think the way she read the books made the battle seem a little less scary than it was for me. I know the deaths were more traumatic for me than they were for her. But she'll get all of that later.

Instead we talked a lot about Luna Lovegood. Rachel didn't like how mean people were to her. We talked about how our dynamic trio—Harry, Ron, and Hermione—all seemed to think she was a little odd as well but once they got to know her they really liked her. So that's how we should treat everyone—we should get to know them before we judge them and we shouldn't ever treat them poorly even if they seem different from us because that doesn't feel good.

We talked about Snape and what a complex character he is. Is he good? Is he bad? I don't know. He's definitely bad. No, he's good! People are hard to figure out and no person is all good or all bad. Also, repentance is possible—you can change your life for the better even after you make terrible mistakes like going all death-eatery.

We talked about Grumpy Harry. She didn't like him for a while. Teenagers can be really dumb. But he gets over himself eventually.

We talked about Sirius Black. She was crushed when he died. She just wanted Harry to have a happy family life. Was that too much to ask? Tonks' and Fred's deaths were also very difficult for her. And Madeye. And many others. She talked about them all at length, she grieved them, she loved the epilogue (as opposed to prolidges, which she despises) because everything worked out in the end—much the way life is if you're patient enough.

In conclusion, I don't think reading Harry Potter has robbed my daughter of her childhood innocence.

Rachel has an insatiable appetite for literature. Since January—of this year—she's read 99 novels (14,725 pages) at home. This doesn't include any reading she does at school, nor does it include the picture books she reads (because she still enjoys those), nor does it include any reading I do to her. It's just what she's read this year.

Andrew probed Facebook for suggestions of what to read next and got several comments—73, in fact—with some good ideas of authors and series. Most people were kind with their comments, even if they'd didn't agree with the idea of a six-year-old reading the entire Harry Potter series.

There was a little discussion between people who either liked or didn't like a series for whatever reason, but they were able to continue talking about the series without attacking each other. There was one person who announced in uppercase letters that The Hunger Games IS NOT a book she'd recommend for a six-year-old (and I completely agree). On the whole, most comments were completely civilized, though one comment did sting a bit. She said, "How about something more kid-like?" and then proceeded to list her very valid suggestions before closing with, "I guess my suggestions are plain and/or boring compared to Harry Potter's 7 asked for suggestions, and my children loved the above mentioned books."

She used eight periods for her ellipsis. Eight! With that many periods in there I can't help but read the last bit of her comment with a "tone." She obviously doesn't approve of Harry Potter as children's literature, though I don't think her suggestions were remotely boring or plain. Rachel's already read some of them and others are ones we'll add to the list of things to pick up from the library.

While I didn't appreciate the judgmental tone of her post, I'll admit that I'm probably taking more offense than was intended and I'm totally willing to let go of that offense (and mostly already have, I think). If I saw that commenter today I think I'd probably give her a big hug and tell her that everything is going to be just fine because she has been going through a tough, tough time and I'm sure is feeling rather lonely. I think that if I could suggest a book for her it would be the Marmawell trilogy. It certainly wouldn't be A Short Stay in Hell. But both books/series are written by LDS authors that I know personally and they both are themed around the purpose of life and death and so on.

Anyway, Rachel read some Judy Moody books she checked out of the library before deciding to binge-read Harry Potter and got through them lickety-split and found them a little juvenile so asked to read The Chronicles of Narnia. We'll be exploring other options at the library now that we've got a good list to go on!


  1. Who (that you know) wrote a short stay in hell?

    Yes, literature is fifty percent what the author wrote, and fifty percent what the reader brings to the reading. I remember hiding books I was reading from my mom not because they were bad books, but because I thought they would hurt her innocent sensibility; she just seemed to sweet and innocent from some the hard things I read about sometimes--kind of like Josie did for me with movies. (She's the little kid saying, "This will be too scary for you, mom.") It is good for you to know what she is reading and that there is the openness to discuss any and all of it.

    1. The author. ;)

      Steve Peck. He knew the Heisses in North Carolina and he teaches at BYU so when I worked in InBio he was one of the professors I worked with.

      And I agree that an open discussion is important, though I do think it's funny that you thought your mom was innocent. I do agree that she was quite conservative, however, she was acquainted with death at a young age, she was raised in the dirty thirties, she took care of her aging father and handicapped sister... She saw a lot of hard stuff.

      That being said, I can see her not approving of many, many books that I've read. :)

    2. Andrew says "That's an 'are you your mother's daughter?' question." ;)

      I haven't checked to see if there's another book by that title though. It's kind of a creepy book. The kind that makes me think (because I know the author), "You thought of all these things? Interesting." It seems a little out of character from what I know of his personality, but it is a very thought-provoking story...creepy...but thought-provoking.

  2. And about that commenter--did her h. die? Or is he still just getting sicker? I am out of the loop.

  3. I love this post, and your thoughts on reading books in childhood and later in life. I have a friend who has mentioned something similar about reading the Little House books. What sounded like an exciting adventure as a child, sounds terrifying as a mom who would be in the role of protecting her children during a blizzard. (Something along those lines....)

    I enjoyed reading Rachel's thoughts and discussions on the HP series. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Kind of like I thought a prairie fire would be so exciting, from reading the Little House books! But when it actually happened to us, I am sure my parents were FREAKED. OUT.

  4. It seems like the Nancy Drew books kept me busy for at least one year. I think when I was reading them there were about 100. Of course this means I was and sort of still am obsessed with the detective genre something I'm not entirely sure I'd want to share with my children...lots of darkness and sex. My mom never really monitored what I read which is ironic because she wouldn't let us watch anything over a PG movie in our house but I know I asked her some really dozy question. Sort of shocking when I think about it that she didn't rip some of those books right out of my hands. Gigi is really loving the American Girl books right now and I love the topics they bring up. She's also really into this fairy series but I despise it so I will not be passing it on. Peter and the Starcatchers was fun, Septimus Heap, and I loved the Artemis Foul books. It was all the fart jokes. I just know it. Dr. J hated them.

  5. I loved this post. I want my kids to love literature but honestly I have two struggling readers who will need a lot of work this summer. You know your kids best and what is even better is that you discuss the books with her. Jared read the Lord of the Rings in 3rd grade and it was the same for him; he only got the story not all the deeper meanings.

  6. By the way any suggestions on how to get your kids to love reading? I read to my kids (although I want to increase that a lot this summer too; our year has been a little busier than it should have been.) I have a first grader who now only seems to like Star Wars, sigh, and a kindergartener that I swear isn't learning to read at school. How did you teach your kids to read?

    1. We got the book "Teach Your Child To Read in 100 Easy Lessons" (a friend recommended it to us) when Rachel was in preschool but Rachel refused to participate. She just picked reading up on her own somehow (during kindergarten) and took off. I think the thing that helped the most was pointing to each word as we read it (a suggestion from her teacher). Rachel has never been able to get enough story time, though, so she was really motivated to learn to read...on her own (because she was only going to have formal reading lessons over her dead body).

      Miriam, on the other hand, asked for reading lessons. She decided one New Year's day (2013) that she wanted to read a book—by herself—by the end of the year. We got through half of 100 Easy Lessons last year and now she's kind of bored with it so we haven't been doing it. But she can read well enough on her own.

      It helps that Rachel loves to read and gets nightly "reading time." Since the girls share a room Miriam wants reading time, too—and how do you say no to that? So, while Rachel's zooming through novels, Miriam's plodding along through Dick and Jane (and other similar stuff). She reads well enough to sight read through easy readers.

      If Star Wars is the only thing your kids find interesting, there are a lot of easy chapter books (we went through several of those at our house). I don't consider them great literature but it's good reading practice. You can read those aloud until they're ready to start on their own (or have an I-do-a-page and you-do-a-page system (or line by line or whatever)).

      Also, phonics. We learned a great alphabet song when Rachel was in preschool that helped both girls learn to identify starting sounds in words.

      This one: here.

      We change it up and just sing whatever we can think of (rather than the same words all the time). From there it's not much of a stretch to figure out end-sounds and middle-sounds.

      Anyway—hopefully you see this. If not, perhaps I'll do a blog post about it...

    2. I remember, because I am a librarian, when the Goosebumps books were popular, and the controversy over "Should children read these?" which sometimes got a little heated. But...the kids were reading. Comic books, same thing. If kids get in the habit of reading, and learn to enjoy reading, they are more likely to turn into discerning readers. So, if Star Wars is the reading material of choice, go for it! You can always make suggestions, or just read children's books yourself, so the kids see you reading them, and then you can talk about how cool a book was, and leave it laying around...