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Blogging On History, Science, and Education

On Making Book Choices

I was an early reader. The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and a big book of myths got me started. And then I read a small book that changed everything. It made me realize that books can get to your inmost thoughts; they can deal with serious life issues. The book that I found dazzling, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, is an American classic, but filled with tough words and a theme, adultery, that no one would suggest for an elementary schoolgirl. I found it on a shelf in my house and began reading.

It was clear that Hester Prynne, a Puritan woman, had done something awful and, for the rest of her life, she would have to wear a bright red "A" on her dress. The "A" stood for adulteress. These were innocent times, I didn't know where babies came from when I read Hawthorne's book. I did know that someone else was involved in Hester's crime, whatever it was, and he was getting off without any punishment. That was unfair. And I knew a lot about unfairness.
My brother, three years younger and much cuter, got a whole lot of attention and rarely had to pay for his misdeeds. And that wasn't fair. I saw myself as a 9-year-old martyr; relating to Hester wasn't difficult.
Now The Scarlet Letter is not a book I would suggest for young readers. Among other things, it is full of difficult words. As a reader who wanted to know what happens next, I just skipped all the words I didn't know and went for the story. That bothered my father; he kept sending me to the dictionary. I rarely went.
So what am I suggesting: inappropriate books and contempt for skills training? Not at all. I was getting reading instruction in school. I still remember the day I learned that the "s" in "island" is not pronounced. It explained a story that had been baffling. What I am saying is that the best reading is about ideas and that those ideas can be grasped most easily when they are imbedded in a story. Something else: children should have access to books, an array of them, and, as much as possible, they should be trusted to choose for themselves.

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