Can we please stop using HARRY POTTER as a reading benchmark?
A week never goes by that I do not have a customer telling me that they are reading the HARRY POTTER books aloud to their 5 or 6 year old child, and the pride in their voice is always evident. Using HARRY POTTER as a sign that a child was ready for long read-alouds or that they are an advanced reader annoyed me when the books were still in publishing process, and now that the series is finished, I am even more over it than before. Eight times out of ten, when I ask a parent what kind of book their child enjoys or what they've read lately, the answer is "Well, they've read all the Harry Potter books." (The other two times the answer is "Well, they've read all the WIMPY KID books," but that is a rant for another post.) (And honestly, pretty much every kid reads the HARRY POTTER books - so that doesn't tell me much about anyone's reading preferences.)
If you are reading HP to your kids before you have read them the RAMONA books, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, the FUDGE books, most of Cynthia Rylant, A CRICKET IN TIMES SQUARE, STUART LITTLE, and most of Roald Dahl, just to name a fraction of the available books, then your kids are not ready for HP. Shorter books do not equal bad. It is okay to finish a read-aloud quickly. It is okay to tell your child that they are not old enough for HP yet. And at six years old, they're just not old enough. Why the need to jump ahead? Why not start with books that are meant for kids their age or closer to their age?
Some reasons, not in order of importance, of why kids should wait for Harry:
1. The majority of these parents ultimately come back and tell me that they have had to stop reading the series (usually right around book 3) because their child got scared. Usually these parents did not listen to my careful, polite warnings that this would happen. There is no way around the fact that Voldemort starts picking off Harry's friends and family one at a time, and that this gets worse, not better. The HP books are amazing, yes. I am and always will be a giant HP nerd. But the books run the gamut from scary to downright terrifying; the darkness gets darker and darker with less and less reprieve as the series winds to a close. Somehow while watching Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson grow up, a lot of us seem to have forgotten that these books are aimed at a middle-grade (and up) readership. This leads me to number
2. While children of that age are ripe for the worlds of make-believe (which is why so many parents want to read them HARRY POTTER), they are not ready to process the idea that all fantasy worlds are not created equal. While they are certainly ready for the happier things in HP - deep friendship, magic, humor, magical creatures, mystical objects, education, love, loyalty, etc - they are not ready to process HP's darker themes of racism, classism, abuse, hatred, death, war, self-loathing, self-doubt, betrayal, and pure evil.
3. If they hear HP aloud at a young age (especially if it ultimately scares them), there is a decent-to-good chance they will not go back and read the books to themselves when old enough to process them in their entirety.
4. There are, at last count, about ninety billion trillion other books to read to them first. Books that satisfy that need for magic and make-believe without the darkness that HP wraps those things in. Books that a lot of kids are skipping, or having skipped for them.
PLACES TO START (I'm listing fantastical stories only, since this is a "please wait for HP" post):
WINNIE THE POOH. Disney has caused practically an entire generation to forget that the books are about forty-five trillion times better than the animated cartoons.
TOYS GO OUT by Emily Jenkins, which joined the ranks of classic read-alouds immediately upon publication. This story of three toys who live in a little girl's bedroom and have adventures has never failed me. No, it is not just like TOY STORY, I promise. It is actually nothing like TOY STORY. It is the number-one bestselling children's book in our shop.
A BEAR CALLED PADDINGTON and sequels by Michael Bond. A great many of you adults missed this charming British series about a sweet bear from Peru who gets found in Paddington Station with a tag on his coat reading "Please look after this bear. Thank you." The family that finds him does indeed look after him, and gets a handful of fun and trouble in the process.
THE CRICKET IN TIMES SQUARE by George Selden, in which a hungry country cricket jumps into a New Yorker's picnic basket and winds up in Times Square. His adventures with Tucker Mouse, Harry Cat, and Mario, the boy who discovers him in the subway newsstand owned by his parents, have stuck with me my whole life.
THE MOUSE AND THE MOTORCYCLE and sequels by Beverly Cleary. (I will gently remind those who might argue that this is not a fantasy that the main character is a talking mouse.)
PIPPI LONGSTOCKING by Astrid Lindgren. The Lauren Child-illustrated read-aloud edition that came out a few years ago is fantastic.
TIME AT THE TOP by Edward Ormondroyd - no one has ever heard of this book, but it's so good. Purple House Press reissued it, bless them. Susan discovers that the elevator in the building where she lives can actually take her back into the past.
THE LIGHTHOUSE FAMILY books by Cynthia Rylant, beginning with THE STORM. Utterly charming series about a cat who's a lighthouse keeper and the shipwrecked dog and mice who become her family.
NO FLYING IN THE HOUSE by Betty Brock. Annabel Tippens is cared for not by parents, but by a talking dog named Gloria. When a wicked cat named Belinda tells Annabel that she's actually half-fairy, Annabel must choose between her old life with Gloria and a new life filled with magic.
THE TALE OF DESPERAUX by Kate DiCamillo. Please, please read the book before you show your children the movie. The story of a large-eared mouse, the princess he loves, a light-loving rat and a dim servant girl is one of the most magical stories ever written.
THE DOLL PEOPLE and sequels by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin with fabulous illustrations by Caldecott Medal winner Brian Selznick. It is, I would venture to say, impossible not to love these talking dolls and their adventures.
anything by Edward Eager; I like to start with HALF MAGIC. Children discover a coin that is magic - well, half magic, anyway. This makes its wish-granting powers a...little hard to predict. Charming, charming, charming.
Laurel Snyder's Edward Eager-inspired ANY WHICH WALL. Four children discover a wall that can take them to any place, in any time. Also super charming, and a worthy homage to the above.
MY FATHER'S DRAGON by Ruth Stiles Gannett, in which the narrator's father runs away to rescue a baby dragon on a faraway island.
Kids get rushed through so many things nowadays. Don't rush them past some of the greatest read-alouds ever written. And if you have a young, high-level reading child (6, 7, 8), I would offer the same advice that I offer for read-alouds. It's okay for your child to go through books very quickly. It doesn't matter how quickly they read - there are plenty of books that are more appropriate for their emotional maturity than HP and other upper middle-grade books.
If you have more suggestions, please put them in the comments! (Not only would I wait on HP, I would wait on the Narnia books, Susan Cooper's THE DARK IS RISING series, Lloyd Alexander's PRYDAIN CHRONICLES, Rick Riordan's PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS, Angie Sage's SEPTIMUS HEAP series, Madeleine L'Engle's TIME QUARTET, Trenton Lee Stewart's MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY series and just about every middle-grade fantasy series or standalone novel that you can think of.)