March 27, 2007

Wanted: Not-So-Easy Readers

Did Henry James Write Anything along the Lines of Junie B Jones?

A few years ago when the Captain Underpants series was becoming popular, I recall that some parents were complaining about the increasingly sarcastic, scatological content of children's books. In a bookstore I bumped into “junior chick lit”: Barbie-pink paperbacks in nearly monosyllabic prose that belies their cynically fashionable, prurient content.

I recall an article in which a librarian defended this trend toward simplistic books with a worldly, jaded attitude. She pointed out that many adolescents don't read at advanced levels, so we need I-Can-Read books that are also PG-13.

Our family has an opposite problem. Jessica started reading alone at five and hasn't looked back. She works out syntax and pronunciation effortlessly and reads a newspaper without stammering—even if she doesn't comprehend the story.

When Nathaniel was six, choosing books at the library was like a math exercise. He carefully counted pages and estimated the words-to-picture ratios of books with numbers on their spines. Jessica, however, just peruses thick paperbacks from the spinning racks.

So we need to locate Captain Underpants' nemesis: writing with fifth-grade syntax that appeals to a wide-eyed first-grader.