Reading Over Their Heads

Last week, in the midst of a nasty bout with strep throat, my five-year-old daughter and I snuggled up on the couch with E. Nesbit’s classic, Five Children and It. Typically, we read one chapter book at a time, making our way slowly through at bedtimes and while her brother naps. We had just finished Pippi Longstocking, which had been fairly accessible to her and easy to follow along – as have most of our recent reads.

If you haven’t read Five Children and It, trust me when I say it is funny, smart, delightfully imagined, and wonderfully written. It reminds me just how perfectly calibrated a narrator’s voice can be. It’s the sort of book that would have sent me running, over and over again, to the dictionary as a child – and that I would have loved because of all the erudite references that seem so run-of-the-mill in the British children’s novel of the past. (I used to love looking up the references to Shakespeare, and then feeling like I was in on some great intelligent British joke.) In short: Five Children and It is largely over my five-year-old’s head.

But she loves it.

I thought briefly about setting it aside and waiting until she could “properly” appreciate it. But then she kept begging for it at bedtime every night. And I realized that she is connecting with this book in a real way, limited though it may be. She seems to really enjoy reading slowly, asking lots of questions, and getting sidetracked when we start talking about definitions.

(Example: last night, we only managed about 3 1/2 pages because we ran across the word “vice.” And I am incapable of defining anything so philosophically freighted in 5 words or less. Vice led to virtue, then to their connection to habit, and by a very roundabout path back to the story.)

In general, I’m a big fan of helping kids find a “just right book,” especially for independent reading. But I’ve been enjoying this foray into reading over her head, since she is too. It’s not the same as getting lost together in a story, but we do plenty of that too. We’ve had a chance to look more closely and carefully at the story. Since it’s been a bit harder for her to follow, we’ve done quite a bit of recapping and narration – something that’s harder to elicit when she feels she already understands.

And she’s fascinated by the fact that the children “don’t speak English like we do!” This observation delighted me: one of my great regrets is that I have the vocabulary, accent, and speech patterns of a child raised in 20th century California. If only I spoke the Queen’s English, with a proper Oxford accent. Alas. At least I can pretend when I read to my daughter!

How about you? Have you had any experience reading over your child’s head? How has it gone? Any books that worked well in your family, and at what ages?


One thought on “Reading Over Their Heads

  1. I read E. Nesbit’s book, The Railway Children, to my daughter when she was almost four, and while I was nervous that it might be too far over her head, I had enjoyed it so much that I just had to give it a try.

    While it was, undoubtedly, over her head, she LOVED it – so much, in fact, that she responded only to “Bobbie” for some weeks, and wanted to start the book over again the minute we finished (we did). Since then, she’s listened to the audio book a few times, and really enjoyed that, and I get the pleasure of hearing her properly use words like “proper” and “fetch.”

    We will definitely have to give Five Children and It a read! Nesbit has one of the best narrating voices I’ve come across lately. Her little asides to the reader just floor me.

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