Why kids should read beyond their years and grade level

Reading books meant for adults can expand their understanding of the complexity of the world.

  • Sunday, August 26, 2018 1:30am
  • Life

By John Warner / Chicago Tribune

I was lucky to grow up in a house full of books, and most of the books, as befits a house where the adults were in charge, were books for adults. There were books in every room, really, but a set of built-ins in the living room had the bulk of the titles. For years and years, I ignored them.

Until I didn’t.

Right around the transition to junior high, I sensed a void in my reading. I was moving past the books that had sustained me as a kid, things like the Matt Christopher sports novels, or “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “The Dark Is Rising” series. Judy Blume’s books filled some of the void, and I made my way through probably 80 percent of the Newbery medalists, but I finished five books a week, and I’d outstripped the supply, even with rereading.

This was the 1980s, before the young-adult literature boom. There were books for children and books for adults, but not much — or at least not enough — for those of us in between.

So I started sneaking books from the living room shelves. I’m not certain my parents would have objected had I asked, but in my mind, there was something vaguely forbidden about them. The shelves were crowded enough that I could snag one without notice.

I started with war books: Herman Wouk (“The Winds of War,” “War and Remembrance”) and “The Longest Day” by Cornelius Ryan, an exhaustive telling of the gliderborne soldiers who preceded the assault on Normandy.

I moved on to “Exodus” by Leon Uris, intrigued and intimidated by its heft. I’d never read a book that long, and tackling something that big felt like the act of a grown-up. I cannot say that I fully grasped the full import of the epic about the Jewish diaspora at the founding of Israel, but I read every page.

In hindsight, I can see how I benefited from reading these books that were arguably beyond me — not in terms of vocabulary, but in the way they expanded my understanding of the complexity of the world. I realized there were so many things I simply did not know, that there truly was a life on Earth much richer and confounding than what I’d experienced up to that point as a contended, largely sheltered young suburban white boy.

Once or twice, I may have tapped into something that was arguably inappropriate — “The Clan of the Cave Bear,” when I was 12 or 13, for example. But even when my reach exceeded my grasp, as with my experience of Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” my confusion was always outstripped by my excitement to learn new things.

My view of the adult world was confined to those living room bookshelves, and even that world was far more vast than I could’ve ever hoped to fully understand.

But it’s different today, with vast amounts of information literally at our fingertips, as children as young as 2 or 3 tap at screens, accessing Lord only knows what.

One enduring lesson I learned that I believe transcends generations is that it’s a good thing to wade into the deep every so often to see if you can safely swim to shore. In graduate school, I quickly learned “I like to read books” wasn’t going to be sufficient to engage with what was being put in front of me.

I survived it by remembering what it felt like to lie in my bed, a big adult book heavy on my chest, each page turned making me into someone new.

John Warner is the author of “The Funny Man” and “Tough Day for the Army.”

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