If you're not midway through your sophomore year of high school, stop reading now. Microsoft Word says the reading level of this column is grade 10.4, and what a person should read depends solely on the difficulty of the material.
At least, that's the assumption made by a school district that decreed that a series of books by Utah author Shannon Hale should not be in the libraries in any of its nearly 50 elementary schools. The Goose Girl and its sequels are recommended for grades six through eight, so younger kids, apparently, shouldn't be allowed to read them.
Stretching that logic, I shouldn't read Hale's books, either, or even my own column, as I'm too old for both (editing this might prove difficult). Being an adult means spending my down time with volumes of tort law because they're at the level of my reading comprehension.
Bull. What people read is their own business. There aren't enough years in my life to read even a small percentage of the world's infinite words, but dammit, I'm going to try. So, I read nonfiction, high fantasy, literary fiction, vintage mysteries, young-adult literature, "the classics," and even the fine print on the toothpaste tube if the situation is desperate. I read because I enjoy it, not because I'm qualified to do it.
But for some people, an appropriate level of difficulty is all that a book boils down to—and that mindset often starts in schools.
There's probably no more effective way to cultivate a hatred of books than trying to slog through The Death of Ivan Ilych at age 11, but that's the kind of reading experiences that happened at my junior high, which used a point system to ensure we were reading enough. A book's difficulty determined its points—so, naturally, kids chose to read short-but-tough books to get the most points for their time.
For that school, hard = good. The school district in Hale's situation—the location of which she did not reveal when she posted about the situation on her blog—takes the opposite view: hard = bad.
If you've decided to start banning books, I guess doing so based on reading level seems, on the surface, to have more logic—a nice objective number!—than most other justifications for removing books from libraries or schools. While we're at it, The Secret Garden should be off-limits, too, given that it's rated at a higher reading level than The Goose Girl, at least according to current metrics.
The first time I read The Secret Garden—probably in the second grade, hunkered in the dim reading cave I'd made under the pool table in my family's basement—I was enraptured by Mary's journey from India and the secrets she found in her new home. I decided it was my favorite book. But when I tried re-reading it in seventh grade, I found myself unable to stomach the cheesy final third, when everyone's scampering around in the garden rhapsodizing about plants. The moral of The Secret Garden is that nothing, not even modern medicine, can match the power of positive thinking and fresh air to cure sullenness and spinal defects. Ugh, how lame.
But the book hadn't changed—I had.
Other books have changed for me over the years, too. Sometimes it's subtle—a particularly apt line or description that I'd swear wasn't there the first time, or maybe an off-screen sex scene that Little Rachel didn't pick up on. Other changes are more dramatic: Recently, I realized that the climax of the long-out-of-print The Mystery House, another book I loved as a kid, hinges not on the secret rooms of its title house but on the heroine's working mother (who wears slacks) coming to her senses, quitting her job and changing back into a dress, which persuades the estranged family patriarch to reunite with his wife and daughter and heal their broken home.
Re-reads of The Goose Girl present no such horrors. I've read it more times than I can count in the 11 years since I picked it up on a whim from the library based on its beautiful cover, and ended up staying up all night to finish Hale's story. She fleshed out the Grimm brothers' fairy-tale plot of betrayal and retribution with beautiful fantasy world-building and a wholly unique heroine who becomes embroiled in complex family dynamics, political machinations and a gentle romance. If I'd stumbled upon The Goose Girl in elementary school instead of junior high, I'm sure I would have loved it as much—just differently.
The Goose Girl is both a cozy comfort read and a humbling lesson in language, storytelling and structure, and I've never felt too old to read it. The social politics of reading "teen books" is a topic for another column, but I'm not the only one who does so. Hale's young-adult adventure novel Dangerous recently won the readers' vote in City Weekly's Artys awards for Best Fiction Book.
As adults become more comfortable reading what they want, I hope we can recognize the benefit of extending the same freedom to other readers, regardless of age. Missing the morals of The Secret Garden on my first few reads doesn't mean that I wasn't old enough to be reading it. I got what I wanted from it at the time. Reading is a process of give and take, with each reader bringing something different to his or her interpretation of the words on a page, changing the story in ways big and small.
And, remarkably, when we don't like a story for whatever reason—subject matter, language, too many descriptions of plants and flowers—we have the choice, at any age, to stop reading. There's an endless supply of words and stories in the world, and each of us has the ability to find the ones that come alive for us—unless you're limited to the books and the words that someone else thinks you deserve.