Monday, February 11, 2013

Emotional Level vs Reading Level
What’s Appropriate for your Reader

by Hilde Garcia

Setting: January 26th.  Mother Daughter Book Event at the Flintridge Bookstore.

Our characters:  One very excited young writer, aged 8.  Mom, another writer, as her partner.

Our story:

“Mommy, am I really going to meet writers?”

“Yes, dear.”

“And we can buy the books they wrote?”


"Yeah, this is the best day ever.”  (She usually says this about four times a week.)

Jenn Resse
Rookie parenting mistake #1: 

Don’t say yes to buying books unless you know they are going to be a match for your child’s emotional level.

We sit at our first table with Jenn Resse, author of Above World.  She has miniature sea horses as her giveaway and book markers   Victoria is in heaven and is mesmerized listening to Jenn speak about her book.  Victoria wants to buy it.

I say yes.  Are you kidding?  I want to read it as well.

Miniature Sea Horses
Even though Victoria is reading on a 4.8 reading level which is several years ahead of her actual grade level, she is still simply an “8 year old.”  She is young and innocent.  She doesn’t watch TV, she still plays with Lincoln Logs, horses, paints, reads, and loves her dolls.

And yet, she has tackled books like Hugo Cabret, the entire Harry Potter Series and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, along with classics like Matilda, Rikki Tikki Tavi, and Black Beauty.

I figure why not.  But something about Jenn’s book upsets her.  And nothing about the story is any scarier than what she’s tackled already.

“What’s wrong sweetie?” My husband snuggles next to her at bedtime to calm my very distraught daughter.

“The book was scary. Aluna almost got eaten by the Great White. And her friend was dead.”  My daughter cries silently.

“But honey, you know it’ make believe.  It’s just a story.  Just like in Harry Potter and all the tragedies that happened to him.”

“But I was sad when those things happened too, like when George is killed by Bellatrix Lestrange.”

Emotional level vs reading level.  Hmmm.

My husband and I talked that night.  So why would or how could Above World frighten her so?  I think she really connected with Aluna from the first word on the first page, maybe more than in other stories.  I read the first page and felt Aluna’s power.  She was as real to me as she was to Victoria.  Jenn’s writing is smooth and rich and it can’t help but pull you in.

I was hesitant to have her read the Harry Potter series, even though it’s a favorite of my husband’s and mine, (Our son’s middle name is Harry- no joke and no accident; my daughter’s is Anne for Anne of Green Gables- can you see a theme here?), but she was hooked and there was no stopping Victoria, so against my better judgment, and with a lot of supervision and discussion, we allowed her and her twin brother to finish the series.  Victoria was very upset after she finished reading Book 7 and asked me if I was going to die.

A question I wish I didn't have to answer.

After her sad night with Aluna and Above World, I decided it was time to step back in time a bit when things were a different kind of exciting and scary.  I suggested Caddie Woodlawn, The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Pollyanna, The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, Nancy Drew, etc.  My daughter was furious.

“Mommy, I am fine.  I am not scared now.  We bought the books. I should get to read them.”

Mind you, she had been our guest blogger on Pen and Ink that week and I had allowed her to hand out my cards with her named penciled in.

“I have to read Above World, please!”

I said, “Not right now.  I want you to read a few other books first and work your way up to this one.”

I figured that would allow her emotional reading level a chance to breathe and recoup from some very adventurous and sad stories.  She proceeded to go back to reading Dr. Seuss and any picture book she could find as if to say, “If I can’t read Above World, then I won’t read anything difficult.”

Ahhhh, parenting, it’s such a fun thing, isn’t it?  But, you know, I don’t regret my decision.  I think she got a bit ahead of herself and she needed time to let her soul catch up to her brain.

My best advice is to know your child.  Until now, I had never restricted titles, but being an expert in this field, (I’ve read everything in YA and below), I knew she was making good choices that she could handle.  When Harry Potter became an interest, I thought well, let’s see how it goes.  My daughter was on fire reading it, discussing it with me, and seemed to be handling it.  But that was all on the surface.

“Honey, I know it is hard to understand, but you need to let your heart catch up to your brain.  I will let you know when you can read your new titles.”

(My daughter also bought Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger that day.)

She passes the books on my bookshelf and runs her fingers over the cover, wistfully.


She exits my office with a sour look and a disposition to match.  And yet, even though it breaks my heart to see her restricted temporarily on some book choices, I know in my heart I am doing the right thing.  I need to preserve that little soul as long as I can before life does a number on her.

I know my young reader well.  Get to know your young readers too and don’t always rely on reading level for appropriateness. Sometimes, you have to know the impact of the story before you say yes.

My mistake was that I hadn’t had time to read the story first before I said we could buy them.  That same weekend, my daughter had bought Lin Oliver’s Almost Identical and Leslie Margolis Maggie Brooklyn Series.  She finished each one in one night.  I can’t pre-read most titles for her because she can out read me- oh to be a child without laundry duty.

Victoria with Lin Oliver
Bottom line, older kids don’t always like stories that have angst, younger readers sometimes read it and compute it on a superficial level so it doesn't seem to wound their soul, other kids are in between.

Reading is very personal and every reader has to find a connection, but those of us that are in a position to guide can do best by treating each reader as one, and helping guide them accordingly.

I learned a lot from this experience.  I hope that it affords you some insight as well.

Happy Reading.


  1. What an interesting experience. Because our kids are able to read at a higher level, we just assume they're emotionally ready too. Your daughter sounds awesome and I bet those books are going to be in her hands really soon. Thanks for reminding us to watch out for things like this.

  2. I feel terrible! I'm so sorry that my book was the cause of tears. Please tell Victoria that if she waits another year or two, she'll be able to read the whole trilogy all at once.

    And thank you for this thoughtful post -- you gave me so much to think about.

  3. I think our daughters would be good friends if they knew each other! My 8yo didn't have any trouble with Above World, she loved it. She did have some trouble emotionally processing Inside Out & Back Again. I sometimes need to remind myself she is only 8.

    1. They could totally be pals. Tori read through all of Harry Potter like she was dying of thirst and just one page of Above World sent her for a loop. It's hard to say just want will make the difference. I personally think Harry Potter is very dark near the end, so I was surprised to see her stumble on Jen''s book. Now she is dying to read it even more because it is forbidden fruit. I told her that she can read it, I just wanted her to wait a few weeks. But to her that's an eternity. I think she simply needed a break from dark. She is loving Ivy and Bean, Black Beauty and the Spiderwick Chronicles. Thanks for your reply.

  4. While these are all wonderful books, you're absolutely right that kids who can read anything, need guidance in their selection. After all, there's no limit to the wonderful books by authors in the emotionally age appropriate category either.
    Thanks for sharing Hilde!

  5. Terrific article, Hilda. You make many excellent points about what IS, and what ISN'T suitable for YOUR child. I pinned this on two of my Pinterest boards - HOOK Kids on Reading and BE a GOOD Parent.

    Some books, however wonderful, are appreciated and enjoyed more fully when the child has a little more emotional maturity.

    Books for Kids - Manuscript Critiques

  6. Thanks for this post and reminder. It's a bit easier with your own kids (I say, guardedly, since you can't control what they read at school, what they get from their friends, or on library field trips). In a group or classroom setting it's harder to know the emotional level of your audience. I agree it's best to err on the side of "better safe than sorry." I had a master teacher who was concerned about "swearing" in books. I think emotional readiness vs. emotional scarring is much more critical. Thank you.

  7. Great post. Staying sensitive to the needs and abilities of others and particularly kids, is incredibly important. I got lots out of this and am glad to have read it!


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