My older on is on a couple of baseball teams, and he is pretty good for his age. But yesterday when I was hitting grounders to him, I noticed that he is awkward — backs up on the ball instead of charging it, takes it backhad instead of keeping it front of him — I suspect he is still just fightened enough of the ball to make the wrong last minute choice. Watching that caused this big adjustment in my mind — I’d been seeing him as one of the better players, without thinking, well what is that when you are turning 10? What is the mix of skills that looks like a kid that age? What should my expectations be? Certainly my difficulty in having a clear image of him has to do with me — my fantasies about who he is or might be. But what mix of intensity, training, will, wish, and still-raw child is he, really? That confusion in my mind reminds me of the problem of assigning ages to books.
In one way, now that I go to the library to find books for two boys, the almost 10 baseball player and his 5 year old Math/Ben 10 brother, I do want guidance. I notice that I look for clues — is this novel too old or young, is this picture book too easy or will it hold the attention of a boy who is picking out words and wants to read? How do I dial back to find a book Rafi can read without giving him books whose storyline seems too simple to him. So I want whoever wrote the flap copy to save my time and help orient me. Yet in the other, as author and editor, I am much less clear. I know I want my books to be engaging, to be well crafted, to have lots of appealing illustrations. I want there to be hooks. But hooks for whom?
The other day a mom told me her 9 year old is reading a book of mine that I think of as truly high school. On the other hand, reading over the shoulder of some of the blog comments on my recent book on Stonehenge, some adult readers seem to feel confused, as if it were too hard for them. I’m reading Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me and I am struck by how she manages to be literary wthout one extra word — one word or idea more than her 10-11-12 year old reader. Somehow she and her editor have the compass setting just right — not at a Lexile, not even at an age range, but at a sensibility — a way of experiencing the world. That is what is hard about age levels — it is not really about literacy, the ability to make out words, it is about sensibility — how the reader experiences the world. A perfect book for a perfect age just feels true, and truly aimed — it feels right. Last week the 4th and 5th grade chorus sange Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better — everything about the song made sense to them, it was their world, made it into great fun. So that is where I come down — age range is sensibiility not literacy — but thus so much harder to define.