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A holiday guide to books for kids

[This is my column for the Local Living section Dec. 17, 2009]

I share this secret only with recluses like myself who lack the imagination to conceive of any gift better than a book. If you are buying for a child — particularly if you are in a last-minute Christmas shopping panic — scan this list compiled by a company called Renaissance Learning.

It is an amazing document. Parents who keep track of what their children are doing in school, particularly in this area, might be vaguely aware of Renaissance Learning and its famous product, Accelerated Reader, the most influential reading program in the country. It was started 23 years ago by Judi Paul and her husband, Terry, after she invented on her kitchen table a quizzing system to motivate their children to read.

Students read books, some assigned but many chosen on their own, and then take computer quizzes, either online or with Accelerated Reader software, to see whether they understood what they read. Students compile points based in part on the difficulty and length of each book and sometimes earn prizes from their schools.

It has become a national institution, in use at more than 61,000 schools. But it wasn’t until recently that the Pauls decided to reveal what their computers were telling them about young Americans’ reading habits. They put out their first list of the top 20 books at various grade levels in 2008. After years of depending on bestseller lists, book reviewers, teachers and friends to figure out what they might like to read, children learned for the first time what kids their age were actually reading, as opposed to what adults assigned, borrowed or bought for them.

My colleague Valerie Strauss recently raised concerns about the point system, noting that some of the teen vampire books earn more credit than a short classic like "The Red Badge of Courage," but the points have few consequences---they are not used in grading---and many books that give few points are high on the lists. I think the points are the least important reason why students choose some books rather than others.

That first list revealed that despite the mega-success of the Harry Potter books, they had not dislodged longtime favorites such as Harper Lee, Dr. Seuss, E.B. White, Judy Blume and S.E. Hinton as most-read. A new list, based on what 4.6 million students read in the 2008-09 school year, tells a different story. Dr. Seuss still rules grades 1 and 2, but the other favorite authors have ceded their No. 1 spots to two writers who five years ago were virtually unknown.

At the top of grades 3 through 6 is Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” I had never heard of Kinney, 38, an online game designer and failed comic strip artist who thought his first bestseller — now part of a popular series — was going to be for adult readers. In a short piece attached to the list, he recalls his surprise at the thousands of messages he received thanking him for writing a book that charmed “reluctant readers.” “In fact,” Kinney says, “the phrase could be shortened to just one word: ‘boys.’.”

The most-read author for grades 7 to 12 takes care of the other sex. She is a world celebrity, familiar even to me: Stephenie Meyer, who turns 36 next week. Her first book, “Twilight” — which launched the teen-vampire love craze — leads the Accelerated Reader list, a sign that children old enough to buy their own books often go with what their friends are reading.

There is more. Do you know what a high/low book is? I didn’t. That’s publishing industry jargon for books of high interest and low difficulty for struggling readers. The Accelerated Reader data reveal which books in that category are most popular. Authors new to me emerge: Matt Doeden specializes in cars, trucks and other wheeled vehicles for fourth- and fifth-graders. Paul Langan, author of “The Bully” and “The Gun/Payback,” and Anne Schraff, author of “Someone to Love Me,” both writing for the Bluford High series of books, top the high/low list for sixth- through 12th-graders. Readers who scored in the top 10 percent of an achievement test had the same strong preferences for Kinney and Meyer as their classmates overall.

I have been complaining about high schools not requiring nonfiction books. The list suggests that this might be the result of resistance from their students. Nonfiction writing is my life, but most young readers don’t care. Only two nonfiction writers cracked the top 20 list for high schoolers participating in Accelerated Reader: Elie Wiesel’s story of his boyhood in the Holocaust, “Night,” and Dave Pelzer’s “A Child Called ‘It,’.” a controversial account of his alleged abuse as a child by his alcoholic mother.

Take a look. There is something for everybody, including — you will be relieved to learn — some still high-ranking books that even people my age read as children.

For more from Jay, go to http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle


For all the Post's Education coverage, please see http://washingtonpost.com/education

By Jay Mathews  | December 15, 2009; 1:23 PM ET
Categories:  Extra Credit  | Tags:  Accelerated Reader, Jeff Kinney, Renaissance Learning, Stephenie Meyer, children's books  
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Comments

Jay -

Two quick comments.
1) As I recall, Red Badge of Courage was just awful. But I see your point.
2) Books are the key to stimulating imagination, not just a fallback gift idea! :)

Posted by: tfp_wnc | December 16, 2009 12:35 AM | Report abuse

Your link to the list did not work for me. Please check it.

Posted by: drvote | December 16, 2009 8:13 AM | Report abuse

Jay ~

The link is wrong. 9's snuck in. Try:

http://renlearn.com/whatkidsarereading

Posted by: MAL9000 | December 16, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

thanks MAL. I will fix.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 16, 2009 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Accelerated Reader is required in K-5 in Cali public schools. The quizzes are usually based up the length of the book, rather than the content. My oldest daughter took AR on as a challenge and read everything she could get her hands on. That interest fell off in middle school and high school, but that was due to the schools, not the AR program.

Posted by: kodonivan | December 16, 2009 8:37 PM | Report abuse

Actually the AR website is a great resource for anyone that wants to help kids reading. I have used it to find books that are appropriate for my daughter's reading level. I used it to help a teacher level her books so that she could match kids with books that matched both their level and interest. Their list for the college bound has been used by my friends for helping their kids with summer reading. These are the types of resources we need to be able to use to help get kids into books that match interest, skill and build skill.

Posted by: Brooklander | December 18, 2009 12:55 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Jay,
I appreciate your doing your homework on how "points" are assigned for AR quizzes- it's about the length of the book and it's difficulty, not the value of the book. The reader has to determine the value of what they are reading. The points help to measure the reading practice students are getting.

Posted by: davidhuneycutt | December 18, 2009 2:26 PM | Report abuse

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