Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Reading Up – Why It’s Important to Stretch Yourself by Tania McCartney

There’s something fabulous about stretching yourself as a reader. Not only in terms of entering new and exciting worlds well beyond your years (just wait till you’re reading some of the world’s great adult works!) but also in terms of stretching your comprehension and vocabulary.

When my daughter was eight, I gave her my vintage copy (I won’t tell you how old it was!) of Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. You may know it, and if you do, you’ll know it’s particularly magical. My daughter loved the book. She absorbed it quickly, and didn’t once ask me what any of the ‘weird, old-fashioned’ words meant.

Then, a handful of years ago, I received a press release and a copy of a new, revised version of The Magic Faraway Tree. This series of books was originally written, along with the majority of Enid Blyton’s other books, during the 1940s and 1950s—ie: well before your time and well before everything had to be so politically correct.
Anyway, back to that press release and new edition. This book annoyed me. Really annoyed me. Do you want to know why? Because the way it had been revised (or updated or ‘rewritten’) made it seem like kids are a bit dim. And kids are SO not dim.

The original character names in the Faraway series are Fannie, Jo and Bessie. For the updated version, the names were changed to Frannie, Joe and Beth. Cousin Dick’s name was changed to Rick and the fearsome Dame Slap (who loved to spank naughty children) was changed to Dame Snap (perhaps in case some 8-year-old reader decided it was now okay to walk around and start slapping people).

These names were changed because the editors thought some of them sounded a little bit rude (tee hee!), and because they feared modern day kids wouldn’t be able to relate to these old-fashioned monikers. But there were other changes to the stories, too, probably the worst of them being that classic word I love so much—‘swot’. It was changed to ‘bookworm’.

Now, this REALLY annoyed me. It annoyed me because there’s simply no other word to replace ‘swot’. A swot is an annoying kid who spends all their time studying, with the aim of lording their smarts over everyone else. A swot is also, usually, a pain in the rear end. So you can see that ‘bookworm’ doesn’t even come close to replacing it. Modern day kids really do need to know the word ‘swot’! It’s such a cool word.

The other reason this really annoyed me is that kids are not stupid, and when editors and publishers ‘dumb down’ books, it takes away the chance to expand children, to allow them to learn new and exciting words (which kids are very good at doing) and take them into other worlds and times (past or future) they may never have otherwise known.

New children’s books sometimes suffer this same fate. Mature, expansive words are edited away or text is peppered with illustrations, hoping they will help keep kids engaged. This is okay for younger or reluctant readers, but being able to focus on longer texts, with more complicated plots and vocabulary, is vital for kids in so many ways—from education through to pure engagement and enjoyment.

When we read books a little above our readership age, there will probably be some concepts and words we just don’t ‘get’. This is okay. Children are like sponges, and they learn these more advanced concepts by ‘association’ or ‘context’. This means they can glean the general meaning from the surrounding words and storyline, as the go along.

There is little more thrilling than falling into a great book and entering another world—staying there for what may seem a glorious lifetime. Books beyond your years (or books from the past, with dated words you may not recognise) will help you fall far more deeply. So don’t be afraid to seek out books you think might stretch you. Check the themes carefully first (maybe get your mum or dad or a teacher to take a peek) to make sure they’re appropriate, then dive on in. I dare you.

Oh, and if you haven’t already read it, I hope you search for The Magic Faraway Tree series, because there’s nothing wrong with reading below your age level, either. Just make sure they’re vintage copies, and please do use the word ‘swot’ in your writings at school. Your teacher will love it!

About the Author

Tania McCartney writes for both adults and children, and avidly believes in the power of books. An experienced magazine writer and editor, she has been writing professionally for over 25 years. She has written for many online sites and print magazines, and has been shortlisted and awarded for both published and unpublished works.

An ACT Ambassador for the National Year of Reading (2012), a The Reading Hour Friend and ACT Reading Champion, Tania is passionate about literacy and has spent many years, presenting and speaking to children and adults on reading, books and writing. In 2009, she also founded Kids’ Book Review, the number one children’s literature and review site on the web.

Her latest books include Eco Warriors to the Rescue!, Riley and the Jumpy Kangaroo: A journey around Canberra, An Aussie Year: Twelve months in the life of Australian Kids, and Tottie and Dot (2014). See all of Tania's books at her website.

Tania adores books, travel and photography. She lives in Canberra with her husband and two kids, in a paper house at the base of a book mountain.


  1. Thank you Tania. So many interesting things to think about it's hard to know where to start!

    I was reminded of the "five finger test" library test for beginner readers at my children's school. The 5 and 6 year olds were given free rein to wander the library to choose their books. Those choosing chapter books were asked to read the first paragraph of the book they'd selected - if there were more than 5 words there that they didn't understand then it was unlikely that the book was the best choice.

    I still think that's a good test, though, as kids become more confident readers, they also become more proficient at context. They may not understand the dictionary meaning of the word but they "get" the story and so knowledge grows.

  2. and "book worm" is, as far as I am concerned, a badge of honour. Not the same thing as a "swot" at all!