Twaddle is Charlotte Mason’s term for junk literature — books that are unworthy of attention because they are drivel. Easy series books, comic books — everything that is more brain candy than solid nutrition. It’s a wonderfully expressive term, too. I just love calling things twaddle, don’t you?
Living books, on the other hand, are good literature that provide real mental stimulation, an imaginative journey that sticks with the reader. While I certainly agree that living books are the best kind, I have developed a strong opinion that twaddle has a worthy place in a child’s library and should not be avoided. So here is my theory — in defense of twaddle.
Any parent of a small child knows that little ones love repetition. A preschooler will ask for the same book over and over and over again, until the long-suffering mother is ready to set a match to the thing. Susan Wise Bauer often talks about this love of repetition as a child’s way of figuring out what things in the world stay the same, and what things change. In a big world where so much is completely unpredictable from a child’s point of view, the fact that Green Eggs and Ham always ends with the fellow eating green eggs and liking them is a happy confirmation that some things don’t change.
As the child grows older, she learns to read. She is no longer quite so interested in reading the exact same story over and over again, but she still enjoys repetition throughout the grammar stage. Reading is very hard work that takes a lot of energy at first, and a child learning to read is navigating quite a bit of unknown territory. Easy series books — stuff like Magic Tree House, Junie B. Jones, and the worst of the lot, Rainbow Fairies — provide practice with reading skills and story structure while remaining comfortingly predictable. You never have to worry that Jack and Annie will get stuck; they always make it home. Rachel and Kirsty will always be able to help the fairy and defeat the goblins. Comic books will do the same thing. There are no nasty surprises, and meanwhile there is enough variety to keep things interesting as the child absorbs vocabulary, develops reading ease and speed, and enjoys reading. Twaddle provides repetition with variation, and that is the perfect formula for a beginning reader in the grammar stage.
I want to say it louder: twaddle provides repetition with variation. It’s the next step up from reading the same picture book over and over again.
Meanwhile, it’s your job as the parent to require a little quality challenge as well. Reading excellent literature aloud to your child stocks his mind with language that is far above what he can actually read. It teaches him to appreciate a really great story with good writing, and allows him to focus all his energy on listening and comprehending. At this age and for years to come, your child will comprehend more through listening than he will through reading, so you can read a complex story to a beginning reader very happily. Reading aloud is an important activity for a long time, longer than we usually realize. (I have a theory about that too!)
Of course, you can and should require your child to read quality literature for school time. This is where you can make sure that she reads living books if she isn’t reading them on her own. If she is reluctant but it isn’t that it’s too difficult for her, try having her read aloud with you, alternating paragraphs.
I am a great believer in requiring some reading and allowing free choice for more reading. A child ought to have both, and my preference is for more freedom than not. I get so discouraged when I see children who have to do so much required reading from a list (for, say, the Accelerated Reader program, which I really dislike) that they never get to choose their own books! It’s hugely important that a child have some autonomy about what to read, and in my opinion that should include the freedom to read twaddle. Exerting too much control over a child’s reading choices can so easily crush the joy out of it.
So I say bring on the Rainbow Fairies, insipid and saccharine little nothings that they are. They’ll be outgrown soon enough, and the child will go on to better things, having practiced the skills that make more difficult reading enjoyable.
Addendum, 10/18/13: Neil Gaiman, intelligent fellow that he is, agrees with me, and incidentally manages to pack in a lot of other things I also agree with. Please enjoy this wonderful speech he gave at The Reading Agency.
Jane-Emily homeschools two daughters in California. She is a librarian who loves to quilt and embroider, and she’s a Bollywood addict. Her favorite author is Diana Wynne Jones. She blogs about reading at Howling Frog Books.