Josh is in first grade now, and starting to read chapter books. He’s a massive fan of the Magic Treehouse Books, and I am too. I love that the whole point of them is to encourage reading, imagination and adventure. I love that many of the historically-themed books have “research guides” that accompany them. I love that the heroes, Jack and Annie, who are brother and sister, are capable of extricating themselves from the challenges placed before them. They’re straight-thinking kids who deal with their fears by using their heads and their resources. We’ve read several of these books together, and his class has been working their way through the series since September. I think they’re up into the 20’s by now.
He’s also reading The Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes to me. Each night, he reads a couple pages, and we’re about halfway through. He’s learning some pretty meaty vocabulary words from that, let me tell you! I love it.
He keeps bugging me to let him get Junie B. Jones, but I read the first one, and have dug in it. Junie B. is a First Grade, First Rate Brat. She sasses her teacher, her parents, and her classmates. I get enough of that in real life. I don’t need that kind of behavior reinforced by the heroine in a series of books.
The other day, we ventured into our local library, and he chose the first Captain Underpants book. I’ve heard nothing but good things about these books – that they’re silly, and even though the artwork is “crude”, the stories are good. I disagree about the characterization of the artwork by the way. I’d call it “basic”, not “crude”. Yes, picking nits. But still. We started reading it tonight, and came to the first comic book in the novel. First, a synopsis… The book is about two fourth-grade wise guys, George and Harold. They’re best friends and enjoy a good practical joke. Together, they invented Captain Underpants, and began writing comic books, which they make photocopies of (by sneaking into the school secretary’s office and running them on the copier) and distribute on the playground. It’s a fun story so far.
Here’s my problem: These kids are supposed to be in fourth grade. But they CAN’T SPELL!! In the first frame of their comic book, they misspell “dispair” (dispare) and “superheroes” (superherose). In the full seven pages of comic book hilarity, there are multiple misspellings: bilding, justise, cafateria, principel, nise (instead of nice. I repeat… They’re supposed to be in FOURTH GRADE!!), herd (instead of “heard”), and exsiting.
Now, I get it. This comic book is supposed to have been written by kids, and the author is trying to “keep it real”. But I know that I became really good at spelling, grammar and writing by reading really good books. Books that had big words like “justice” and “building” and “superheroes”, and they were all spelled correctly. Books that even had stories in it that were written by the characters, who were many different ages. And all of those words were spelled correctly.
Kids learn by reading. They absorb stuff that we don’t even know they’re absorbing. When you read a book, those words are carving themselves into your brain. Even if you’re not conscious of it, it’s making notes on how words are used, defined, put together, how letters relate to one another, and all kinds of things that we aren’t conscious of. And when they’re regularly reading books that are misspelled, how can they learn?
Are we that concerned about reality, that we have to have misspellings in books? Is it a case of trying to “be friends” with kids? Or is it a case of, “we want kids who aren’t very good at spelling to feel like they’re validated”? I fear it’s the last, and I also think that’s a pretty pathetic reason to publish an entire series of books chock-full of misspellings.