Book Review: The Dead House by Dawn Kurtagich

I. Do. Not. Know. What.  To. Think.

Seriously, I can’t even give this book a star rating. I’m too conflicted.

Release date: September 15, 2015

cover the dead house

Amazon Description

Three students: dead.
Carly Johnson: vanished without a trace.
Two decades have passed since an inferno swept through Elmbridge High, claiming the lives of three teenagers and causing one student, Carly Johnson, to disappear. The main suspect: Kaitlyn, “the girl of nowhere.”
Kaitlyn’s diary, discovered in the ruins of Elmbridge High, reveals the thoughts of a disturbed mind. Its charred pages tell a sinister version of events that took place that tragic night, and the girl of nowhere is caught in the center of it all. But many claim Kaitlyn doesn’t exist, and in a way, she doesn’t – because she is the alter ego of Carly Johnson.
Carly gets the day. Kaitlyn has the night. It’s during the night that a mystery surrounding the Dead House unravels and a dark, twisted magic ruins the lives of each student that dares touch it.
Debut author Dawn Kurtagich masterfully weaves together a thrilling and terrifying story using psychiatric reports, witness testimonials, video footage, and the discovered diary – and as the mystery grows, the horrifying truth about what happened that night unfolds.

My Review

I’ve started jotting down a quick Pro/Con list after I read a book that I later expand into a review to post. Problem is, for every pro I wrote down, there was a corresponding con. I honestly cannot decide if I loved this book or hated it. When I went to give the book a star rating, I literally write I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO THINK instead.

I’m breaking this down into matching pros and cons. You can decide if you think the pros or the cons win.


Pro: This book is hands down the creepiest thing I’ve ever read.

I don’t watch horror movies. I don’t read thrillers or horror novels. But when I was asked if I wanted to read an ARC of The Dead House, I decided I was game to try out a new genre.

Holy crap. I would have read this book in one sitting, except that I honestly had to put it down every few hours. It was too dark to absorb in large quantities. Everything about this book is creepy–the paranormal angle, the mental illness angle, the characters, even the format (diary entries, transcribed interviews and video clips) became disturbing.

In being a scary-AF book, The Dead House succeeded. A++

Con: Monotone creepiness.

As I said, everything about this book was creepy. Which, unfortunately, made the creepiness somewhat monotone. There was no rise or fall, no happier moments where I could take a deep breath that could later be knocked out of me. It was scary 100% of the time, which “weakened” the scariness. I wanted happy moments, not just to give my soul a moment to recover, but so that the creepy moments would be more impactful.

Pro: The Carly/Kaitlyn premise was so cool. 

I loved the two souls in one body (or two personalities in one body, if you’re a psychologist) idea. From the first page, I loved and empathized with Kaitlyn–the girl stuck in the dark. The dynamic between Carly and her was starkly human: both of them love each other like sisters even though they’ve never met, but Kaitlyn is also incredibly jealous of her sister for being the “real” one. They were both struggling to hide Kaitlyn and keep themselves out of the loony bin, but they were also permanently separated, and thus they could never have a transparent relationship. There were secrets from the get go, and they only continued to mount as the story went on.

Con: Carly was never a part of the story.

Since the story is driven by Kaitlyn’s diary entries, Carly is actually a minor part of the plot. Notes she leaves for Kaitlyn and a few diary entries of hers are included, but that is the only contact the reader gets with Kaitlyn’s other half. Carly’s fellow students mention her second-hand, but I still felt that there was a Carly-shaped hole in the story. I never “met” her, I never connected to her, and I never fell in love with her, so ensuing plot lines were weakened because my heartstrings weren’t as tied to Carly as they were to her sister.

Pro: Dossier format was interesting and Kurtagich “pulled it off.” 

The book is a dossier of evidence collected about the case–Kaitlyn’s journal, footage from Nadia, and various interviews conducted by the police–as well as commentary from the dossier’s compiler and from psychological experts. Everything is organized chronologically and weaves together to tell a masterful story.

I was amazed at how effectively random pieces of paper could convey a story. Jumping back and forth between different forms of evidence was never distracting or confusing. The way the dossier was compiled added to the aforementioned creepiness of the story.

Con: The dossier format kept me “out” of the story. 

Nothing in the dossier is truly reliable. Kaitlyn wrote her journal entries after the things happened, and no one forced her to write down every detail, or the cold hard facts–just her impressions. Nadia’s footage obviously couldn’t record everything. The other transcripts and interviews rely on people being honest and the interviewer asking the right questions–neither of which happened.

I felt like I was never connected to the real story. Everything felt second hand and untrustworthy. The dossier format was interesting, but it also separated me from the story; we never got any scenes that were happening “live,” never got to fully connect to the story.

It also struck me as unrealistic that Kaitlyn would write down everything that she did in her diary, and that Nadia would record everything that she did. The two most prominent forms the story was told in often came across as a stretch.

Pro: This book is POWERFUL. 

You can tell how ramped up this book got me. In that sense, I have to love this book. Any story that makes me shake with half-formed thoughts (*activating fangirl mode*) is a good one. This story hit me in the fact over and over, grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. If you like being emotionally and mentally pummeled by the books you read, pick up this book right now (or in September, when it hits the shelves). I know I won’t be forgetting this book for a looong time.

Con: Some parts of the plot missed the mark.

The romance was a big part of the plot that didn’t work for me. I liked the love interest (Ari) in the beginning, but the more intimate their relationship became, the less I cared for it. A major cause of this is that dossier format. It’s not like Kaitlyn is going to write down minute details about her relationship with Ari, because she’s  the one living it, and videos of their time together don’t give the viewer a sense of the emotions each is feeling. I was told of their love, not shown it by the story, and subsequently I just didn’t care about it that much.

The deaths in this book lacked ceremony. While I understand that the point was that the circumstances surrounding the deaths were vague and unknown, it still bothered me that deaths were announced in pasted-in notes. If a character’s death is going to affect me, it has to take up more than a sentence of the novel.

Pro: The paranormal aspects were unique.

Scottish voodoo. You read that right. This book surrounded a type of magic that I’d never even heard of. The paranormal elements that grew out of this were unique and compelling. It was refreshing to see a YA plot surround a mythology that isn’t Greco-Roman.

Con: I didn’t follow the paranormal plot line very well.

To be honest, all of the paranormal bits in the plot were confusing. There’s a house, a girl, a snake. Then the magic workers have like five different names, which were never explained clearly enough for me to remember the nuances (and the nuances were important). I understood the broad strokes of what was going on–enough to enjoy the story–but I wish more of the paranormal elements of the plot had been slowed down and explained. The story could have been richer if I’d been able to follow it.

Pro: I don’t know what to think.

This book is a constant battle between conflicting views of the “Johnson Incident.” The police and psycologists consulted in the dossier believe that everything can be explained by various characters suffering from various mental illnesses. The characters themselves, however, believe that everything is caused by paranormal occurances, namely Scottish Mala voodoo.

Both sides are supported during the dossier. Neither “wins.” And it drove me crazy. I’m still thinking about it. I don’t know what I think (as you can tell).

The Dead House is a giant questionaire: what do you think happened? And it does an A+ job asking that question and leaving the reader unable to answer it.

Con: I don’t know what to think.

I like closure. I like it when books ask questions because I can trust the answers will be surprising. This book doesn’t have answers–or really, it has too many answers to choose from. I wanted to be thrown a bone that pushed me toward one side or the other, and while a few pieces at the end could have been considered “evidence” for one side, I was still left unsatisfied. The Dead House is built of questions–ever increasing questions that leave the reader absolutely sure that there will be an incredible answer that ties everything together.

I’m still waiting for that answer.


Enjoyment of The Dead House comes down to one simple question:

Do you like unanswered questions?

If you like it when a book drops you off a cliff and leaves you with the sensation of falling and grasping for answers, then this book is great. If you have a lifelong struggle with closure and crave explanations and definite answers, this book might drive you insane.

I’m on the fence.

Is a book about the journey or the destination?

The journey–the majority of The Dead House–is captivating, chilling, and powerful. The ultimate destination–answers to the questions that the journey posed–is murky, and doesn’t really exist.

 

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have a mental breakdown trying to figure out where to put this book on my bookshelf (which I organize by how much I enjoyed each book).


I received an ARC of this book for free from Hachette Publishing at SDCC. (THANKS!) This in no way influenced my review.

Book Rant: The Western Heritage

In honor of the AP European History exam I took last week, I thought I’d take a moment to review the textbook that taught me the material.

And by “review” I mean “scream in rage about” and by “taught me the material” I mean “sucked at teaching me the material.”

If you’ve ever had a horrible textbook, this will speak to your soul.

I read the Eighth Edition of The Western Heritage by Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, and Frank M. Turner, chapters 10-31, which encompass European history from 1300 to present day.

cover western heritage

First and foremost, this book has an identity crisis. Half of the time, it acts as a textbook, explaining the who/what/where/when/how of European history to those who have essentially no background knowledge. The other half of the time, it seems to be making a point of being as mean to students as possible: leaving out sentences that could have clarified motivations, referring to things by names that they had never been called before (or were when they were originally explained), and acting like it was talking to an old friend who had already studied the history for years on end. It is clear that the book had different authors, and that these authors wrote different chapters, because things would be referred to by different names and titles between chapters. Sometimes, this was a slight annoyance (such as when they alternated between writing ‘Hapsburg’ or ‘Habsburg’), but other times, it was seriously confusing (such as using about ten different words to refer to the Netherlands, and never clarifying the nuances between the terms–if there were actually any). These problems should have been fixed by some sort of editor, but it seems as if no one cared enough to read the book start to finish and realize that continuity had been sacrificed to the deity of giving students headaches.

The images and “extras” included in each chapter only made this problem worse. The Western Heritage includes lots of maps, which at first sounds like a blessing for students. That is, until the text mentions a city or region that IS NOT INCLUDED ON THE MAP. More often than not, the cities on the map were never mentioned in the text, and any geographical markers the text included were no included on the maps. Essentially, the maps served no purpose besides taking up space–a trend continued by the countless “extras” included in each chapter. The textbook includes anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen “Documents” scattered throughout a chapter. In these boxes–which take up around a half a page–quotations from people or documents being discussed are included and then discussed. I never read any of these, mainly because they didn’t add anything meaningful to the text. There were also “Art and The West” pages included between chapters, discussing specific pieces of art, and “Encountering the Past” full-page explanations of cultural phemonima (such as Dueling in Germany or Table Manners).

All of these features were just space-fillers, making sure that the textbook–that students often carry around–was twice as heavy as necessary. I wouldn’t have minded if these “extras” actually helped me understand the text, but they were distracting more than anything.

The book also features basic images–portraits of important people, pictures of posters, sketches of inventions. These images were actually useful and well-chosen; however, their placement was a joke. Honestly, pictures were sometimes included in the text a page (or more) after the person/thing had been talked about. I would be reading about something, then turn the page and start reading about a different section. Then, when I glanced at the caption for the image included on the page I was currently reading, it would be referring to the person I read about on the previous spread, sending my brain back to that section and confusing me once I refocused on the text.

In all honesty, the textbook is fairly well-written. It features complex diction and sentence structure, making it enjoyable to read on a linguistic level. Sometimes, the sentence structure made things more confusing than they had to be, but as this was my first textbook that did not feel like it was written at an elementary school level, I did honestly respect that the writers had erred on the side of complexity.

I feel like most of the problems of this textbook could have been solved if it had been read by a copy editor and an average high school student before being published. The editor could have fixed continuity issues, and the student could have pointed out the things that made the book needlessly confusing.

Of course, these problems are not contained only to this textbook. They are issues that most textbooks probably have, encouraged by a textbook industry that thinks changing the colors in a diagram warrants a new edition of their book and that focuses more on “extras” than the actual text students try to learn from. However, this is the first textbook I’ve ever actually read all the way through (usually I just read the select parts of chapters that the teacher assigns), so this is the first time these issues have really hit me in the face.

Did I learn about European history this year? Yes, more than I had ever imagined. But that was from the help of numerous review books and another textbook (shoutout to the wonderful being that is History of the Modern World), as well as The Western Heritage. I’m glad that AP Euro was hard–I wanted it to be a hard class–but I don’t see why overcoming the nonsensical nature of this textbook had to be one of my trials.

150th Post: Time for a Rant (Let’s Take a Moment to Remember the Bell Curve)

This is tradition at this point. Every 50 posts, I decide to rant about something. I’ve ranted about assigning books “reading/age levels” in schools and about the misconceptions many adults have about teenagers today. I’m not trying to be ridiculously negative or anything; these posts are some of the rare moments I blog about my day-to-day life, specifically issues that I feel affect not just me, but a larger population. I’m trying to be as PC as possible, but I also want to get my point across as honestly and powerfully as I can. 


Remember the bell curve?

It looks like this:

bell curve 1

Basically, it means that if you take a sample of a population, your results will generally look like this:

bell curve 2

It can get crazy scientific:

bell curve 4

Like, what even is this?

bell curve 3

Don’t worry–this isn’t a scientific post.

Anyway–the bell curve. Some genetic traits (eg height) work out like this.

It also works with grades (in a large class).

I’m not talking about when teachers “curve” a test to force grades to fit into a bell curve (that seems barbaric, actually). I’m just saying that, statistically, a class’s overall grades will probably fall loosely onto a bell curve-esque thing. It’s the reason that the literal definition of earning a “C” is average–it’s the middle of the bell curve.

In school, we are told to shoot for A’s. This is not an inherently bad or evil goal (as some people seem to think). Getting an A is (should be) an indication that you are above average–it’s an accomplishment, and it should be strived for and rewarded.

A fundamental part of the idea of an ‘A’ letter grade is the inclusion of B’s, C’s, D’s, and F’s to fill out the rest of the spectrum. You need an average so that someone can be above it.

Recently, in my classes, I’ve been noticing that this is not how people think anymore. There seems to be a rising feeling that students are entitled to A’s–that getting an A should require nothing more than showing up and doing the minimum amount of work. In essence, being average.

*Disclaimer so that I can say this once instead of putting it in every other sentence: I’m not saying this is everyone. I’m just saying that a large majority of students I share classes with seem to have this attitude, and it offends me.*

I’m am a straight-A student in difficult classes. I’m in Honors English, Honors pre-calc, and AP European History. It is by no means the hardest course load of any of my peers, but it is enough to keep me very busy, and to truly test my abilities as a critically thinking student. I personally feel that I work harder than most of my peers and that I deserve the A’s I get.

So it pisses me off when kids routinely admit that they don’t do the work, don’t study, or procrastinate majorly on homework/studying and end up doing a half-assed job on it–and then they get annoyed when they don’t have an A in the class. They have this attitude of “I showed up to class. I put in the barest minimum of work. What more do you want from me?”

If you think I’m exaggerating this, I promise you I’m not.

*Disclaimer #2: I have attended high-ranked California public school  in a good neighborhood for my entire life. Generalizations I make are based on my experiences, as well as those of students at other schools that I talk to.*

I believe there are many reasons that this mentality has appeared.

  1. Increased pressure from parents/society to get good grades to get into good colleges. Anything less than an ‘A’ is viewed as failure by a majority of the parents of the students I have classes with, and by extension my peers. This kind of thinking has led to a shift away from the bell curve, where a C is average, to a new model where an ‘A’ encompasses any type of success with the class and any grade lower is a punishment.
  2. Low standards in elementary and middle schools. I don’t want to insult elementary or middle school teachers out there. However, there is a dramatic difference between the amount of work that is expected of students at the elementary and middle school level compared to the high school level. Essentially, the amount of work that earned an A in middle school is often much lower than that that is required to get an A in high school (even in regular classes). If people don’t realize the shift, they are left floundering in the B/C grade range, wondering why they aren’t getting A’s anymore.
  3. Tutors and after-school programs. I’ll touch more on this later, but there is a general feeling that you can quantify what amount of studying deserves what grade. People who attend tutors and afterschool programs (especially those who have attended them their whole lives as a day-care sort of thing instead of a specific effort to improve a class’s grade) tend to believe that they are superior to the class and deserve a higher grade simply because they put in more time with a “professional.” (Unfortunately, the converse is often true, as I’ve seen many instances of after-schools doing the work for the student, preventing the student from ever actually succeeding in the class. Awkward.)

Whatever the reason, this mentality needs to be squashed. Yes–we all wish we could be straight-A students. But if everyone actually was one, then the title would no longer mean anything.

A would mean average. And while that would be linguistically convenient, it remains impractical in reality.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say,

I studied for this test for five hours! I deserve an A!

That’s not how the real world works.

I could study molecular biology for hours–weeks, months, years–and I would never gain more than a memorization-level understanding of it. I have resigned myself to this fact, and science is the one subject I don’t take advanced classes in, for this reason.

My school has a large population of students for whom English is a second language. Most of them have a good understanding of the language, but still struggle with high level reading, vocabulary, and essay writing. This is completely understandable. However, I really wish that some of the students who struggle to make out the dialect in The Grapes of Wrath (let alone the Old English in Shakespeare) would realize that English Honors is not the class for them.

I respect students who take an advanced class to challenge themselves. Unfortunately, most of my classes today are dominated by people taking the class because of parental or collegiate pressure, rather than any passion or skill with the subject matter. I respect you if you take an advanced class, knowing it will be a struggle but committing yourself to the workload and accepting that a B is a serious accomplishment (which is also “above average” for heaven’s sake!).

But if you take an advanced class because you want colleges to like you, and then you disrespect the class by doing the barest minimum of the work, and then you act like you should be awarded the highest grade possiblle–well, I don’t respect you at all.

The bell curve isn’t a bad thing. It’s literally natural. We need to remind ourselves that being average is not a crime and that an ‘A’ should be reserved for people who not only worked for it but succeeded at it. There is no “x hours of studying = this grade on the test” formula. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, good weeks and bad weeks. We as a society need to embrace this fact and shift our expectations away from a nation made only of straight-A students. Support students for their personal triumphs–maybe they occur in sports or art or drama instead of the classroom. A ‘B’ is not failure, neither is a ‘C’–if you want to be technical about it, a ‘D’ isn’t either. We shouldn’t give up on being as good as we can be, but we need to remember that “our best” differs for every person, and we need to put a premium on hard work rather than a final grade.

If people realize that it is okay not to have perfect grades, then hopefully this culture of entitlement will end to make way for one of respect for individual talent and commitment.

100th Post: Time for Another Rant (AKA Sh*t People Like to Tell Me about my Generation)

*For my 50th post, I ranted about my little sister being told not to read the Harry Potter books, and the general culture behind “reading levels” in schools. For post #100, I’m ranting about high school. I’m sorry if I offend anyone, but only a little. These are my pure, unorganized, sleep-deprived, pissed-off thoughts. Enjoy, or not. Feel free to comment at the end.


I am 15 years old right now. I’m a sophomore in high school. I’m white and I live a fairly comfortable, middle-ish-class life. I have a smart phone and a laptop to call my own. I like wearing “short” shorts and I’m a sucker for a Starbucks (though Coffee Bean is obviously better).

I am not an idiot.

Yes, I am a teenager. That doesn’t mean you get to walk all over me. That doesn’t mean you get to act like you know me before you’ve had a conversation with me. That doesn’t mean my life is easy.

I’m saying this because I encounter a lot of this on the internet and from the people all around me:

rant 100 pic 1

But from my point of view, high school is more like this:

Truthfully, I’m taking hard classes and doing a lot of extracurriculars.

But not as many as the person sitting next to me.

And I’m sacrificing every minute of my spare time to do more, to study harder, to impress the nameless, faceless college admittance people who will judge me based on a list of clubs and a GPA during my senior year. I’ll probably never meet these people. I’ll just be a name on a sheet to be judged against the thousands of other names-on-sheets, based on how well-rounded and dedicated we can make ourselves look in 2-D, on a sheet of paper and a carefully-worded college app.

It’s exhausting and demoralizing and I have three more years of this.

I feel like I’m trapped in a culture of impossible expectations, where you have to perfect every minute of every day and fit 25 hours into a 24 hour day and never sleep and sacrifice a goat every full moon just to get into college.

Then you get to pay for college, but that’s its own pile of impossible.

And on top of that, I’m a high schooler. I’m “supposed” to be dating and having friends and going to football games. Now is when I’m supposed to learn not just encyclopedias worth of information, but also how to be a social, semi-mature adult.

Because clearly the portion of your life that asks you to learn to deal with no sleep, hormones, new social orders, homework, and extracurriculars is “easy.”

If you spend your entire life studying, you’re shamed for “not having a life” or for being a “try hard”–not just from your peers, but also the random teachers, parents, and adults that decide to give you their personal opinion on your life.

Then there is the countering view of teenagers many adults have, in which all of us ages 13 to 18 only care about boy friends and texting and not chipping a nail. We are antisocial for the heck of it, rude to authority, and probably on drugs.

You see the problem?

Interacting with adults is probably the most frustrating part of my life right now. I really try to engage people in conversation, and I genuinely like having discussions with adults.

Until this happens:

  • I mention that school is stressful/tiring/intense or any of the other millions of adjectives I could think of and they try to tell me high school either “isn’t hard” or “isn’t a big deal” or that I “don’t need to try so hard” or that I shouldn’t “stress myself out so much” or that I should try “working smart, not hard”–Basically that it’s all in my head, or at least all my own fault that my life is stressful. And not that in glorifying colleges like Harvard and Yale they are perpetuating a society that demands this of me.
  • I try to engage in a mature conversation about something going on in the world and the adult either A) stops listening and just plain starts talking to someone else, B) barely pays attention to me and obviously thinks I’m an idiot–Because I’m just a teenager (drugs and Starbucks, remember?), and I could never understand what is going on outside the world of Forever XXI sales or hot guys (Even though I’m on freaking speech and debate, people! This is my thing!)

I work hard by default. I care a lot about my grades, and a lot less about how my school does in a football game or what filters people use on Instagram. My life is my choice, yes, but also the byproduct of a society that demands 110% of me every day without giving me any credit for surviving it.

This is the message high school students hear (with helpful translations for adults, or people from other countries with different systems):

If you want to get into college, you need to take as many AP (advanced placement–AKA college level classes) as possible, get A’s in the class and 5’s on the AP exam (a big test in May that tests you on everything you learned in your AP class, graded from 1-5, you need a 3 or higher to get the college credit, 5 is the best possible, and basically impossible). You need to have hundreds of hours of community service, have leadership positions in as many clubs as possible, and be well-rounded, so try learning a sport and an instrument and another language, if you can fit it into your schedule.

High schoolers hear this everywhere: from teachers, school meetings, the internet, word-of-mouth, even parents.

But parents are under some delusion that the above requirements are easy.

Things I’ve been told by my family, or other adults in my life:

  • In the US, it’s really easy to get into college. (What US do you live in?)
  • You don’t need to be perfect, you can just go to a UC. (Just?! WTF people? They are some of the best colleges in the country!!!!)
  • You stress yourself out too much about school. (Oh, maybe because it’s STRESSFUL?)
  • I’m sure you don’t need to spend that much time on a weekend working on homework. (My vain efforts to get ahead on the weekends so that I can breathe during the week should never be scorned.)

I’m so tired of it. And all my friends are given similar “pep talks” by adults.

THEY AREN’T ENCOURAGING, PEOPLE!

I don’t want to demonize adults. I have some great ones in my life.

But seriously, my life is stressful. Can I please be allowed to talk about it? So many times, an adult will ask me how school is going, and then as soon as I try to actually engage them in a conversation about what is going on in my life (usually up-coming tests, frustrating teachers, or big projects) they shut me down, deciding it’s a good time to remind me that all the stress is in my head or that I’m working myself to hard. Like, thanks, I’ll try to remember that, along with 100+ facts about the Protestant Reformation for the test I have tomorrow.

And yeah, I pretty much only talk about school. But my life is school. I see my friends at school. All my clubs are at school. Almost every funny thing that happens to me happens at school.

I enjoy school, even though it’s a little Stockholm’s Syndrome-y. Yeah, I have a lot on my plate–but I also have a big appetite. I want to talk about school, and have someone listen.

So if you’re an adult out there, and you want to help your kid or your niece or your student survive high school? Don’t tell us it’s easy. Let us rant, get it all out. If we decide to try to talk to you, embrace it, please.

And don’t you dare blame us for making our lives hard if you would like your kids to go to a good college. That’s not fair.

Stop assuming I’m shallow because I was born fifteen years ago. Stop calling my generation the worst generation in the history of life, when some one us (A LOT of us) are actually trying really freakin’ hard to overcome your expectations.

Stop telling me the hardest thing I’ve ever been asked to do is easy.

I’ll play your game, but at least admit that there is a game going on.

50th Post, Time for a Rant

I’ve tried to keep my posts somewhat emotionally-controlled in the past. But this is my 50TH POST! So screw it, I’m ranting.

But it’s about books, so don’t worry.

I have two younger half-sisters, one of whom just finished third grade (is a 4th grader now). Since I’ve been rereading the Harry Potters, I’ve been talking to the rest of my friends about when they read the series and how the books affected them as readers, and I decided my older little sister would really benefit from reading them.

The Arguments in Favor of this Movement (largely based off of conversations I’ve had with my fellow 14/15-year-old friends):

1. Fourth grade is the time when the HP books become really popular. Lots of kids will be reading them, and having gotten a head start in summer will be a conversation starter and a useful device in friend making. (Or she could just read them once the school year starts if anyone has a problem with being ahead of the curve, it’s the same idea.) This is an example of peer pressure benefiting the whole instead of turning it into druggie teens.

2. Since the series starts out young and not that dark or scary, little kids (if you call 4th graders “little”) can read the first books. Due to the long length of the books, most kids read the books over a long period of time, so that by the time they’ve gotten to the later, darker books, they are older and more mature and can handle it.

3. If you read Harry Potter after you have “grown out of” playing, you’ve missed out on a plethora of game opportunities. Most of my friends, including myself, played some version of wizarding duels as kids. My sister and I even worked it into larger, already existing games after we read them, just borrowing the spells. J.K. Rowling’s books give the reader the incredible ability to “learn” magic, because you are in the classroom as they learn the wording and motions required for each spell. It’s a game waiting to happen, and fourth graders are at the perfect age to take advantage of this. Again with the friendship building opportunities.

4. Harry Potter is a gateway book. In fourth grade, one of my friends was still reading those really tiny, cheesy books that you see in Scholastic book orders, that are really only age appropriate until at most second grade. Her brother forced her to read the Harry Potters, and she credits them as the books which got her interested in reading. Now, she is just as avid a reader as I am (which is pretty freakin’ avid). Most of my other friends, who read HP earlier, still credit it as one of the books that got them interested in reading.

There, look, I presented my arguments in a clear, logical fashion without getting too sarcastic or rude.

Now for the thing I’m actually ranting about.

This weekend, at dinner, I brought up that I thought it would be a good idea if my 4th grade sister read Harry Potter. We could read them together, I said, and I read them when I was way younger than you, so you’ll be able to handle it. They’re awesome books. I think she’d enjoy them.

On top of these reasons is the most important one for me: like one of my friends, my little sister is still reading books that I find are waaaayyyy below her maturity. She isn’t challenging herself, and her parents aren’t either. Since a large portion of my personality is based on what books I’ve read, I really wanted this sister to be interested in reading, so I could share some of my favorites from when I was her age, and we could bond over them. Also, I know she would benefit in school and in her future if she picked up a love of reading now. So far, any effort toward this has failed. So I’m hoping Harry Potter can have the same effect on her as it did my friend, inspiring her to go looking for bigger, more complex books, and really get into reading.

I’m not going to get into the fact that neither of her parents even touched my suggestion, clearly thinking their daughter too young to read the books (let alone the fact that I read them in SECOND GRADE). That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms that I’m not opening here.

It was what my little sister said.

In the last weeks of the school year, all the third graders got to meet the fourth grade teachers. They talked about what to expect next year, because it is the first year of “upper grades.”

My sister shared this statement from a FOURTH GRADE teacher:

(paraphrased, of course, but I trust my sister to have gotten the gist of it, mainly because it didn’t strike her as pathetic and horrible, so she had no reason to exaggerate or reword it)

“I see some kids reading Harry Potter in my classroom and I think, ‘You should not be reading that. You aren’t ready.'”

I knew from previous conversations that the teacher speaking was the one my sister actually wanted to get next year. I’ve been in the position where adults (or just older people) harp on an adult that I feel loyalty to. It sucks A LOT. (A note to adults out there, please don’t put children through this.)

So I kept my burst of outrage to a minimum in her presence, but I couldn’t keep it in forever. Ergo, this rant.

“I see some kids reading Harry Potter in my classroom and I think, ‘You should not be reading that. You aren’t ready.'”

This is BS.

See my above reasons. If you’re at a 4th grade level, HP is perfect for you. If you aren’t reading at a 4th grade reading level, there is a good chance HP is the book that will get you there.

It is despicable for a fourth grade teacher to hold this opinion. I get it if you are a second grade teacher, it might freak you out to see a kid cracking open book six. But this is fourth grade, when everyone will be reading it anyway. Don’t act like only the “good students” should be reading a book they clearly enjoy.

My little sister added a clarifying comment:

 “No, I think it’s just for the bad kids. You know, the ones whose reading levels aren’t there yet.”

Ahh…reading levels. The bane of my elementary school existence.

Let me explain.

My school used the Advanced Reader program. I know her school uses a different program, but they all operate in similar ways.

It all starts with a vocabulary assessment. My school took this in the computer lab. Basically, there was a sentence with a blank in it and four word choices. You picked the word that made sense. If you got the question right, it gave you a harder question. It also saved a profile for you, so that when you took the test the next month, it started you at the difficulty that was appropriate for you.

Based on these test results, the computer spit out a reading level, a range of grade levels that you should be reading at (e.g. 4.3-6.5, middle of fourth grade through middle of sixth grade). Then you went on arbookfind.com and looked up whatever book you were reading. AR (Advanced Reader) was a program that reviewed the vocabulary used in books and gave them a grade level based on the author’s diction. The books you read were supposed to fall into the range given to you by the computer.

By fourth grade, I was testing at a high school reading level. By sixth grade, my range was something like 7.2-12.4, which made it almost impossible to read books at my level. But we’ll get back to that.

I don’t know what my sister’s reading level it, but I’ve gathered from conversations that it is on grade level, probably a little above it.

Here’s the thing: I hate reading levels. Everything about them.

Because here’s the attitude teachers take:

You should read books that are within you reading level.

Which often translates to:

Don’t read that book, it’s above you reading level.

I’ve literally had a teacher say to me, “You should know 99% of the words in a book you are reading.”

But how are you supposed to improve you reading level if you only read books inside of it? How are you supposed to learn new words if you aren’t reading new words? Reading levels create a culture of stagnation. Instead of driving kids to read whatever books interest them, no matter what age level they are written for, kids today are told that the only books they should read are the ones that are “appropriate for them.” Instead of challenging children to read books that will be difficult, teachers like the one quoted above are holding their students’ hands and pulling them away from the edge of what I can only assume they consider some form of moral damnation.

This pisses me off.

Reading is one of the most important things in my life. I credit it with most of my successes: I’m really smart. I have a really good vocabulary. I can figure out a word based on context clues alone. I can read an article with words I don’t know but still understand it, because I’ve always read things that were too hard for me.

I would not be myself if I had read the books the computer told me to read.

Kids should read books that sound interesting. If we try to tie them down and force feed them books that are deemed “right for them,” we kill a generation of would-be readers.

In second grade (I think), my teacher had bins of books, each categorized by the reading level they had been awarded. Reading at already a higher reading level than most of the books provided, I was forced to gag my way through How to Eat Fried Worms, easily the grossest book of my life–and I read half of Mary Roach’s Stiff, which is about cadavers.

In addition, I found AR’s ranking of books to be at best arbitrary and at worst nonsensical. Because it only analyzes books with a computer, it misses the other elements of a book that can increase or decrease the actually grade level a book can be read at, including plot content and the author’s use of “big” words.

For instance, in the Series of Unfortunate events, Lemony Snicket makes a point of using long, complex words, but then DEFINES THEM in a way that a small child would understand. That’s just part of his writing style. I could easily read them in first grade, because he made it readable to that age. But AR awards them sixth grade reading levels. This is an example of drastic overstating the actual reading level of a series, not accounting for an author’s use of words.

On the other end of the spectrum, Alice in Zombieland is given a 4.5 reading level. I read this book last year, and loved it. However, it is a dark, intense book–no matter what the title implies, it is not a lighthearted book. There are strong elements of death, danger, and sadness that I would not have been comfortable reading in fourth grade. The interest level given by AR (because it also tells you what ages of children would want to read this series) is MG+, Young Adult when translated out of stupid AR speak. The plot of this book is at a high school level. And yet, according to AR’s logic, a fourth grader would be fine reading it, and it would be pitiful for a high schooler to touch it. I can only imagine what the teacher whose words started this rant would say when confronted with this conundrum.

But back to Harry Potter.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’s level is 5.5, with an interest level of MG (4-8 grade). Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince’s is 7.2, with an interest level of MG+ (young adult). The series clearly matures as it progresses, so this isn’t an insane jump. I’m not sure the vocabulary is really that hard, but whatever the computer says. The point is, the interest level of the first book includes fourth grade. There is no reason a fourth grader shouldn’t read at least book one (and then see argument #2 above).

Reading is the best way to improve vocabulary. Seriously. And it’s fun.

We are living in a culture where high schoolers are carrying around SAT vocab prep books as freshmen (one of my friends does this). But if we had just encouraged children to read at a young age, and challenge themselves to read books that are maybe a little too hard, maybe a little too mature, we’d have this problem fixed before we ever needed to wallow away a summer at SAT bootcamp. Read whatever you want. Read books below you and above you. Read for the sake of reading and be surprised at how much more you understand about not just our language, but the world.

For parents out there, please trust your kids to pick out books, but also encourage them to challenge themselves. I feel like a lot of parents in elementary school are afraid of their kids maturing too quickly, and dissuade them from reading books that are “older,” especially if they have a teacher’s voice preaching reading levels at them in the background.

All I know is that if my mom had done that, I definitely wouldn’t have tested at a 12th grade reading level at any point in my life. And if I’d actually cared at all about AR reading levels when I was in elementary school, I wouldn’t have a blog dedicated to my love of books today.