A holiday guide to books for kids

The Washington Post has an article today by Jay Matthews, "A holiday guide to books for kids" [This is his 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.

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