My Bio

My Bio
My name is Sharon Levin and I've been reviewing children's literature for 20 years. I founded and run the Bay Area Children's Literature List. My biggest passion (outside my family) is getting books into the hands of children and teens. My favorite thing is getting non-readers to realize that they're readers. I also LOVE t-shirts that have to do with books or literature. As soon as I figure out how to do it, I'll have a click through on the above picture so you can see my entire collection (and where to get them).

June 23, 2013

Katherine Paterson confirms why I HATE Standardized Testing

A few years ago I was at one of my favorite conferences, Children's Literature New England (it was like camp for children's literature aficionados) in Essex, Vermont.  One of the keynote speakers was Katherine  Paterson (  She told a lovely and aggravating (given the state of schools and testing today) story about a friend of hers.  Because I am the Queen of Procrastination, I asked Mrs. Paterson for permission to put this story on my blog TWO YEARS AGO, which she generously gave me on the spot (so the delay is entirely my fault).  So, here is her story, but sadly in my words, about her friend (any errors are entirely mine and my sieve-like memory):

Many years ago there was a single mother with three highly energetic sons.  She was doing her best to raise them by herself in the city, so she was thrilled when the opportunity came to send them to the countryside for the summer where they could work on a farm and enjoy the wide open spaces.

One of the young men (let's call him Steve) was in high school and he was often getting into trouble and always doing poorly in his classes.  He was no more cooperative when he was sent to the farm.  By the second day, the farmer had decided he'd had enough of this young man and locked him in the attic as punishment.

First Steve railed at the unfairness of it all.  The farmer was not a nice person and he treated all the boys unkindly, but he had the least patience with Steve.  Steve stormed around the attic until he was too tired to continue.  He then looked around his surroundings.

All around him were bookcases, filled with all kinds of books, especially classics.  Steve figured, "Well, as long as I'm stuck in here, let's see what's in these books."  and he settled down to read.  He curled up on the floor and read for the rest of the afternoon, in that hot, stuffy attic.

The next day, he acted up again and the farmer immediately sent him to the attic.  Steve continued his 'misbehavior' in order to be locked up, but instead of being locked up, he was actually escaping.

After a summer of this, Steve and his brothers returned to the city where Steve began his senior year of high school.  In his fall semester, he was required to take the boards for college.  He aced them.  His principal, his teachers, they all believed that he had cheated.  There was no way that this lazy troublemaker could have done it any other way.

They made him take the test again, this time closely observed by two adults who stayed in the room with him.

And, yes, he aced it.

He went on to go to college, to grad school, to have a very successful career and family life - all because he read voraciously over one summer in his youth (and, of course, continued as a voracious reader ever after).

As Mrs. Paterson says when she tells this story, "What do you think would have happened if he'd been locked in an attic full of test prep materials?  Do you believe we'd have the same happy ending?"

I certainly don't.  Do you?


  1. Great story! Glad you posted it, even two years later. Unfortunately, it continues to be relevant.

  2. Love this! Thanks so much for sharing. And, as Lyn says, sadly still very relevant...

  3. Sigh, I know. I wish I could have posted it about the way things USED to be, but sadly, testing is pushed even more now than it was then.

  4. Loved the story.Thanks.
    The researcher in me says that there's a raft of generaliseable principles about learning, teaching, the act of reading, and the 'aha' phenomenon in these sorts of stories. I'd love for someone with the expertise in learning to explain how and why this kind of phenomenon works'

    1. I think part of it is the acquiring a love of language and then an enquiring mind. (for example, my mind is now wondering why my blog thinks I spelled 'enquiring' wrong). I have never seen anyone inspired by test prep. But yeah, it would be interesting to know more than anecdotal evidence (especially since that's what people like me need when battling the powers that be - see earlier post on Lexiles, sigh).

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Here in Australia we're slavishly following the standardised testing route, despite teacher objections (but what would THEY know?) So the Paterson story, even told in your words, was very relevant. I've posted it on my Facebook page and will mention it in my e-bulletin, too. Thanks very much Sharon! Regards, Virginia (

    1. Thanks Virginia. It's discouraging to hear that you have the same issues that we have here. Thanks for spreading the word.

  7. (re-post from email)
    Thank you! How could I obtain permission for translating your entry into a foreign language (Chinese), if possible? I have a blog in Chinese, recommending children's literature to Chinese families. My friend's daughter is in second grade in China. The mom happened to be telling me today that the girl had mock tests in school every other day, all in preparation for the semester's final. She also gathered a thick stack of exercise and quiz sheets the girl brought home this past semester, for language and arts alone. It's getting ridiculous, yet parents fear not doing the "right" thing for kids, often conflating the "right" thing with the thing everybody else seems to be doing. I like Katherine Patterson a lot, partly because of her connection to China too. Thank you for your attention!

    1. Dear Sharon, here is my Chinese translation of your entry, with added comment and a brief introduction to Katherine Paterson, for the benefit of Chinese readers. Please feel free to check it out. Thank you again for sharing!

  8. Thank you so much for making this international!!

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  15. I think I know why this phenomenon works. Whatever books Steve found in the attic, he connected to them. He either identified with the characters, felt an adrenaline rush in reading the stories, empathized with the characters and story, or was inspired by whatever he read, whether it be fiction or non-fiction. In sum, he connected. Connection to books is the key to wanting to read vs. being expected to read. I found that in the 3rd grade while reading "Helen Keller's Teacher by Margaret Davidson. This story resonated with me on so many levels, down to Annie Sullivan's brother dying of tuberculosis, as two years prior, I had been hospitalized and treated for tuberculosis. I recently found the very copy on Amazon, that I read as a child, and guess what? It had the same impact on me at 54 as it did when I was 8. Connection is everything. GREAT BLOG POST! Thank you!!!