When It's Story Time, Kids Pick the Classics

'To Kill a Mockingbird' beats Harry Potter, according to one study.


After all the fuss that's been made over the Harry Potter books, a new study finds the classic works of Dr. Seuss, E. B. White, Judy Blume, and others easily trump J. K. Rowling's extraordinarily popular series. Along with S. E. Hinton, Laura Numeroff, Katherine Paterson, Gary Paulsen, and Harper Lee, these well-known authors have the most student readers, according to a study of 78.5 million books read by more than 3 million children nationwide.

Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham was the most popular first-grade book, according to the Renaissance Learning study, while Numeroff won over second graders with her If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. White came in No. 1 for third graders with the classic finely spun story Charlotte's Web, and Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing was the favorite, somewhat predictably, with fourth graders.

Renaissance Learning, the website that conducted the study, was founded with the goal of motivating students to read. Now, over 20 years later, it's a robust business with programs operating in 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. And it's uniquely positioned to provide telling statistics on the reading habits of students at more than 9,800 U.S. schools. The site's software measures student reading comprehension with computer quizzes on specific books, either online or with company software. Students earn points for word difficulty, word length, sentence length, and total number of words in the book (the graphic novel wouldn't fare well here). And sometimes schools even award prizes.

This carrot-style approach could motivate children to read more. Nevertheless, the study found that the number of books kids read declines as they grow older: While sixth graders averaged 12.9 books per year in 2007, for ninth graders the number dropped to 6.5, and for high school seniors it was a measly 4.5.

Some teachers were particularly pleased at the longevity of Lee's 48-year-old novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which topped the list for ninth through 12th graders. Others say it owes much of its success to the fact that teachers make it part of the curriculum. Indeed, the report doesn't distinguish between books that were assigned and those students chose on their own. With first graders, for instance, 18 percent of the books were "read to" the student, 12 percent were "read with" the student, and 70 percent were read "independently."