In This Corner….”Junk Books” vs. the Classics!

I was reading some of the blogs in my Google Reader today and saw that Lois Lowry, one of my favorite authors, responded one more time to the NY Times article on reading workshop that created such a buzz this weekend.  While I respect Lowry and absolutely adore her work, I’m going to have to beg to differ with her opinion here:

“Those who feel that once we get kids to “enjoy” reading by way of Gossip Girls and its ilk, they will eventually move on, on their own, to the “classics”—-AIN’T. GONNA. HAPPEN.  They will move on to read popular novels, and there is nothing wrong with that. But not one of them will ever voluntarily pick up Joseph Conrad or Henry James or Virginia Woolf.”

Not so, Ms. Lowry!

I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

First of all, we have to differentiate between the classics and good literature. There have been plenty of books published in the last 25 years that will someday be considered classics.  If kids are reading those then I am perfectly happy and consider those books just as important as the classics!  In this instance I will include both classics and those destined to be classics.  My students who sometimes begin reading “junk” books often move on to more “important” literature.  Keep in mind that literature is important in the eyes of adults.  For my students, their current “junk” book might be more important to them at this point in their life.  Maybe they finally found themselves in a character.  Or perhaps they learn to look at life from a different perspective.  Even “junk” can teach us something.  Plus, one man’s junk is another’s treasure, as we all know.

As for anecdotal evidence, I have seen it with my own eyes.  I have plenty of students each year who begin school reading what many would call junk.  Do I stop them?  Never!  That junk will be the reading material that opens their eyes to a world of possibilities- the world of reading.  All their lives they have been told no, don’t read this.  Don’t read that.  Only what we (parents, teachers) say is important counts.  You can’t be trusted to choose good books or read decent literature.

No wonder so many adolescents and tweens hate reading!  No one allows them to find their niche.  When I tell my students they can read anything they want they are overwhelmed at first.  For far too long they have been shut down and shut out of the conversation.  So they take advantage of the “whatever you want” aspect of my independent reading time.  Yes, Twilight is a popular choice with many of my reluctant readers. So are books like Cirque du Freak: A Living Nightmare and fluffy graphic novels like Babymouse #1: Queen of the World!. None of these are “great literature” or someday classics. In fact, many people would refer to them as junk books.

But in a few short months, those choices have led to new books, modern classics like Speak, Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, and The Stand.  Why?  Because students have learned that reading is actually fun and enjoyable!  They know what they like- graphic novels, or realistic fiction about social issues, or horror.  It’s a natural progression as they seek out more and more books.

Does every student move on to the classics?  Of course not.  Not every student is starting at the same level.  But learning to enjoy reading means that they will read the classics someday or at the very least, the odds are better that they will!  It also means they are more likely to understand the books assigned in high school and college because they have built up their reading stamina.

Unlike the teacher in the article, I don’t have my students read the whole period, every period.  We do a few whole class novels (including Lowry’s <a href=”http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0440237688?ie=UTF8&tag=thereazon-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0440237688″>The Giver</a>).   My post from yesterday details my reading workshop and the way I teach whole-class novels and read alouds.  But my students do get to read books of their choice every day and my lesson plans revolve around those books 80% of the year.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So Ms. Lowry, we will have to agree to disagree here. Writers don’t write no junk in my eyes, because as teachers we never know which book will be the key that opens the door to the world of reading.  Whether it’s Gossip Girl or Virginia Woolf, all the keys fit the lock.

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14 Responses

  1. Very well said.

    I was thinking about this issue this week actually. I’ve been so swamped with my own book launch stuff that my brain literally had no room to appreciate the highly acclaimed and very literary novel I had started. So I gave it to my dad to read instead and picked up the Sophie Kinsella novel I got at the library book sale for fifty cents. I could almost hear my high school English teacher tsking, and I took a moment to be thankful that I get to choose my own “right book at the right time.” I think our students deserve the same respect.

  2. Amen! As a girl, I read Nancy Drew, the Anastasia books, (Lowry’s lighter fare), and WWII haunting books such as Searching for Shona. I never really graduated beyond YA, but I have, at the encouragement of other readers, read East of Eden, Gilead, and other serious novels.

    I find it a little silly that Ms. Lowry would so denounce light reading: the thing I love about her is the breadth of her oeuvre: Anastasia is the light fare, Number the Stars is medium, and the Giver and its sequels are the hard core books.

    Reading is reading.

    –a children’s librarian

  3. I completely fell in love with reading when I dove into the Harry Potter series, but prior to that I used to love the Clique series by Lisi Harrison. Two years later I’m reading Sylvia Plath on my own accord.

  4. I love the Nancie Atwell description of holiday books – and the understanding that there are times when we all need a break and a bit of a ‘holiday’ in our reading.

    Personally, I’m completely happy to put any book in a kids hands if it will lead to more reading – I had one go from short ‘girl books’ to The Call of the Wild this year.

  5. I would argue, too, that kids need to be allowed to read fun/junk books in order to become the PROFICIENT readers they need to be to tackle more challenging books. If they’re still struggling with decoding text they will never be able to delve into deeper meanings.

    Several years ago I read about a fascinating study that interviewed avid adult readers (I think defined as reading at least one book a month) and asked them what they read as children. Almost to a person, they cited some “junk” series that had really gotten them hooked – Goosebumps, Babysitters Club, Sweet Valley High, Nancy Drew. The conclusion of the study was that reading these books – especially series books that follow such predictable patterns – was really valuable in making kids proficient readers.

    • That’s a really good point, and one I hadn’t thought of. Those “classic” books can seem really daunting, and usually only confident readers take them on. “Junk” books are a great confidence builder for readers.

  6. I was going to comment, but Wendi Gratz already said everything I was thinking. Just leaving a reply to say “hear hear” to your response.

  7. It’s so important to draw attention to reading, and attract reluctant readers to it,especially boys. In fact, I’ve recently completed a feature magazine article on this subject that comes out in October, “Help for Struggling, Reluctant Readers.”

    I grew up as a reluctant reader, in spite of the fact that my father published over 70 books. Now I write action-adventures & mysteries, especially for tween boys, that avid boy readers and girls enjoy just as much.

    My blog, Books for Boys http://booksandboys.blogspot.com is dedicated to drawing attention to the importance of reading.

    Keep up your good work.

    Max Elliot Anderson

  8. Just like Kate, I am thinking about this subject, too. I was a very bored student in public schools (really not prepared to learn), but comic books and guitar magazines sustained me. I think that the authors at Marvel Comics took writing very seriously and did some fine work. My imagination went wild w/ those things. It worked just as you describe. Reading “junk”, as some call it, did eventually lead to poetry, history, psychology, philosophy, etc. Junk can be a great spring board to other material for many of us. In fact, I wasn’t taught with phonics at all!! We used Dick and Jane. But, I really liked what was in front of me so I must have asked questions and figured out much of the rest. BTW, I still like comics. They have gotten even better, I think.

  9. I totally agree! I teach 5th graders and my kids need to learn to love books and reading without being pushed into anything specific. Once they find their niche, they will be well on their way to a lifelong love of reading.

  10. [...] “choice” and “canon” in Readicide. Sarah Mulhern from The Reading Zone takes exception to a statement by Lois Lowry about “junk books” vs. the classics. She concludes: [...]

  11. [...] Junk books vs. “the classics” [...]

  12. Anything that gets a child to read is a good thing!

  13. I totally agree with you. My mom teaches high school English, and she’s had several students go from reading nothing to reading voraciously, and all because she encouraged them to read whatever they wanted. And who’s to say that only those books deemed “classic” are worthy of being read?

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