Why Are So Many Adults Threatened by Students Choosing Books?

  • Flowers in the Attic
  • A Wrinkle in Time
  • As I Lay Dying
  • Mists of Avalon
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  • The Hobbit
  • Little Women
  • Anne of Avonlea
  • the Bible
  • Cold Mountain
  • Angela’s Ashes
  • The Celestine Prophecy
  • Dreamland
  • Speak
  • The Hot Zone

A list of books you can find at garage sales or friends of the library sales?  Probably.  But the above-named books are also just some of the books I chose to read in high school.  They weren’t assigned books but instead were books that friends and I passed around.  Of course we read Hemingway, Salinger, Achebe, and Shakespeare in school.  Well, we “read” those.  I can tell you exactly which assigned books I read and which ones I “read”.  But the books I picked on my own and the ones my friends were all talking about?  Those I didn’t put down until I turned that last page.

I was a voracious reader in middle school but in high school I just didn’t have as much time to read.  The books we were reading in school, inevitably written by dead white men, didn’t interest me most of the time.  But a friend handed me Sarah Dessen’s Dreamland and another couldn’t stop talking about this kid named Harry Potter after a trip to the UK.  Another friend was reading Mists of Avalon so a few of us picked it up at the library.  My aunt, a middle school English teacher, gave me a copy of Speak. I was reading even if the books weren’t those that most adults would choose.

I was lucky, because no one in my life judged me or the books I chose to read.  (I’m not sure my mom knew I was reading Flowers in the Attic!). But not all kids are that lucky. This week The New Yorker published a column by Rebecca Mead entitled “The Percy Jackson Problem”.  In the column, Ms. Mead warns that while gateway books like Riordan’s best-selling myth adventures might lead children to the classics they can also pull them away from great literature.

Seriously?

Discussing Rick Riordan’s newest book, Ms. Mead laments “What if the strenuous accessibility of “Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods” proves so alluring to young readers that it seduces them…away from an engagement with more immediately difficult incarnations of the classics, Greek and otherwise? What if instead of urging them on to more challenging adventures on other, potentially perilous literary shores, it makes young readers hungry only for more of the palatable same?”

But what if it doesn’t?  What if those middle school students who pick up Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods also pick up D’Aulaires famous mythology classic?  What if they read The Hunger Games after finishing the Percy Jackson series and then that leads to reading 1984? They might find their way to The Handmaid’s Tale a few years after that, just as some of my students have.  Reading begets reading, no matter where you start.  Forced reading begets fake reading or no reading at all in most cases.

You know what?  Ms. Mead might even be right in her assertion that gateway books don’t always lead to reading more rigorous texts on the same topic. Maybe some of those readers will never pick up another mythology-based book again after finishing Riordan’s books.  But if we allow students to choose their own reading and we model a culture of literacy in our schools and homes they will pick up other books.  Maybe one of those students will decide to read more science fiction.  Another might read every informational or nonfiction book about primates that they can get their hands on.  Still another might move through their favorite poetry anthology. Readers read, and we create readers when we allow them to choose their reading outside of class.

Right now I am reading Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewcz and Kalahari by Jessica Khoury.  I am enjoying both but they are wildly different books.  Over the summer I read The Goldfinch: A Novel and The King In Yellow.  Like most readers, I read rigorous books and less rigorous books.  I have beach reads, quick reads, and fun reads.  I also have professional reads, longer reads, and intense reads.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Most of my colleagues and friends fall into similar patterns.  We read, but certainly not just classics or rigorous literature!

Earlier this year the Pew Research  Foundation released its reading survey for 2014 and they found that the typical American adult read five books in the previous twelve months.  Looking at my students’ current reading record I can see that most of mine have read between 3-5 books since September.  Some have read 10-20 books.  They are already way ahead of most adults! So here’s my proposal-  leave the decisions about independent reading to teachers and parents.  If you promise not to judge children and teens for their book choices I promise not to judge most American adults for the five or fewer books they read in the last year.  Readers read, and we won’t create readers if we don’t allow them to read what they want to read on their own time.

Screen Shot 2014-10-24 at 9.20.35 AM

As the always brilliant Donalyn Miller reminds us, “Reading belongs to readers, not to teachers. If we want children to see reading as anything more than a school job, we must give them the chance to choose their own books and develop personal connections to reading, or they never will.”  I’d add that reading also doesn’t belong to parents, adult relatives, or journalists. If you provide the books and the time to read, students will read.  Stop spending money on CCSS initiatives, textbooks, and standardized tests.  Take that money and spend it on books, librarians, and author visits.  Bringing Rick Riordan or John Green or any author into a school is going to create a lot more readers than any of Pearson’s tests.  And those readers will move on to more books.

Unbelievable!

Thanks to A Chair, A Fireplace, and A Tea Cozy for this link.

For those of who who did not click on the link (or only skimmed the article), Newsweek is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Anne of Green Gables.  I am a self-professed Anne aficionado.  I grew up reading everything from L.M. Montgomery that I could get my hands on.  Anne was one of my favorite heroines of classic literature, along with L.M. Montgomery’s Emily.  I read the books in each series over and over and over again.  One of my most prized possessions is a first-run copy of the Emily books that belonged to my grandmother.   I still read Anne and Emily’s stories when I want to relax and escape into a comfortable world away from my own.

No one recommended L.M. Montgomery’s books to me.  I found the Anne series on a bookshelf in one of my teacher’s classroom libraries in elementary school.  As I finished the first novel I searched for the second.  Then the third.  And the fourth.  I did the same with the Emily books.  I connected with both girls and their love of life, books, writing, imagination, family, and nature.  They were never extraordinarily popular with my generation, but occasionally I would find a kindred spirit among my peers.  In my own classroom, I recommend L.M. Montgomery’s books to a few of my students who I know will also connect with Anne and Emily.

The article does bring up a few good points.  Why isn’t Anne treated like other classic literature, i.e. the stories of Twain?  It’s most certainly an easier read than much of canon literature, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it on a suggested summer reading list.  Anne is fun, adventurous, and silly!  L.M. Montgomery succeeded in writing a timeless tale of growing up and growing older. The article also points out Anne’s similarities to women and well-known characters today- Carrie Bradshaw and Hilary Clinton, for example.  Another reason teens and adults today would enjoy reading her stories.  But she isn’t hugely popular.

However, one paragraph in the article made me absolutely furious.

That “Anne” has survived so long—and, with 50 million copies sold, so strong—is a small miracle considering the state of young-adult literature. It’s rare to find a best seller with a strong heroine anymore, in large part because, although girls will read books about boys, boys won’t go near a girl’s book, no matter how cool she is. Even in Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series, the strong, grounded Bella is willing to chuck it all for the love of her vampire boyfriend. “The literary smart girl is still showing up in literature, but she’s often the sidekick,” says Trinna Frever, an “Anne of Green Gables” scholar. “It is a reflection of a culture that’s placing less value on intelligence, and also treating intelligence as a stigmatized quality.” As smart as Anne is, you aren’t likely to find her in a classroom, either. She has survived largely through mothers who pass the book on to their daughters.

WHAT?!?

First of all, what is with the recent YA bashing going on in the media?  I was unaware that there are no strong girl heroines in literature these days.  And by these days, I mean since 1908, when Anne was first published.  Really?  REALLY?!  There have been no strong female heroines since then?  I had no idea!  Honestly, someone better run out and tell Sarah Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson, Ally Carter, Cornelia Funke, Marcus Zusak, Avi, Karen Cushman, Lois Lowry, Cynthia Voight, Jeanne Birdsall, Kate DiCamillo, Meg Cabot, Trenton Lee Stewart, Ann Brashares, Lauren Myracle, E.Lockhart, Libba Bray, Esther Friesner, Jerry Spinelli, Ann Rinaldi, et. al. that they are writing weak female characters!

Seriously?  Seriously?  SERIOUSLY??  Why is it that journalists are suddenly lamenting the lack of “fill in the blank” in modern YA literature?  It is more than obvious that these reporters and bloggers are not doing their research.  One only has to google strong female characters to get list upon list of recent books.  Hell, just to find books published in the last 50 years!  It seems to me that a terrible blight of “woe are we, nothing is like it used to be, what happened to the good old days of real kids books?” is running rampant through our society.  Please, I beg of you, talk to a bookseller or a librarian or a teacher before you publish these ignorant rants.  Even better, talk to a teen!  They can tell you what is out there now and more importantly what they want to read.

Like I said, Anne is a classic.  it doesn’t need to be taught in elementary, middle, or high school.  Sometimes that just takes all the fun out of it!  :)  And don’t worry, some of us did discover her on our own, without someone recommending her to us.  And while we may recommend her to more kindred spirits, plenty of teens and kids will continue to find her on their own.  Anne should be read by those kindred spirits, not forced on everyone and anyone who is of a certain age.  Everyone needs to find their own kindred spirit in YA- whether it be Anne, Emily, Frankie Landau-Banks, Liesel, the Penderwicks, Dicey, Tibby, Gemma, or someone else.  Let’s let the kids find their own heroines!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 7,089 other followers