For the Love of Reading . . .
Recently the New Yorker published a piece by Rebecca Mead titled “The Percy Jackson Problem” wherein she argues that Neil Gaiman’s philosophy of “so long as they’re reading.” may not prove true in all circumstances.
“What if the strenuous accessibility of “Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods” proves so alluring to young readers that it seduces them in the opposite direction from that which Gaiman’s words presuppose—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?”
I likely have a lot I could say to this. In fact, many have already said a lot of what I’d want to say on the topic. Some of what I’ve said in my blog post Reading While Adult comes to mind as well.
At the end of reading her opinion piece, I immediately had two questions.
What, exactly would she expect youngsters to read?
Middle grade fiction and YA fiction for 7 to 17 year olds is a constantly moving, changing list. Hot new books come out and populate the shelves, garner readers attention and get talked about and read. A few manage to hang on over the years, and some of those may be deemed “classics” for that particular audience, but a majority of books are always new, seeking to be relevant to the audience they’re speaking to. That means including the way kids talk now. (Rather than the “gosh”, “golly” and “gee-whiz” of the past). That means mentioning their day to day lives and tech and interests in popular culture much of the time.
Mead seems to feel that if kids aren’t reading books she’s subjectively labelled “literary”, then they aren’t somehow getting the reading nutrients they need. But I don’t feel that the sole objective of having kids read–or anyone read for that matter, is having them read highly literary works and offer competent analysis of those works. Once we get past the nuts and bolts of reading, kids are set loose with their reading skills to absorb the stories and ideas they encounter. This is nothing new. True, there are a great deal more books out today to draw young readers in, but that isn’t a bad thing. Teaching kids to read for enjoyment means we have to let them have some say in what they like and what they read. Kids who enjoy reading lead to adults who enjoy reading.
Will that reading be literary? Beyond the fact that what counts as literary is pretty subjective, most children will be exposed to classic literature in school at the very least. If parents tend to love it, then I’d expect they’d spend some time reading appropriate classics aloud to their children. But you can’t force someone to enjoy a specific sort of books–and if you force them into reading them, they may lose all interest in reading for any reason. And why should we deprive or diminish anyone reading what they enjoy?
I think all kids ideally should be exposed to a healthy range of reading options and styles, but exposure is the key here–kids still need the freedom to pick what they like to read when they read for their own pleasure.
The second question I had was:
What have kids (now adults) read in the past?
So I asked a group of my friends online what they loved reading from 6-14 years old. My friends are (admittedly) a bookish bunch, with quite a few writers and intellectuals among them. They range in age from their 20s to 70s. Below I’ve listed their responses. Some listed authors and and some listed book titles. Any book or author mentioned more than once has been noted as such.
Agatha Christie, Andre Norton (2 read), Anne McCaffrey, Astrid Lindgren (2 read), Beverly Cleary, Brian Jacques, Cynthia Voigt, E. Nesbit (2 read), Edgar Eager, Enid Blyton (3 read), Erich Kaestner, Johanna Spyri, Judy Blume (2 read), Lois Duncan, Lucy M. Boston, Marguerite Henry, Michael Ende, Noel Streatfield, Roald Dahl (6 read), Robert Heinlein, Robin McKinley, Shel Silverstein, Tamora Pierce, Walter Farley,
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (6 read)
- Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
- All-of-a-Kind Family by Sidney Taylor (2 read)
- Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery (3 read)
- Anthony Adverse series by Hervey Allen
- The Babysitter’s Club by Ann Martin
- Bedknob and Broomstick by Mary Norton
- Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
- The Bobbsey Twins by Laura Lee Hope (6 read)
- The Borrowers by Mary Norton (2 read)
- The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner (2 read)
- Call of the Wild by Jack London
- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (2 read)
- Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White (2 read)
- Cherry Ames, Student Nurse series by Helen Wells
- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis (10 read)
- Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
- The Coral Island by R. M. Ballyntyne
- The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
- D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths by Ingri d’Aulaire and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire (2 reads)
- Dr. Doolittle series by Hugh Lofting (2 read)
- The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit
- Encyclopedia Brown by Donald J. Sobol (2 read)
- The Famous Five by Enid Blyton (3 read)
- Freddy the Pig by Walter R. Brooks
- From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg (2 read)
- The Giver by Lois Lowry
- The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald
- The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread by Don Robertson
- The Guinness Book of World Records
- Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift ( 2 read)
- The Happy Hollisters by Jerry West
- Hardy Boys by Franklin W. Dixon (2 read)
- Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (2 read)
- The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (2 read)
- Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- Icewind Dale trilogy by R. A. Salvatore
- It’s Like This, Cat by Emily Cheney Neville
- John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
- Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling
- The Knights Castle by Edgar Eager
- Little House on the the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (8 read)
- The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
- Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (2 read)
- Matthew Looney series by Jerome Beatty Jr.
- Moomin series by Tove Jansson (2 read)
- The Mushroom Planet series by Eleanor Cameron
- Nancy Drew by Carolyn Keene (10 read)
- The Once and Future King by T. H. White
- The Oz Series by L. Frank Baum (5 read)
- Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (2 read)
- Rex of the Coast Patrol by Margaret S. Johnson
- The River by Gary Paulsen
- The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
- Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- The Story of Roland by James Baldwin
- The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow by Allen French
- Stuart Little by E. B. White
- Swiss Family Robinson by John David Wyss
- Tales of King Arthur by Thomas Mallory
- The Talking Parcel by Gerald Durrell
- Thee, Hannah by Marguerite de Angeli
- Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (2 read)
- The Three Investigators by Robert Arthur (2 read)
- The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
- Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
- The Tripod Trilogy by John Christopher
- Trixie Belden by Julie Campbell (3 read)
- The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (3 read)
- Westmark Trilogy by Lloyd Alexander
- Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (3 read)
Looking over the list, there’s much here that would probably satisfy a “literary” soul, but there’s plenty of titles and authors that are genre or serial in nature as well. In fact, this list has given me a few new titles to add to my own to be read pile. At the end of the day though, I don’t think it really matters what my friends read when they were young, so long as they enjoyed those reads and got some satisfaction in reading them.
My recommendation to those who might fear their child’s more populist reading will leave them somehow “stuck” is to demonstrate their own love of reading. Pull out those tomes you admire, share and discuss them, bring the excitement to bear and “sell” those books to your kids with your own enthusiasm. Read to your child, but be ready to read what they’re reading too! Kids want you to respect what they care about, and if a parent simply dismisses what their kids are reading, those kids are going to be less willing to build the bridge to literature the adult does care about.
There’s an amazing array of stuff out there to discover, as can be seen by my own impromptu survey.
I hope you have your own book loves and share them just as enthusiastically as any middle grader might share their love of Percy Jackson.
Comments, and favorite reads welcome!
Posted on November 3, 2014, in General Posts and tagged Children's Books, Children's Literature, fantasy, Genres, literature, MG Books, Middle-Grade Fiction, Reading, Science Fiction, series. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.