Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Kids Do It Better

I have an obsession, maybe of the unhealthy variety, with getting kids and teens to read. I'm not just talking about reading in general, or reading "drivel," but how to get kids and teens to appreciate the really great works of literature that have become classics or staples of curriculum for very valid reasons.

Many people are frank in their admission that they didn't (or don't) like reading books that were assigned in school. That goes for me; of the 12-15 books that I was assigned to read in high school, I only read one completely (Lord of the Flies... because I was obsessed with the movie and was nursing quite the crush on a young Balthazar Getty), read one partially (Brave New World), and skimmed or skipped a bunch more (Red Badge of Courage, The Great Gatsby, The Martian Chronicles, Gulliver's Travels, Les Miserable, The Brothers Kazamarov, Metamorphosis... this list could go on for a long time). It wasn't much better in middle school (all I know of To Kill a Mockingbird is a result of the movie) or in college (Homer's epics were quite the bore), but since then I've wizened up.

The big turn came (my metamorphosis, if you will) after reading How to Read Literature Like a Professor. That book should be required reading before any work of classic literature is assigned. Now that I'm armed with the secrets to understanding bigger-than-life symbols, now that I've learned to stop reading like a 20th-century female WASP, now that I appreciate the way that books have shaped legions of people, now I'm armed to be a reader.

I'm also ready to take up arms in the fight to get kids to read good books, not "moral" or "clean" books, per se (banning isn't on my agenda); rather, how to get kids to read books with substance and to think about them. If you want to spend a couple hours ripping through Twilight, be my guest, but in the end, be prepared to have a discussion with me about the symbolism of vampires (and if there was any over-arching reason she made her "good" vampires to be vegetarians) and how the author's faith affected her writing (even if she isn't meta enough to realize that it does).

But in the mean time, while we wait for teenage girls to progress beyond "Edward's so dreamy," there are some people doing awesome things for young readers. I encourage all the faithful librarians, teachers, home-schooling parents, involved parents, interested adults, book sellers, and anyone else with a shred of sense to check out these resources: Guys Read, Guys Lit Wire, and Readergirlz (even if the name is cheesy).

They're doing the early work--getting kids to dip their toes into the collective pools of literature--and those of us who have hand-to-hand, day-to-day contact with kids, need to take it a step further and engage them to read in a way that stretches. Encourage them to read Rick Riordan's books in middle school so they'll be piqued for Homer in high school and college; get them to check out Alan Grantz's books before they're expected to tackle Shakespeare; point them toward books like Undercover or Waiting for Alaska before they jump into Cyrano or anything by Faulkner.

I welcome anyone else who has suggestions on good "introductory" type books or other online resources for getting kids and teens to read to join in on the thread. Please comment away, fellow book lovers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm actually OK with kids reading stuff I don't consider quality because it's not always my decision. As a high school English teacher, it was my job to help them find the literary even in the "crap." So, I assigned an author project. The kids picked an author and researched his/her life, secondary sources, etc. It forced them to realize that some writers have more to say than others.

It was much like what you have to say about Twilight.