Kids are reading junk. Then how do we develop healthy reading? – January 12, 2011

**Author’s Note:** I found this article on English Companion Ning today and thought that it was very interesting, as well as the opinion of my own that I found stemming as a response to it. So I have included the the article and my response below.

Kids are Reading…Junk
By Nicole Russell on 12.16.10 @ 6:07AM

Last week, the Association of American Publishers announced hardcover Children’s or Young Adult (YA) fiction sales had increased nearly 14% in the last year. As optimistic as this is for the industry, which has seen adult fiction sales decline in recent months, parents hoping to snatch the computer and shove a book in front of their children may want to re-consider the current YA market.

At first glance, the numbers appear to communicate one positive thing: Kids are reading! Unfortunately, many of the books published in the YA category that readers are devouring at higher rates than their adult counterparts are either poorly written, communicate “adult” themes to a audience of minors, or demonstrate conflicting (if any) moral principles.

The Hunger Games trilogy is currently a best-selling, science fiction series. A cross between war and reality TV, kids and adults have devoured these as fast as author Suzanne Collins could pen them (the final novel was released in August; a film is forthcoming). The series takes place in a post-apocalyptic time and country. Every year a powerful, Big Brother government selects several boys and girls between 12 and 18 years of age to gather in one place and forces them to fight to the death, à la Roman gladiators, on live television, until one remains. The books follow several main characters who attempt to survive the Hunger Games. Critics have lauded the series for its thematic elements — such as government control, sacrifice, and personal independence — and the author’s writing style, developed characters, and action elements. So far the first two books have won multiple awards and much recognition.

Beyond the commercial and critical acclaim, the basic premise seems, pardon my old-fashioned thinking, gruesome subject matter for young adults, the youngest being 14. It’s as though George Orwell’s 1984 and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road met Survivor” (the television show) and invited it to stay the night. The writing may be impeccable and the themes relevant for today’s Iraq-war-enduring teens, but the violence in the book is vivid and brutal. No doubt legal adults can handle the lucid fighting descriptions and mature themes of dystopia-era Big Brother environment — but a 14-year-old? He might be able to wrap his head around it, but just because he can, should he?

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is another hit series, though it’s worlds apart from Games. In Diary, protagonist Gregg Heffley and his friend blunder through middle-school while being as lazy as possible, save for Gregg’s chronicling their adventures in his diary. Geared toward 8-12 year olds, the first book has been made into a film because of its popularity. Despite the fascinating first-person narrative and quirky drawings that accompany it, author Jeff Kinney’s characters frequently use words like “moron” and “jerk” and Gregg is indolent, snarky, and functions with little moral compass guiding him.

The New York Times reported, in a piece on the author and his books last year, “Mr. Kinney says most of his feedback comes from grateful parents who say the books have turned their children into readers. But a few parents do complain that Greg sets a bad example.” If a child is willingly reading at eight years old, why not encourage him to read, not just anything, but something with strong characters?

The Twilight Series is perhaps the most obvious disappointment topping the young adult literature charts. Author Stephanie Meyer writes with all the grace of a parade of elephants, such is her clunky, clichéd prose, with its mixed metaphors and stupid similes. While her plot holds interest — it’s Interview with a Vampire meets Beauty and the Beast — her characters fall flat and are predictable. The two male protagonists are opposites: Edward is silent and mysterious; Jacob rash but charming. Never mind the sexual tension of the blood-sucking Edward as he woos the female protagonist, the virginal, boring Bella Swann: Her character should make parents — especially moms! — squirm.

Bella represents the anti-feminist movement, and not in the good, conservative kind of way. She instantly falls in love with a mystery of a “man” she doesn’t know and who doesn’t appear to have any redeeming qualities other than that he “sparkles” in the sun and fails to make her succumb to his blood-lust. She does little in the stories other than to allow herself to run back and forth between two men and has little ambition other than to “love” them back. This, for thousands of pages! Whereas Bella could have been a strong, independent role model of a young adult character, she is lowered to nothing more than a love-sick, apathetic, unhappy girl who finds purpose only in men and love.

Ignore the hype. If you want your child to read a dystopian novel, why not Brave New WorldAnimal Farm, or Lord of the Flies? If you need a book to accompany your middle-schooler through the trials of adolescence, try The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If it’s fantasy you think your child would like, have him give C. S. Lewis’ extensive Chronicles of Narnia (they go way beyond the first film everyone’s seen) a read. If your child appears lovesick, throw some quality writing and social commentary — and romance — in his direction with Wuthering Heights or Pride and Prejudice. These novels have one thing in common: They’re readable from a young age and they engage children in the magical world of fiction while imploring them to develop moral character for the real world.

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My response:

In my opinion, there are both pros and cons to Ms. Russell’s exhortation. The fact of the matter is, times have changed and, honestly, we are dealing with a current society where the students who could pick up Wuthering Heights or Pride and Prejudice and read it and understand it on their own are the exception, not the rule. We do not teach books like this in middle school anymore and a great many kids have never heard of them, much less read them. The books they read now are no different from the shows they watch, the games they play or the music they listen to.

I am all for students reading and I am glad to see so many of them reading but it takes time to build a taste for literature and that’s something I think Ms. Russell leaves out. Students have to start somewhere. For example, if my students are at a higher reading level, I try to nudge them towards the Great Illustrated Classics to get them started in the “higher literature”. I don’t throw them directly into the unabridged versions of The Time Machine or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The syntax, the vocabulary, it’s all so different for them and much further removed for them than for us. They need somewhere to start.

I may not agree with Stephenie Meyer’s writing skills or characters but, then again, I am admittedly a bit of a vampire snob.  I did enjoy Suzanne Collins’ writing a great deal, though parts of her story gave me nightmares. There are always pros and cons. No book will ever be perfect because the writers are not. I think that we as teachers are doing a great service to children and young people by promoting these and other books so that they can find somewhere to start. They need someone to give them a brick or two to start their own path?

As far the moral perspective goes, I think that the public tends to project a need for ethical and moral education upon widespread authors, especially young adult authors, the same way that they do upon teachers. While it is not stated specifically that this is expected of them, people to do in fact tend to expect young adult authors to teach their children good morals and have positive role models in their books. Meanwhile, adults can read steamy, morally-skewed romance novels and gory, gut-wrenching horror and science fiction with no problem whatsoever. While I do agree that young adult authors should take this into consideration, not everyone agrees with me and most certainly not all writers do.

So it is rather a Catch-22, I think. Books like those we are discussing are for entertainment but they are also one of the most powerful learning tools in society today. Children emulate what they see, or what they envision, so I think it is good for these books to be discussed with the kids, for teachers and adults to give their opinions and perspectives on the plots, the characters, etc. You never know, the kids may consider those and weigh them against their own and come to develop something deep and well-thought-out in their own mind.


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