Friday, August 18, 2006

Patrick’s Summer Reading Blues

My younger son Patrick went back to school this week. He was not exactly thrilled, but he’s a good student and does well once he gets back into the classroom. His one big gripe: the summer reading assignment.

I’m sure many parents are familiar with the dreaded summer reading assignment. This year, Patrick was asked to read six free choice books (This part was easy; He likes the Magic Treehouse series) and one required book, Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes. Ginger Pye was . . . problematic.

Patrick found the book extremely slow and hard to relate to. After many nights of struggling, we finally special ordered the audio version and used that to supplement his reading. This was better, but still the book was not a great experience for him. Patrick is eight years old, and he has already started forming opinions about school and reading: School is boring. They make you do things that don’t matter. Reading is boring. The books aren’t fun and they don’t mean anything to him.

As a teacher and writer, I have a lot of trouble hearing him talk this way. Unfortunately, after struggling through Ginger Pye with him, I am hard-pressed not to think the kid has a point. I tried reminding him that some books are great. I write books, after all, so he should love reading. Books pay for his tuition! But Patrick just shrugged. He bases his opinion on what he is required to do: read Ginger Pye.

The day before school started, we lost the book. Perhaps Patrick threw it away, as he had been threatening to do all summer. I don’t know. At any rate, we had to drive to the bookstore to buy another. I called in advance to make sure the store had copies. They did. They always keep Newbery titles in stock. As we were checking out, the clerk raised her eyebrows and said, “That’s an old one, isn’t it?” True, the book was published in 1952. But hey: It’s a Newbery title, so here it is, still being read fifty-four years later.

On the way home, Patrick took the book out of the bag and looked at it. He grumbled for a while about how much he wished he could burn it. Then he said, “What’s this thing on the cover?”

I glanced back. “That’s the Newbery Award medal.”

“What’s it mean?”

“Well, it means a group of librarians voted it the best book for children the year it came out.”

Patrick looked stunned, then appalled. Then he rolled his eyes dramatically, and with as much eight-year-old contempt as he could muster, he said, “Librarians!”

I tried to explain that the Newbery is supposed to honor quality literature, books that really make kids think, not necessarily the books that are the most fun to read. I told him Ginger Pye might have been more accessible back when it was published. Patrick was having none of it.

“Adults may like it,” he said firmly. “Kids don’t.”

And I think Patrick put his finger on a problem that still troubles the world of children’s literature. What kids read is dictated by adults – from the writers and editors to the booksellers and librarians. We are all well-intentioned. We do our best to decide what will be good reading for children, but sometimes we pick what we think kids should like, not what they do like. And when we don’t promote books children actually want to read, what happens? We produce generation after generation of nonreaders.

Now I’m not blaming the Newbery Award for our barely literate society. Some Newbery books are absolutely stunning. But you’ll excuse me if I say, having taught English for fifteen years, that very few Newbery titles are . . . er . . . crowd-pleasers. Try as I might, my students quickly learned to steer away from Newbery titles when they were given a reading list to choose from. Why? That little gold sticker, in their minds, had come to mean “BORING.” Those were the required books, the ones you only read if you had to.

I sometimes wonder what the Newbery committee envisions when they choose their books. I imagine they picture a solitary book-loving child, curled up in a library chair by a window on a rainy day, happily absorbed in a thought-provoking novel. I doubt they picture a classroom full of twenty to thirty reluctant readers, forced to study the novel because it’s “on the list,” even if the novel was published twenty, thirty, or fifty-four years ago. Unfortunately, in promoting quality children’s literature, the Newbery too often forgets the word “children.” We use these books as our canon of must-read titles. These are recommended. They must be safe. They must be quality. The parents certainly cannot complain if a book has that little golden sticker. And in using these books over and over for decades, we end up convincing kids of what they already suspected: Reading is boring. Reading is hard, and it doesn’t apply to their lives. I doubt this is what any librarian would want, but all too often that’s exactly what happens. Ask the parents in Patrick’s class who were grumbling about Ginger Pye at the pool party. Ask Patrick. And please God, grant me the wisdom to remember that I am writing for children, not golden stickers. If children don’t enjoy my books, I haven’t done my job.