Thursday, August 18, 2005

Message to Kids (and Parents): Just Read!

M(sn)B(c) of Blonde Champagne fame has composed a post that warms my heart. Particularly this bit:

Understand, I could never scramble together enough books as a child, because I was a voracious reader, and also a dork. There was none of this Harry Potter business back in my day. We had our Baby Sitters Club, which somehow managed to produce 41837137 books with exactly the same plot, and we liked it. We loved it.

But the new installments (Baby Sitter’s Club #798: Kristy's Training Bra Dilemma) only appeared once every two months or so, and I had to make do in the meantime with the likes of the Archie comic I had already read eight times, because you just cannot have too much of Jughead eating another hamburger.
For ten years I worked the sales floor in one of the major bookselling chains. I am familiar with all of the major children's and young adult reading fads of the 1990s, from R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series to Animorphs to J.K. Rowling's first few Harry Potter novels. The Baby Sitters Club was consistently a big hit with girls as more popular series came and went. As MB says, each BSC book had "exactly the same plot, and we liked it". This describes just about every other series in the Intermediate Readers and Young Adult sections. It was formulaic, but the kids loved it. They would actually read those books.

MB's mother had other ideas for her child:
I was quite the little English major. My mother stocked the shelves with A Wrinkle In Time and Julie and the Wolves and Island of the Blue Dolphins, because these were Newberry Award winners, and therefore good for me to read, and so of course I got maybe two paragraphs in and went back to Archie, because nobody ever made two dates for the prom in Island of the Blue Dolphins.
My father bought a series of Classic Novels for Young Readers when we were kids. Those books went up on the shelf. They looked nice on the shelf. But his intention was for his kids to actually take one off of the shelf from time to time, open it, and look at the words on the pages. To his dismay, they stayed on the shelf. I still have those books, and one of these days I might take a crack at the Jules Verne novel up there. But you ultimately can't force particular reading habits on children. Too many parents make this mistake.

As a child, I liked comic books, and had a preference for DC and Marvel superhero stories. When I opted to pop open something more substantive, I would go for an anthology, or a reference work. I liked looking things up in almanacs, encyclopedias, and atlases. You couldn't get me to read a novel cover-to-cover, unless it was absolutely necessary for a class. (I'm still that way about lengthy narratives.) No one could have predicted my tastes in reading. Every child is different.

Working at the book shop, I frequently took questions from parents whose children's reading levels were a year or two ahead of their grade. The were four possible conclusions that I could draw from this:
  1. The parents were dirty liars.
  2. The parents were delusional when it came to their children.
  3. Every kid in third grade reads at a fifth grade level, every fourth grader reads sixth grade material, and so on.
  4. Parents of children who read at their own grade's reading level don't come in and boast about it when making a book selection
Number four is the most realistic conclusion, although the information desk people would tend to go with number two. Parents want the best for their kids, and often like to think that the kids are more advanced than they actually are. So they go out and buy books that the child never reads.

It was not unusual for a parent to come in and request anything but Goosebumps, or anything other than whatever the top seller was. Either they didn't like the subject matter, or they didn't like the uniformity of plot, or they just wanted children to try something different. As booksellers, we just wanted to sell whatever merchandise we had to whoever would hand over money for it. That's what pays the bills.

But those of us who were concerned with children's reading recognized something that a lot of parents lose sight of: The important thing is that your child is reading. They don't have to be forced to digest all of the "great works" of children's literature, whether it be the classics or the modern award winners. We knew that it didn't matter what children's books the kids were reading; the important thing is that they were reading something. And if they prefer Goosebumps or Baby Sitters Club to A Wrinkle In Time or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, then so be it. They will move on to something else eventually.

And that brings us back to Blonde Champagne. Where did MB end up after all of those Baby Sitters Club books and Archie comics?
I am a big girl professor now and can make my students read the warning labels on WiteOut if I want
See? It's not quite up to the level of a comic book, but if MB makes her students read office product labels, at least they are reading something.


Honnistaibe said...

I'm to believe you weren't weaned on the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew?..Maybe you didn't have an older sister..I read "20,000 Leagues" at 10. At 12 I read "Berlin Diary" by William Shirer and "The Gathering Storm" by Churchill..then I discovered erotic writing in Arthur Hailey's "Final Diagnosis" and my reading skills declined rapidly

Nicko McDave said...

Afraid not. I've never had the patience for a cover-to-cover narrative, though I have to admit that I started feeling more comfortable with novels in high school. Then, in twelfth grade, I took Advanced Placement English and literature could never be fun for me again.

Some of my favorite books growing up were the People's Almanacs and Books of lists by the Wallace/Wallechinsky family. I liked facts, articles, and essays. A friend in college told me that I was the most well-read person he knew. I disagreed since I wasn't a cover-to-cover reader. But, he said, you're very informed -- you know so much. Well, of course. My hit-and-run reading habits made me more well-informed than someone who just reads novels.

Nowadays, books are just anice distraction for me on the bus, where I don't have access to the Internet!