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Times article on summer reading - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Times article on summer reading
Could the tide be turning? I'm beginning to feel less and less like a lone voice crying out in the wilderness against these "problem novels" and in favor of, you know, enjoyable reading.

this article
appears in the opinion section of the NYT (thanks for the link to the ever-resourceful sjepstein). It may require registration, which is free, but if it's to much of a hassle, here are some quotes.

Take a look, and you'll find that resting and roaming are not key experiences in many of the "young adult" novels on the lists. Less common too is "suggested" reading. "In September," reads an addendum to a summer book list handed out to sixth-graders in a nearby school, "you will be given a computer-generated test on your summer reading. This will count as 20 percent of your grade, or two quiz scores."

The required books are often the "good books"... They tend not to be about children having adventures or fighting foes in slightly enchanted realms, as the young characters do in, say, "A Wrinkle in Time," the 1962 classic by Madeleine L'Engle. Instead, they depict children who must "come to terms," "cope with" and "work through" harsh realties. Where characters in my books lollygagged in meadows, as it were, the children in these books are trying to hack their way out of cellars... . A 10-year-old attending the creative arts program I run told me, "Those books give me a headache in my stomach."

But what makes a book useful to a child? A book provides insight into oneself, the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim has written, only when one is already needing and ready to receive such insight. Otherwise, presumably, a book at best has little impact, or at worst, sideswipes the reader with an emotional force he's not ready to handle.

But should helping children face adversity be the main goal of children's literature? Why does facing adversity have to be understood as work, in adult terms? Don't children have their own ways of processing experience distinct from adults'?

We seem to have lost sight of what children can actually process, and more important, of their own innate capacities...

Strangely, it seems that in such stories the only people who get to break free are the missing parents: these characters seem to have found their lives too stressful and boxed-in, and have fled — right out of the books.
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cheshyre From: cheshyre Date: July 17th, 2004 08:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
I am so glad I never went thru that kind of summer reading list growing up. The only summer vacation I was given a list of books was before taking AP American History. I had to go to the local Junior College to find any of them, the ones I picked up were incomprehensible, and to my relief in the fall, I discovered that none of my classmates had read them either.

FWIW, you're not the only YA librarian on my flist to complain about the horror of summer reading lists.

This morning, I was thinking of what I would do were I in the position of assigning a summer reading list. I imagined telling students to read an Arthurian novel (or 2 or 3).
Could lead to an interesting class discussion in the fall of commonalities and differences in works based on the same source material. Which characters appear in which versions. The different ways magic and religion are treated.

But, of course, I'll never be in a position to assign such a list, so it's all just a fantasy... Still, would probably be more fun than the reality.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 17th, 2004 09:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
Actually, the BPL has been involved in doing school reading lists (I got Ender's Game on a couple of years ago). But it's an uphill battle.

Among the hard-hitting books I'd recommend would be something like Lord of the Flies, which is very heavy thematically, but so metaphorical that it's pretty much a fairy tale. A Separate Peace is pretty good, too, as not many people are going to immediately see "reality" in a story about a couple of rich boarding school boys in the forties.

But I'd totally put Prisoner of Azkaban on the list, and if they want high school issues, I'm happy to spring for Carrie as well. :p

Arthur books are great, too. Mary Stewart's Crystal Cave actually made the list--unsurprisingly, it's among the first to disappear every summer. For younger kids, I like Jane Yolen's young Merlin series as well. (I liked them as an adult as well, but they're about two hours' reading apiece for a good reader.)

I'm willing to say something shocking and say that I wouldn't mind them seeing a few movies, not in place of the books that are supposed to be adapted, but in their own right. After all, analyzing a story is analyzing a story. There's a lot to be played with in a lot of movies, analyzing the text and the visual symbolism--we had a long conversation on TFN about images of people moving up and down in The Phantom Menace that makes some inner English teacher in me smile even remembering it. That develops the same skill as analyzing a book. And frankly, I'd rather people watched Shakespeare than read him--scripts, by their nature, are incomplete without performance.
From: arclevel Date: July 17th, 2004 09:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
And frankly, I'd rather people watched Shakespeare than read him--scripts, by their nature, are incomplete without performance.

Amen. English teachers need to remember that Shakespeare probably would have been horrified to realize that millions of people would be *reading* his plays in centuries to come. He was, essentially, a screenwriter!
sonetka From: sonetka Date: July 17th, 2004 09:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
Never had a summer reading list, just read what I liked - oddly enough, it mostly turned out to be fantasy/adventure-oriented. Because I went to the library almost every day in summer time, I did end up reading several of the "problem novels" because, well, they were there, but don't remember being particularly impressed with any of them. Even when they dealt with problems I actually had - being tormented in junior high was a key theme - I didn't like them. I didn't want to read stories about things which I already knew far too much about; I wanted to read about stuff I didn't know. (A major exception to this was that I loved Beverly Cleary, but she's not exactly a "problem" writer, though she can nail the mentalities of small children very well; I think I liked the books partly because the 1950s were far enough away to be their own semi-fantasy universe. In my world we did not build clubhouses or pay twenty cents for a school lunch).
jetamors From: jetamors Date: July 17th, 2004 09:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's interesting. In all of my middle and high school summer reading assignments, the only book that was not universally loathed was The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White. (The first part of tOaFK, not the bastardized children's story.) That was also the only summer reading book I recall that wasn't about some long drawn out inner struggle.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 17th, 2004 09:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ah. I'm reading tOaFK right now. I can definitely see that going down well. And those animal transformations give plenty of grist for the taching mill as well--there's a lot to chew on!
melyanna From: melyanna Date: July 17th, 2004 09:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
I always check out the tables for summer reading when I'm in a bookstore this time of year, and I'm usually horrified by what I see out there, even though it's only been a few years since I graduated from high school. I can't imagine reading Hemingway without teacher guidance, especially as a sixteen-year-old. I don't see what the bloody problem is with letting kids have three months out of the year where they're expected to read, but not expected to read specific books that were selected by a committee of teachers who have had years to learn to love these books. First you've got to teach them to love reading.

And on a random note, I've now seen Jane Eyre — unabridged, mind you, — in the CHILDREN'S section in four different stores. What the hell is Bronte doing in the children's section? I had already read all of Jane Austen's works (which are still decidedly in the literature and fiction section) and had read at least one play by Shakespeare before I tackled Bronte. Jane Eyre is not a children's book, or even a young adult book, really.
mincot From: mincot Date: July 18th, 2004 08:32 am (UTC) (Link)
You know, I think the idiotic classification of Bronte as suitable for the children's section goes back to a couple of mistaken assumptions. One is that the past was, if not a safer place, at least a more genteel and definitely more innocent place. People with this perception tend to mistake the formal, careful language of the upper class for passionless, "Safe" reading, or for innocence. The other assumption, which we have been discussing on Godric's Hat, is that books without overt sex are therefore children's books, no matter the deeper emotional or social complexities.

melyanna From: melyanna Date: July 18th, 2004 10:00 am (UTC) (Link)
Allow me to echo that: GRRRRRRRRRRRRR!

Why, why, WHY must anything "adult" automatically be about sex? I would grant the opposite — that anything about sex is automatically adult, because I don't think that the subject is appropriate for children — but there are tons of topics that aren't the slightest bit related to sex, but also aren't appropriate for children. And you're absolutely right, there is plenty of depth in various "innocent" books that requires a mature reading level.

I'm actually really saddened by the fact that so many books written for adults now are filled with sex and filthy language. These just aren't things I enjoy reading, generally. Yes, I read smut occasionally, but as far as I know, being able to read about sex was not what joining the big people's table was all about. It was about being able to discuss deeper ideas that I didn't understand as a child. And sometimes that includes reading children's literature again, to see the bigger picture. I've actually really enjoyed rereading the books I read as a kid. Reading, after all, is interactive — the author provides a story, and you provide yourself as his audience, along with all your opinions and experiences that color your perception of the world. And you know what? My perception of the world has changed since I was ten, and things I read then have a different impact now.

Heck, I enjoy A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh books differently now than I did as a kid.

But you're absolutely right — it's a children's book, and only a children's book, if an adult can't pick it up and enjoy it differently than a child might. And you know, I can't think of any, really.

(By the way, if you ever get a chance, pick up the children's books John Lithgow has written. They're hilarious, and a perfect example of how books aimed at three- and four-year-olds can be just as entertaining to adults as they are to children.)
From: arclevel Date: July 18th, 2004 02:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's been a while since I read Jane Eyre, but I seem to recall that it starts with her childhood and school years, and she spends a while as a governess. In recent years, there seems to be this very odd opinion that any story which features a child, or something we associate with children (most fantasy, for instance) is automatically a childrens book. At one point, though I can't remember where I was, I saw "To Kill A Mockingbird" in the childrens section. Yes, the narrator is 6-10 in the book. That doesn't change the fact that the book is about racism, and rape plays a vital role. I've also seen LotR in a children's section, and "Watership Down" (one of the most violent books I've ever read, but about rabbits) usually seems to be there.
From: arclevel Date: July 17th, 2004 09:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
I have to admit, I was completely unaware this was common. I graduated from a top public high school in '98, and was given a summer reading list exactly once. It was "suggested" reading for the entering 10th grade Honors English class and mostly consisted of the books we were going to read or discuss that year. The first day of school, our teacher asked us what we'd read that summer -- I think three students had read *anything* off the list (which included Huck Finn, among others). Our English teacher was perfectly happy with nearly any answer that included actual books (pathetically few) and was stunned that one girl had actually read Moby Dick (from the list).

What on earth is a computer-generated test on books???

As the columnist mentioned, plenty of childrens books deal with adversity without being horrifically depressing. Even for the harsher ones, Homecoming by Cynthia Voight sounds a little like what she mentions, but nowhere near as bad. After all, they do eventually "come home."
akilika From: akilika Date: July 17th, 2004 11:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
Homecoming . . . I wish I'd read that when it was assigned, but I let my friends convince me that it wasn't worth reading. (Stupid of me.) I'll have to pick it up sometime . . . thanks for reminding me.
mincot From: mincot Date: July 17th, 2004 10:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hear, hear, someone with sense!
ladyelaine From: ladyelaine Date: July 18th, 2004 04:44 am (UTC) (Link)
We give mini-us books that she must read on occasion, mostly books that we read and adored as children. Jean Craighead George, for example, was on her must read list, and in another year or two we'll give her Ender's Game. Almost always, when we give her a must-read book, she resists and resists, until she finally reads it and (usually) loves it. (Sorcerer's Stone was a must read book, and she resisted mightily, but now she loves the Harry Potter universe more than Star Wars! Heresy, I tell her. ;-) )

I agree with you on the movies thing, too. When we sat her down with The Goonies, I told her that there are just some movies you have to watch in order to grow up right!
atropos87 From: atropos87 Date: July 18th, 2004 04:46 am (UTC) (Link)
Never having experienced the phenomenon of the summer reading list (I don't think it's very common in the UK thank goodness) I find the whole concept slightly horrifying. How can such lists do anything except teach kids that reading is *always* a chore? In fact I'm not sure what benefit enforced reading of the classics has even in school time. I had a very odd relationship with a lot of classic authors well into my 20's simply because I had been forced to read some of their works at school. It was only because I made a slightly geeky reading pact with a friend that I picked up Thomas Hardy again for example, and found that there was much to chew on in terms of his rather dark worldview rather than simply being bored to tears by deathly slow study of his pastoral descriptions. And I had been brought up as a voracious reader before I even set foot into school.

Some of this might be to do with the hideously old-fashioned and turgid English syllabus that we pursued at my school though. I've learnt more about literary devices and symbolism in a year at the Quill than I ever did in 7 years at school, which is shocking really.
mafdet From: mafdet Date: July 18th, 2004 08:51 am (UTC) (Link)
I hated the idea of "summer reading lists" then and I hate them now, despite the fact that I am the most avid of readers. "Required" books make reading seem like something boring that one has to do because "it's good for you" rather like cleaning your plate of your vegetables. I think it might well work to discourage a love of reading in kids who otherwise might learn.

Are some of these books ones that would not get read at all if they weren't on some "required" list? If so, maybe it means that they're too hard for most kids to plow through unaided, or even (gasp!) not that good! I loved A Wrinkle in Time, and Mary Stewart's Crystal Cave et al, but there were other "classics" I never, ever want to see or hear about again. Lord of the Flies is one. Blech. Same with The Catcher in the Rye.

If kids are going to read, I think they should pick what they want to read. So if it's teen romance novels or whatever, it doesn't matter - they're reading. You can't force "classics" down teenagers' throats and expect them to love the books.
skelkins From: skelkins Date: July 18th, 2004 05:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
I quite liked those "problem novels" as a child, actually. But of course, I liked fantasy as well.

I just read that article on the plane this morning, and my main reaction was an overwhelming sense of envy of those children who are getting authoritarian sanction for reading novels over their summer holidays! When I was growing up, the common wisdom seemed to be that summer was a time for doing abhorrent things like playing ::shudder:: tennis. Basically, it was an excuse for one three-month-long 24-hour-a-day PE class. Ugh.

My parents used to have to search my duffle for books before sending me off to day camp. I wasn't allowed to read there, but I kept coming up with increasingly sneaky ways of secreting reading materials on my person. By the end of the summer, my parents had grown so tired of getting irate calls from the camp management that they were actually frisking me before shoving me onto the bus for another day of miserable boredom in the No Read Zone. Oh, how I would have loved to have been able to tell them: "But I HAVE to be reading novels! It's for SCHOOL!"


Kids these days. They don't know how lucky they are.
mrs_who From: mrs_who Date: July 18th, 2004 05:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
My children are avid readers, still I do have a list of books I want them to read at varying stages. I really like the CE Loop's "1000 Good Books" list: http://www.classical-homeschooling.org/celoop/1000.html Which gives a very nice place to start, although leans a toward the old children's classics.

My kids do like getting suggestions from me, but I usually only suggest books I, personally, have read and loved. (Luckily, that's a lot of books.) *grins*

We enjoy listening to the Big Toe Show http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbc7/bigtoe/ which always has an abridged audiobook going. Many times, these story-bites are intriguing enough to send them to the library in search of the title, but they *are* top heavy in problem fic. Many of which my children simply can't relate to: divorce, child abuse, being overweight, etc. Nor should they - IMHO - be *made* to relate to. Certainly being kind to anyone going through those things is a vital part of developing good character, but these problem books do tend to be about dealing with the problem first hand and not understanding another person w/the problem. Another reason I don't love the problem novels is simply because I dealt with a lot of those "problems" as a child -- bullying, death, disabilities -- and I don't like the idea of an adult author telling a child how he should feel after the death of a parent or when he is bullied. Everyone needs to cope in his *own* way, and it's a danger to each child's individuality and development (I think) to tell a child how to cope.

I don't know if you've read about Waldorf/Steiner schools methodology, but the early years are centered around Fairy Tales, Saints Stories, Native American Legends, Bible Stories, and Mythology. (Lots of mythology.) The idea is that these stories/myths are archetypal and can equip children for dealing with all sorts of problems as they feed the soul and character needs of the child. So, children who are doing a good deal of fighting in school might not need to hear a lecture on "getting along" nor a Reality Problem book about children not getting along but - instead - hear the story of Loki's jealousy of Baldur from the Norse Myths. As they internalize the universality of these stories, the "moral" becomes evident, if not to their conscious (as the problems book clubbing children over the head with morals) but then to their subconscious and thereby to the development of their characters.

If you're interested, here's one teacher's article:http://www.millennialchild.com/Cry%20for%20Myth1.htm

matril From: matril Date: July 19th, 2004 06:49 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm glad to read an article that largely articulates how I feel about required reading - it makes reading a dismal chore, and it tends to make children feel like their own personal literary tastes aren't valid. Trying to shove heavy, ansty books on 10-year-olds is cruel to the point of damaging. I took a class on young adult literature, and my teacher was quite emphatic about allowing students to read books that were written for them, not burdensome "classics" that might permanently turn them off reading. We had to do a "bridge" assignment - take a typical classic book and show how a young adult book of a similar ilk could be used to pave the way to studying the heavier work. I compared The Hobbit and Beowulf. ;) Of course, some of the books we studied were just the sort of angsty books that I dislike, but there were some good ones that I would definitely recommend (NOT require) if I were a teacher.

The only thing I think I take issue with, if I've interpreted her implicit argument accurately, is that fantasy is not something that only children need, to cushion from the harsh realities that they're not prepared for yet. The assumption that fantasy is inherently juvenile is absurd; it implies that in order to enjoy fantasy you have to be a bit ignorant and perhaps even slightly deluded. It is, in fact, knowledge of the real world that gives fantasy its true power - as Tolkien said, you have to know what a frog and a prince really are in order to appreciate the story of the frog-prince.
scionofgrace From: scionofgrace Date: July 19th, 2004 02:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
I love that article. Seeing how I subscribe to the email version of the NYT, I can't see how I missed it the first time, but there you go.

Reading lists in and of themselves are a terrible way to encourage reading. I encounter the same problem with introducing people to classical music. When you hand someone a list of composers/authors/etc and say "Read this, it's good for you," it's a bit like being prescribed a vitamin pill. Who wants to take a vitamin pill?

The proper way to introduce reading is to read fun books, entertaining books, interesting books, and then discuss them with book lovers. It's like that time I visited that local classical music club. It would be hard not to be interested in classical music after hearing those ladies practically fangirl over Rutter and Rachmaninof. It'd be better for those kids to come up to the librarian and say, "My teacher wants us to read five books this summer. Do you know any good ones?" and have the (delighted) librarian pull out her favourite young adult books.

And problem books? Here's a relevant quote:
"Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?" --On Fairy-Stories
Why should these kids be forced to spend summer days in worlds that could be best described as prisons of despair and darkness? (for what prison could be darker than one's own tortured mind?) There's loads to be learned outside of "problem" novels and in the realm of fantasy and adventure. Those books take the problem out from inside us and put it in physical form so we can fight it. And why can't some poor inner-city kid find consolation in a story about long-ago and far-away? Forget "learning experiences," good books show us not what is but what could be.

I think a larger problem is, why is our culture so dead-set against letting kids be kids?
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