Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Guilty Pleasure of Summer Reading

I was over on Kate Messner’s book blog, and she posted a commentary in favor of freedom from summer reading lists.
I totally agree.
Though summer reading list proponents are well-meaning, they seem to be saying that 1) teens won’t read unless forced to 2) at least this way, they’ll read SOMETHING 3) there are “good” books and “bad” books and we want them to read “good” books.
Adults choose to read or not; if they read, they choose what they read. Many of these same adults think that kids and teens should read “good” books all the time. As someone with a vested interest in creating pleasure readers, I would argue that what we want is to establish the habit of reading.
When my sister Linda was in kindergarten and first grade, she refused to eat anything but jelly sandwiches. My mother cajoled, scolded, and made her SIT there until she ate THREE BITES. Mom worried that Linda would eat that way all the rest of her life. If she survived multiple nutritional deficiencies.
These days, on her own now, my sister eats a wide variety of foods. It was the battle that mattered to her.
Fortunately, my mother didn’t take the same approach to reading. When I was a teen, I read Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew by the sackful. I also read James Bond books one after another and my aunt's True Confession magazines. I read in the breezeway, in the leafy branches of my grandmother’s tree, everywhere. My mother sometimes recommended books, but she never tried to edit or censor my reading choices.
My literary tastes have changed since then. But they were the right books for me at the time.
I know, I know, if you’re passionate about books, it’s hard to see children and teens reading the literary equivalent of fried pork rinds. But attempts to prune and shape teen reading habits can backfire. It’s like denying your children chocolate and forcing brown rice and kale on them. Good for them, sure, but enough to make them give up eating. No, wait. You can’t give up eating and live. But you can give up pleasure reading if you’ve never had a good experience with it. Reading should be something that we get to do—not that we have to do.
What’s the alternative to reading lists? Well, maybe schools could ask students to choose a book or two, read them over the summer, and booktalk their favorite in the fall.
A well-meaning parent brought her son and his friend to my book launch last summer. During the question and answer period, she asked, “Can you explain why these kids all seem to like fantasy?” She rolled her eyes. “I try to get my son to read nonfiction and biographies, but all he wants to read is wizards and fairies. His teacher says leave him alone, but I don’t know.”
I thought it was a peculiar question to ask me, but I turned to the boys in question and asked, Why do you like reading fantasy?
One said he likes to imagine himself in magical worlds and pretend he had magical powers. The other liked reading about weapons and armor.
Later, during the book signing, the woman’s son handed me his book to sign. As I scribbled my name across the page, he leaned in close and muttered, “Biographies are boring.”


smaileh said...

My mother sometimes straddled the line on letting me read whatever I wanted. She couldn't object to Nancy Drew since she had read them herself (a 1940's era copy of The Secret of the Old Album was a treasured possession of mine after I found it in my grandparents' attic) though she rolled her eyes vigorously when I went through a werewolf phase.

The thing that really struck me about your post, though, was you closing story of the mom who complained about her son reading fantasy. What I run into so often (I'm a librarian) is moms telling me that their sons don't read anything at all--but when I talk to the boy it turns out they read a lot of science and sports books, but mom only considers reading fiction as "real reading."

My mother was a voracious book reader--she had a wall full of bookshelves and checked out stacks from the library every week. My father only owned two books--Catcher in the Rye and John Graves' Goodbye to a River--but every day he read the newspapers completely and he had subscriptions to a number of technical magazines that he read thoroughly. From these two examples, I know that reading is reading--format does not matter--and that reading for information is as pleasurable as reading fiction.

P.S.--I loved your Wizard Heir series (was really sorry to come to the end of it) and am enjoying reading your blog, though I don't often comment. (Probably a good thing, since this comment is getting rather long.)

May-Bedell Gurl said...

I am proud to say that I have never been forced to choose from a summer reading list. I was never in Honors English. But I can say that my mother grounded me from my books when I was in trouble (it never worked though...I had a flashlight).