It’s not very often that I talk about literature on the site or on Nerds Assemble. I trot out that I’ve read “stuff “every so often, and I’ll be doing that a bit here today. Rebecca Mead of The New Yorker recently wrote an article about why she thinks that kids shouldn’t necessarily be encouraged to read just anything, all in the context of the phenomenal success of the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan.
While Mead never outright calls Riordan’s fiction trash, but she does fret that its too formulaic and an easy read. She worries that the obsession with being grateful for kids reading anything and that equating it to the idea that some of them will use it as a “gateway” to eventually go on to read Proust or Shakespeare isn’t something that actually happens (this is something Neil Gaiman suggested last year). It echoes an earlier essay by Tim Parks in The New York Review of Books, which Mead references. Mead says that children should be given more challenging works of fiction to read from an early age, rather than reading what’s popular now. The equivalent of giving a child Oliver Twist to read rather than Tracey Beaker, or in her example D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths rather than Riordan’s new Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods. Mead concluded:
But the metaphor of the gateway should prompt caution, too, since one can go through a gate in two directions. What if the strenuous accessibility of “Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods” proves so alluring to young readers that it seduces them in the opposite direction from that which Gaiman’s words presuppose—away from an engagement with more immediately difficult incarnations of the classics, Greek and otherwise? What if instead of urging them on to more challenging adventures on other, potentially perilous literary shores, it makes young readers hungry only for more of the palatable same?
I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised that The New Yorker and The New York Book Review have critics looking down their noses at kids’ and YA fiction, they’re not exactly well known for being happy with the state of popular culture (regardless of the age it’s targeted at). But I am the someone they assume will never exist.
I read popular/ish children’s fiction when I was a child and teenager, progressing from the novels of Roald Dahl and Dick King-Smith to the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling not long after the first novel in the series was published. I was fond of the I Was A Teenage Worrier series by Ros Asquith. Meanwhile, except for “set reading books” as we called them (the kinds of fiction specifically written to “improve” the reading skills of pre-KS3 pupils), I was always fond of the classic literature that was tackled in secondary school and then at college (I studied on the International Baccalaureate, so you had to take English at FE level). I even sought out material that was written pre-1900, such as the novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (and not the kid friendly version). I also read all of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials before I was fifteen.
Later on, I went on to earn a degree in English With Media Studies. And boy, you can’t get one of those without reading and analysing a butt-load of literature that was printed before 1950. Did reading specifically kid’s and YA lead to me doing that? Or was it the classics studied in education? Or was it something else?
When I was in primary school and devouring a new book a week at the age of either eight or nine, the school book club catalogue came out one term and it happened to feature the, then, new edition of Anne Frank’s diary, the first edition to be released without Otto Frank’s editing, so the least edited version of her diary. I knew what the Holocaust was (one of my Grandfathers had helped liberate a concentration camp at the end of the Second World War) and I wanted to order a copy of the diary for myself. I also knew some of the issues around romance and so forth, I’d certainly had my first crush by that point.
However, when I put my order in, my teacher and the headmaster blocked me from ordering the diary and instead forced me to pick something apparently more suited to my age (I ended up with The Fox Busters by Dick King-Smith, which is a very bloodthirsty allegory for some of the events of the same war Anne suffered in, and has parallels with the exploits of the real Dam Busters). They did not explain why I was not allowed to order the diary. I would eventually get my hands on the diary, when I was around eleven, but the experience was not the only time the school had interfered with my reading.
A capable and independent reader, by eight I was abandoning the set reading books that we were meant to be reading in class and for homework. Instead I would read commercial fiction for children or young adults. I found set reading books to be uninteresting and too easy to read. If I had understood the various meanings of the word “tripe” at that age, I am sure that is what I would have called them to the faces of the teachers that kept insisting that I read the set books. The word I did use to their faces was “boring”. And I have to say that these set reading books haven’t improved over the last twenty years, having checked out the books my little brother has been sent home with before.
I’m sure that had I given in to the teachers’ demands, I would not be a writer now nor interested in reading a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction that ranges from the works of Robin Hobb to analyses of the recent financial crisis circled round with a drop of beat poetry and prose, and much more. Meanwhile, all my fellow classmates who didn’t rebel at this early age? Well, there’s none I can name that ever enjoyed reading Shakespeare or have gone on to read Dickens by choice, and few I know who have read postmodern masterpieces such as Everything Is Illuminated.
In my opinion and experience: parents and teachers need to keep the gate open. I’m not saying that if you do this kids will go on to get an English degrees, but I think they’ll definitely keep an interest in reading, which is in fact the most important thing. But what’s also important is making books accessible in the home in the first place. My parents had some book shelves, as did my Grandparents, and I was allowed to pursue the tomes there. Meanwhile, schools should acknowledge when kids have outpaced set reading standards they should give them some room, while not discouraging their other students from reading what they want to read.
Making reading accessible isn’t all about having books around the house. Parents need to not just read to their kids, they need to read for themselves and visibly so. Research has shown that adults who read in front of their kids are more likely to have children who read to themselves by choice. My mum read a lot of Jilly Cooper’s novels, I read what I’ve already detailed here and more. Yet what really matters is not whether kids become adults who pick up Proust over Stephen King, but that they at least gain enough reading confidence and ability that they can succeed in life and benefit themselves and their own children.