Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Reading Rainbow & Cherry Apple

"When the Day of Judgment dawns and people, great and small, come marching in to receive their heavenly rewards, the Almighty will gaze upon the mere bookworms and say to Peter, 'Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them. They have loved reading.'"
- Virginia Woolf

Recommended tea The Republic of Tea's Cherry Apple

My mom has been a teacher for over 30 years. She loves helping children discover that reading is wonderful, and that it is something that they can do well. 

Some mornings, my mom would arrive at her school a little early. There would be parents there, with their little children, before the school had even been unlocked. 

"Why?" I asked her.

"Because the kids haven't eaten anything all weekend. They get all of their food at school because their parents can't afford to buy it for them."

Forget about buying picture books at $17.99 a pop - some of these parents can't even afford to buy their children food. When our nation is made up of five year olds who have to focus on keeping their stomachs from growling, and parents who have to focus on feeding their kids, how can we expect them to focus on learning? Or even excelling? 

Imagine, then, my lack of surprise when I learned that Reading Rainbow had been cancelled. Lack of funds is stated as the reason for the cancellation, but the Wall Street Journal adds, "Pointing to changes in educational programming funding... the Department of Education and PBS are spending more money on teaching kids how to read, not on teaching them to savor the act itself."

Our children aren't learning how to savor the act of reading. They're not making it that farNow, apparently, we're happy if we can just get them reading at all. 

Coincidentally, the Wall Street Journal had another article on their website called "Good Novels Don't Have to Be Hard Work." The article talks about how modern readers are putting down James Joyce and (blasphemy!) Virginia Woolf in favor of Stephenie Meyer. 

Lev Grossman writes, "You'll find critics who say they have bad taste, or that they're lazy and can't hack it in the big leagues. But that's not the case. They need something they're not getting elsewhere. Let's be honest: Why do so many adults read Suzanne Collins's young-adult novel 'The Hunger Games' instead of contemporary literary fiction? Because 'The Hunger Games' doesn't bore them."

But is that really why? Are we putting away Woolf and Joyce because we're bored, or is it because our culture is slowly but surely being trained to turn our brains off? To do what we think is easy instead of trying to do what might be a little more difficult? To focus on just learning how to read instead of learning how to savor it? 

My BFF (BFF here is a technical and absolutely appropriate term) Lindsey pointed out that this might seem like I'm implying that young adult literature is not valuable. Lindsey is usually right about most things, so I definitely take her opinions to heart. 

I can't stress this enough:  The Hunger Games is brilliant, and young adult literature is incredibly valuable! 

If you haven't read The Hunger Games, I encourage you to do so (then read the sequel Catching Fire!). It is thematically challenging and thought-provoking. I do not have a problem with The Hunger Games or with young adult literature. 

What I DO have a problem with, however, is the generalization that contemporary literary fiction (in the article he sites Woolf and Joyce specifically) is a "boring," and therefore not valuable, genre. In fact, I have a problem with anyone saying that any literary genre should be completely ignored in favor of another genre.

I adore young adult literature. Sarah Dessen is one of my favorite authors of all time (read The Truth About Forever and Someone Like You right now), right up there next to Ms. Woolf, and Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. But that's exactly my point - that Sarah Dessen and Virginia Woolf and Laurie Halse Anderson belong NEXT to each other on the shelf rather than having one on the shelf and one in the wastebasket. 

Teachers should say to their students, "I'm glad that you enjoyed Twilight. You should try Pride and Prejudice" or "You should try Wuthering Heights." 

Teachers should NOT say to their students, "Wuthering Heights is boring. Never read it. Here's Twilight."

There is something intoxicating - miraculous, even - about discovering not only that you can do something difficult, but you can do it well. It is vital in our development as intelligent, well-rounded human beings. Similarly, there's something divine about picking up a complex piece of literature and ANALYZING it. Go ahead and hate it, or go ahead and love it - but the important thing is to read it in the first place! And after you read that classic, read a biography. Then read a young adult book. Then read a science fiction novel. Then read a book of poetry. 

Just don't buy into the idea that your brain is too small to handle or appreciate any collection of words. OR the idea that every book doesn't have something valuable to teach you. Sometimes, that takes digging - but the dig is worth it.

As a child, there is nothing better than that moment when the words on the page turn from gibberish into WORDS! When "C" and "A" and "T" become "cat!" 

When faced with the task of reading for the first time, it seems daunting. It doesn't make sense (much like, some would argue, Joyce). But you keep picking away at it, syllable by syllable, and after all of the trying, nothing is more rewarding than the moment you realize that you can actually do it (much like, some would argue, JOYCE)! 

I remember running into my living room, waving my picture book over my head like a flag, yelling "I CAN READ! I CAN READ!" It was like finding Narnia at the back of the wardrobe. I felt the same way after I read The Iliad for the first time. 

A whole world that I had never seen before was now opening itself up before my very eyes. The world where I would meet my best friends - Anne (with an "e") Shirley, Jo March, Harriet the Spy, The BFG... and later Hector, Lizzy Bennet, Atticus Finch, and Orlando. Can you imagine being deprived of that world?

Similarly, as an adult, there is nothing better than wrapping your whole brain around a difficult  or different book and discovering that you can relate to it or that it stirs something in you. It's like trying sushi for the first time - it seems crazy at first, but once you get your first taste you wonder how you lived without it. 

We're accepting value meals instead of home cooked meals, e-mails instead of letters, and Cliff's Notes instead of the full text. Now, we're even accepting the idea that books that hurt our heads are not worth picking up.

When did we forget what life was about? When did we forget how to savor, and start doing just enough to squeak by? When did we lose faith in our brains and our ability to make the unknown knowable?

Reading equals freedom. Reading equals empowerment. Reading lots of different things equals tolerance. Loving reading equals loving life.

What will the world be like when no one loves reading?


  1. Okay, I agree with most of this. Obviously as a future English teacher, I believe that kids should be encouraged to love reading. But I'm not okay with the implication (purposeful or not) that young adult books are somehow of less value than adult literature. I've read some really crappy adult books. One of the best things about reading is the opportunity to learn about the world, to have your eyes opened to truths you would not have encountered otherwise. Truth is absolutely present in young adult books, sometimes to a greater extent than in novels included in the canon of classic and "worthwhile" literature. If a young adult book speaks to the reader and encourages him or her to think about the world in new ways, then it is more valuable than Joyce, which, let's face it, is absolutely meaningless to most people. "At least they're reading something" is not a good argument when it comes to crap like Twilight. Just don't include well-written, thought-provoking books like The Hunger Games in that brains-turned-off category.

  2. Ok, that makes a lot more sense to me. By the way, my diatribe was not directed at you, because I know that you appreciate and love young adult books. It was aimed more at just people in general, who seem to think that if it's something that young people care about then it must somehow be Less. I really like your point about finding a balance between classics and YA books. Many YA books, while good in themselves, can also provide a bridge to more complex, canonical texts.

    P.S. I love to read your blog!

  3. "Fiction is a waste of time" ;-)

  4. Hi, Amanda, it's Whitney J. I actually saw this post on the way to find and re-read your post on Twilight, from which, by the way, I read excerpts to my mother in a vain effort to get her to not let my sister read Twilight. I actually hadn't read Twilight at the time, but I felt very strongly about it in a negative way. Imagine my surpise, then, when my sister, who is obsessed with vampires and anime, asked me if I would drive her to the library.
    "What do you want to get?" I asked.
    "Wuthering Heights," she replied promptly. "And Pride and Prejudice, if they've got it."
    I stared at her. "Why do YOU want to read those books?"
    "Bella and Edward read them in Twilight," she responded, "and I just finished Romeo and Juliet. They read that too. Wuthering Heights is next on the list."
    "You read Romeo and Juliet? By Shakespeare?"
    "Yeah. It was really good, too. What else should I read by him?"

    So, while I understand the loss of programming like Reading Rainbow, and I understand the struggle of reading knowledge versus reading training (which my mother has a specialized degree in, and has taught people from age 4 to 60 to read for the very first time), in this one instance, I had to hand it to Stephenie Meyer. That is without a doubt the stupidest reason anyone could ever want to read good literature, but still, the urge was there. No one can deny that young adult fiction like the Harry Potter series, which is indisputably brilliant, revolutionized the way that modern audiences read; 500+ page books aren't so scary anymore, and the line between "classic" fiction and "young adult" has been blurred. Maybe Twilight is a piece of misogynistic, harlequin romance trash, but my sister is reading Austen and Bronte...and I'm going to read Twilight for her.

  5. That's awesome, Whitney. That makes me really happy. I've noticed that they've started re-releasing some classics with Twilight-esque covers, and I think that they've listened to what their readers have had to say and have responded with something really positive.

    I would never say that someone SHOULDN'T read a book - I think it's important to read something before you form an opinion about it - and there are good and bad things about every book you will read. I just hope that when girls read "Twilight" and then read "Pride and Prejudice," they'll see how strong and complex Elizabeth Bennet is. And I hope that will make them want to be in intelligent, committed relationships where they and their partner are equals. Brain candy books are just as important as the classics - I just want to encourage people to have a balanced reading diet.

    And Harry Potter is definitely in a category all it's own. Brilliance!

    I'm planning on writing another post about this soon. There's still more to say!


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