This is an irregular Saturday post, because I have something Christmassy planned for Tuesday.
When I was a little kid, my mom and I had this great tradition: before bed, we would gather up all my books and dump them in a pile on her (impossibly-huge-to-a-six-year-old) bed, curl up with a snack, and read together. Mom tells me that we rarely even planned to read the books I piled high around us, I just liked to be near them all. We called them “Read and Eat Parties”. It was the best, and I’m convinced this is the source of my lifelong love of reading. Books are safe to me, and comfortable, and a huge connection to my family both as a kid and as an adult.
But while every parent knows that sitting down and reading with your kids is important, Mom did something a little different. We didn’t read Dr. Seuss or Judy Blume, or even Artemis Fowl or– with the exception of a brief stint that lasted about two of the seven books– Harry Potter. I read books about people my age in my own time, in my own space.
No, Mom and I curled up with huge tomes of Jules Verne and Doyle. Books about explorers who were engaged to their cousins, undersea terrorists, and opium addicts that solved murder mysteries. At age six, my mom read me books about women nearly burned to death in a funeral pyre, about stepfathers who tried to marry their stepdaughters for their money, about speckled bands and venomous snakes. We look back on that and laugh about how completely inappropriate that reading material is.
It was one of the best parenting decisions she ever made.
A friend of mine recently linked me to this article on why some kids hate reading. To summarize it: kids don’t like the material. It’s boring. I can’t blame them. I’ve read a lot of stories to a lot of kids over the past year, so I’ve noticed two types of children’s books that teachers have me read to their classes. Some books are written by adults that clearly understand kids. These are the ones that have actual plots. And some…
Well, over the past few weeks I’ve read stories to kids about a walk to find leaves in the fall, some friends coming over to play board games, and brushing your teeth.
Yes. Brushing your teeth.
And those books– while not a monopoly by a long shot– are a huge majority of what I find in classrooms. There’s a reason Dr. Seuss is generally considered better fiction than See Spot Run, despite being the same reading level: so why aren’t kids introduced to anything interesting until long after they’ve solidified a dislike of the written word?
This isn’t a new problem, nor is it confined to written literature. Around the same time I was reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with my mother, my school did a play called “The Quest for the Ancient Barometer”. I was highly unimpressed. The somewhat-cool sounding title was a mask for a play about walking down the street to buy an interesting weather bauble: that was it. Along the way, the characters learned a little about weather and how pressure worked.
My classmates and I found this wholly uninteresting. As I had a tendency to do back then, I whipped them up into an angry flurry of gossip and made a plan: we would all go talk to the teachers, and see if we could start getting better plays to perform at school. But alas, the story has a tragic ending. Everyone but I was too scared to tell the teachers how much we hated the play, and my request to get some Shakespeare in the drama department was written off as “cute” and “precocious”.
My mom didn’t choose to read me classic literature for any big, noble purpose. She wasn’t trying to make me a Baby Einstein or anything like that. When I asked her why the hell she’d read me books like that at such a young age, she said: “Those were just the books I liked to read. You liked them too.”
This is a great way to approach kids. For everything. If you’re bored with what they’re doing, chances are they are too. I’m not telling you to read your kids 50 Shades of Gray or anything, nor am I trying to trivialize the day-to-day kid stuff that they face: that kid stuff is insanely important and should be treated as such. But I think it’s ridiculous for adults to pick and choose what kids are supposed to like.
Art is inappropriate.
It always has been. From the roots of drama and poetry(Oedipus, Antigone, The Iliad) to the writing of Frankenstein (four writers in a cabin on a lake during a storm, having a drug-fueled orgy in the 1800’s), art and literature have been places to explore the taboo, the bizarre, the wrong. Art is a safe place, a place to explore things you just can’t talk about in polite company or school.
Kids don’t have a lot of places to do that. We shelter them, and when we finally expose them in high school to literature that was once taboo we sterilize it, pick it apart with clinical precision until all the oddity that makes it art is gone. While I understand the school’s side of things, and I know how hard the school libraries and English teachers try to combat it, and I have no good answer to the problem… I find it inexcusable that we deprive them of that exploration, of that safe place.
No wonder kids hate reading. We teach them to.