The single biggest influence on any literary work is the mind of the person who’s reading it.
Most English classes would disagree with me. The overwhelming consensus (in public schools, at least) seems to be that a work must be dissected to be appreciated: you have to understand the author’s life and the time period to truly appreciate a piece of literature. This isn’t wrong, per se, since analysis adds a wonderful depth to literature, but I’ve got two problems with that mindset.
First, it completely disregards the reader’s reason for actually liking the book. Example: it took me years to appreciate To Kill a Mockingbird for the racial significance. I loved seeing a book portray a child as a human being.
Second, we aren’t actually allowed to teach kids about the author’s life or the time period, so the actual purpose is moot.
Overprotectiveness never helped anyone…
The major obstacle to the authenticity of any English department is the conflict between parent and course material. Problem is, the average influential writer isn’t usually a god-fearing, politically correct, clean-mouthed Good Example for the children. The average parent, on the other hand, will go rabid at the mere thought of protecting their child from the dark crevasses of the world.
Can you imagine the backlash if a school actually taught their students about the life of Oscar Wilde, who was jailed for being gay after The Picture of Dorian Gray was published? Or if someone dared to teach the details of Maya Angelou’s life: how she was raped, and refused to speak for five years after her family (allegedly) killed her rapist? What would good, decent parents think if we read Salman Rushdie (The Satanic Verses), or actually talked about Virginia Woolf’s mental illness in a meaningful way?
English teachers do their job while standing on a tightrope, no safety net, in front of a crowd that either doesn’t want to be there or is actively trying to disrupt the show. Kids think reading isn’t cool because teachers aren’t allowed to show them the good stuff: that’s reserved for college, by which time they already hate reading.
And it gets worse.
…And it’s actively hurting our kids.
Children aren’t the sacred bubbles of innocence that adults think they are.
Over the summer, I worked with a group of maybe 100 lowish-income children. Out of those kids, I saw enough cases of abuse, not-quite-abusive neglect, mental challenge, and childhood trauma that I could not accurately count them: they are simply too numerous for me to recall off the top of my head. I’m not alone in this observation, either. Any teacher will tell you that we in the school system see way, way too much of this stuff, and in 90% of cases we are powerless to help.
In most cases this is actually okay. We can’t scoop up and protect the kid who’s only slightly on the Autism spectrum, or the girl whose dad only stuck with her mom for the kid’s sake. Those aren’t problems that warrant a call to child services, they just make the kid’s life difficult. What adults can do is prepare kids for dealing with those challenges.
The teenager who’s dealt with rape could find a lot of power in Maya Angelou, if only she (or he) knew where to look. LGBT teens would find a lot to love in Oscar Wilde. Woolf could help a lot of kids learn to deal with depression and anxiety, which are an epidemic in our schools right now. Basically, trying to protect our kids from the horror of the world does them a huge disservice.
So what do we do?
My solution to the problem is this: first, read to your kid if you have one.
Second, don’t perpetuate the culture of a sheltered lifestyle. Don’t fall for the idea of childhood innocence: meaning you shouldn’t look at your own past through rose-colored glasses and don’t look at current youth through black-tinted ones.
And remember that more than anything, kids need to practice being people. They just aren’t good at it yet. Books are a great way to get the time in. This is the duty of the writer as much as the parent.
A kid who isn’t exposed to books– real, good books, not just “goofy kid problem” books– is going to feel like every hardship in their life is theirs alone to bear.