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Our Kids Deserve Better Books to Read in School

lola readingAUTHOR’S NOTE: I have a confession to make. For more than a year now, a lot of the things I write about have actually been condensed summaries of me listening to my girlfriend complain. But hold up. I’m not doing that lame guy thing where you characterize your girlfriend or spouse as someone who complains all the time; it’s just that she’s really hard on herself, she’s hard on me, and she’s hard on the myriad shortcomings of our decadent culture. You know that post about 365 Feminist Selfie? That was all just a write up of my mental notes as I listened to her critique it with the focus of a laser. Don’t get me wrong. I would never write anything that I disagreed with; it’s just that she’s usually dead on (except she doesn’t like banana flavored things and that’s just bonkers). And when I ever happen to write about kindness and you wonder things like Is this really a Black Hockey Jesus post?, that’s just me trying to be more like her. Anyway, I just felt it was fair to honor her as the Good Big Ideas part of our relationship, and I’m just the guy who writes things. Today’s ideas spring from a comment she recently made on Facebook about how teachers “use the same 70-year-old books that they’ve been teaching the last 10 years and wonder why kids are bored by school and hate reading.”

And, yeah. Why do they do that? My best guess is that either their principals tell them to or maybe they’re just lazy. Introducing new books would mean creating new lesson plans and it’s much easier to dust off The Scarlet Letter (again) and discuss Hawthorne’s challenge to the Puritan interpretations of Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth (again). This novel bored me to a heart rate of 48 BPM back in 1988. How can we possibly expect kids in 2014 to form anything resembling a meaningful connection to that 1850 yawnfest?

When I did some Googling for the most frequently taught books in high school today, which was a big challenge because it’s hard to find journalism in the form of lists on the Internet, I kept coming up with Shakespeare (WHY?)The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, Animal Farm, The Crucible, The Grapes of Wrath, Great Expectations, and The Lord of the Flies (which my son, a 10th grader, is reading right now). It’s like a syllabus for how to get kids to hate reading. But they’re classics! you may scoff. But to what end? I retort. If we want to light kids up with reading, to what end do we give them the books that adults consider classics? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have kids read books that kids want to read?

I don’t know what you read but I read books that I want to read, and what I want to read is something that forms a connection to my lived experience and then blasts me open in some new way and makes me larger. If a book doesn’t rock your worldview, alter your perspective, and make you think differently, then it’s no better than doing a crossword or going rollerblading (no disrespect to cross-worders or rollerbladers). Kids are not opposed to having their worlds rocked. They’re opposed to the mind-numbing boredom of school. So why aren’t we giving them books that rock their world and make them all crazy and starving for more books? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about stupid books, easy books, or books that don’t matter. It’s insulting to kids to assume that the books that would light them up are books that don’t matter. Kids are just as wildly interested in the themes that freak us all out: love and death and how to manage being in the overwhelming fact of this world. This world. Not Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 reflections.

And the bottom line, I think, is the best way to help kids get plugged into books is to give them books about kids with characters they can relate to and characters who expose them to new perspectives and bigger worlds. So it remains to wonder who’s writing those books today?

Okay. Get John Green on every middle and high school syllabus, right now, and you’re going to create a whole young world of voracious readers who will then develop the imaginal muscle to imagine and actualize a future of wonderful things. From Looking for Alaska to The Fault in Our Stars, Green nails it every single time. Above and beyond (or beneath) the valuable fact that his protagonists text message, which is to say they live in this world, Green writes about our kids as they grapple with timeless themes. Basically, people die, people fall in love (and they lust magnificently), and they struggle to make sense where none seems to exist. Layered throughout is the goofy coupling of adolescent alienation and intense friendship, substance abuse, and the mind-boggling struggle of articulating the shape and boundaries of one’s sexuality. Green’s characters are the kids our kids hang out with, complain about their parents with, and they’re good allies in terms of figuring out how to survive the fraught drama of school in the 21st century. And I’m not arguing about questionable content when Hester got down with Reverend Dimmesdale for crying out loud.

Another perfect little book I recently read, and thrust on every young person I meet, is Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. As Eleanor and Park stumble into the shock of being in love and the attempt to both makes sense of, and stay true to, the delightfully horrifying experience, I couldn’t help but wish I had that little gem back when, for me, the clasp of a girl’s hand branched out into desires and needs that gutted me with confused awe. I didn’t even know what I wanted, but it was a hell of a lot different than a hankering for pizza. Boys, especially, need this novel because it diverts the process of falling in love from the notion of a male hunting his prey to the mutual process of two people slowly discovering that they dig each other a lot in a profounder way than they dig other people [that was my girlfriend’s idea]. Another major asset of Eleanor & Park is the gut-wrenching portrayal of Eleanor’s fight to survive the horrors unleashed upon her by her abusive drunk step-dad. Don’t you think a kid with a rough situation at home might find more reasons to turn the pages of a book like that as opposed to a book about nutty Abigail Williams calling everybody witches? In 1692?!?

Those are just a couple ideas, but there are shelves and shelves of books out there with the potential to connect with our kids and capture their imaginations. The cannon just doesn’t cut it and the more we insist on it, the more likely we are to keep cranking out high school graduates who never pick up a book again. I know guys I graduated with who haven’t read a book since they were 18-years old! Now the problem with that isn’t just that they missed out on a bunch of great stories. No. Reading provides a much deeper joy than being entertained. It keeps the imagination alive. It tills the soil of new ideas. It keeps the fire burning. But it won’t if we fail to stoke that fire with literature that our kids want to read. It’s time to write new lesson plans.
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Read more from me at Black Hockey Jesus.

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