Read this, kids — it’ll make you cringe

A recent article in the Washington Post floated the idea that the Newbery Awards put children off reading.

Why? Because the books selected are frequently downers. And in some cases, they’re inaccessible to the children who read them.

This came up before on my weblog when we discussed The Giving Tree and how I am not alone in despising it. The difficulty here is that children’s literature is the only branch of literature that is not chosen by the individuals who enjoy it.

Imagine the outcry if a bunch of white scholars sat around a table and determined what would be “black literature” and “Latino literature.” Or if only men determined what would be taught in the many women’s literature courses taught in universities around the nation.

But the showpiece texts of children’s literature are not chosen by children. True, they’re frequently enjoyed by children. But not always. And the Newberry Awards do seem to exacerbate this problem.

Children are not reading books in order to raise their consciousnesses, think deeply, or experience catharsis. They do not want moral lessons. (Neither do adults, actually.) What children care about is an entertaining story and characters they can relate to.

Stories about death, bleakness and nihilism really aren’t most kids’ cup of cola, and according to the article, that seems to have made its way into some Newbery selections.

When children are fed a steady diet of “read this, it’s good for you” and then forced to endure a bleak landscape or a heartbreaking ending, they don’t experience what Betsy Lerner referred to in The Forest For The Trees as “a literary orgasm.” They don’t discover the joy of inhabiting another world while firmly within their own. They don’t get to confront their fears and transcend them via the characters. They don’t experience triumph, recognition or that sense of being special.

Is it any wonder that in their off-hours, they then don’t pick up a book?

Try reading in line at the Post Offal — someone is sure to ask you what you’re reading and if it’s any good. The more you try to put your nose back in the book, the more the person badgers you. And I’m convinced it’s because in the back of that person’s mind, he knows reading should be “good for him” and he ought to do more of it, like eating your vegetables and exercising, but he’s just not feeling the love. And the fact that you do love it — that’s just bizarre. He wants to know why.

In an age where reading books for pleasure is something of a rarity, it’s worth the time to find books children can love for their characters and their joy. You can find joy in text. Save the difficult, sad stuff for when they’re older, when they’re already rooted in reading.


  1. blueraindrop

    but really, how many kids even pay attention to the awards on the book enough to even make a connection between them? its almost the group of white men picking the best african female lit for white men to read. yes, its pointless, but does it matter much to anyone who would be the actual audience for african womens lit?

    i have to wonder about the teachers and librarians not aware of the interests of the kids in their charge enough to be so easily swayed on a book just because of anything said by some random committee. if the fact that it won an award gets it instant approval when it doesn’t otherwise fit, the educator likely has much bigger problems with their curriculum strategy than the kids not liking the book.

  2. philangelus

    The article said sales of Newbery books go WAY up after the award is granted. The problem isn’t that kids think, “I’ll read this award winning book!” but rather that parents and teachers start their search for gift books and assigned reading right there, and they think, “Well, a panel of experts loved this, so it will be good for my kid/grandkids/students.”

  3. caite

    Reading, whether for kids or adults should be FUN or what is the point? Now, that is not to say that it can’t be educational, or make a moral point or even be sad or scary at times. But bottom line, it has to be enjoyable.
    A good story, great, interesting characters….
    I have read a fair bit of what might be called literary fiction recently, including a few ‘award winners’. there seems to be a trend toward these minimal plots and what are really unlikable characters..and I think it is awful. Since I don’t have kids, I don’t read many children’s books, so heavens knows what they are offering there these days. If I were buying for kids, I would really consider looking at the classics of children’s lit instead of Newbery winners perhaps.

  4. Cricket

    Many parents are stuck with “should read” rather than “love to read” themselves. They don’t have the confidence to trust themselves and their kids, and their kids’ future is on the line.

    The article says that most people don’t realize the Newberry is for kids up to age 14, not for 8-10 year olds. Very efficient way to turn kids off!

    When the publisher’s son read The Hobbit, he said it was good for age 9-12 (I think — I know it struck me as quite young). I read a heavily illustrated version at 11, but without the pictures I don’t think it would have grabbed me. Either kids’ reading ability has gone down (one of the major text publishers shortened their word list for beginning readers about five years ago), or the publisher’s son was a good reader.

    Vince Wall tells a story about Owl. He says younger kids love it because it shows someone loving someone despite their appearance. Older kids think it’s a powerful story, but it’s a downer because Owl feels he can’t be loved.

    I like the way our school does it. Cereal boxes count towards your reading log. Each teacher builds her own collection. Not great if you get a new teacher, but they know and love the books. They also read to the kids every day. (We won’t mention the teacher who OD’d them on Dahl. You can OD on anything.)

    School book lists inadvertently taught me it’s okay to not like a “good” book. I was getting A’s, so had tons of arrogance, and if I didn’t enjoy a book it was the book’s fault. (I also learned why they thought it was a good book, and how to clearly state why I didn’t like it, and got used to the blank look when I answered, “What should we teach?”)

  5. Cricket

    I don’t look at the classics — they’re the ones that sold, like the Newberries. I look at the ones I loved, or that interest me. I’m a reverse-snob — if I can’t escape with it, I don’t want it. I also talk to other parents in the kids’ section — you can quickly tell who is there because they should be, and who is there because they want to be.

  6. Ivy

    I love many of the classics, precisely because they’re great escapism. The Iliad is fun–gods and heroes, grand scale quests and even grander scale egos. Kafka–if a story about a man waking up as a bug isn’t standard fantasy fare, I don’t know what is. The Arthuriad–knights, maidens, monsters, quests, and the occasional decapitated giant. I’m with Caite. Classics for kids, like Alice in Wonderland or Cinderella, are fabulous stories. (Though I’ve seen The Epic of Gilgamesh touted as being for children, and it’s not.)

    I guess it’s a New York thing, but I see people reading all the time. People read in line. They read on the bus, and in the subway. They read over lunch. They read in the elevator. They stand outside to smoke with a book open in their hands. Book stores and libraries aren’t usually crowded, but they aren’t deserted either. I did get some odd looks while reading the latest Yarn Harlot book (Free-Range Knitter), but that’s probably because I was laughing so hard I could barely breathe.

  7. Cricket

    That much reading actually bothers me — it’s like the MP3 craze. Rather than strike up a conversation, or at least observe, we isolate ourselves. (Sometimes we get lucky — people ask what we’re reading, and that can spark some great rambling conversations.) We try to cram more activity into a day rather than relaxing. On the other hand, at least we’re letting our brains choose their own speed, and expanding them. It can be an escape from the pressing crowds.

    I think there are different deffinitions of “classic” books, just like there were in classic music. My school board was of the “If it’s not depressing, it’s not good for you” mentality.

  8. knit_tgz

    Even worse is when my country’s school boards decided to add 2 very depressive books (I mean, one has a chapter about a man who ends up hanging himself and the last conversation he has before committing suicide, and the other has long nihilist introspective chapters where the narrator/main character keeps going on and on about the meaninglessness of life) to the 10th-11th year mandatory reads. The books do not end on a lighter note, mind you.

    I mean, do they really think it is a good idea to tell 15-16 year-olds that life is meaningless?

  9. philangelus

    Only if the school boards truly believe life is meaningless, I guess.

    I had to read The Pearl and Lord of the Flies *three times* while in school! Once in grammar school, once in middle school, once in high school. I hated both of them. I have no idea why anyone thinks they’re worth having a bunch of ten year olds reading, and yet there we were, reading about the death of an infant and the exploitation of the dirt-poor, and poor Piggy with his skull smashed open on the rocks.

  10. Ivy

    Tell you what, Cricket: you can have the chatterboxes on my bus (fair warning, they’ve seen me finish kitchenering a toe and asked “is that a sock?” so they might be a tad defective) and I’ll take the ones who sit quietly having a deep exchange with an author and her vision.

  11. Ivy

    I’m with you guys on the depressing books. Does anyone need to be inflicted with “Crime and Punishment”?

  12. Patient Husband

    I did read “Lord of the Flies”, but on my own, and at age 15. Even then, I thought it was disturbing. I agree that I can’t imagine a 10-year-old reading it.

    Cricket: my fifth-grade teacher read us the Hobbit aloud, and I was hooked. I borrowed the trilogy from a friend and read it over the summer, got my own copy later that year, and re-read them until they fell apart. I’m reading Kiddo #1 (sixth grade) Lord of the Rings now, and he seems to be enjoying it.

    As for Mr. Dahl: he came to my classroom when I was in 3rd grade and signed my copy of “James and the Giant Peach.” I read three of his books to Kiddo #1, and I agree it would be possible to read too many of them. I haven’t read any of them to Kiddo #2 yet, but she’s probably about the right age.

  13. Cricket

    LoFlies three times? More evidence of why I hated the book lists.

    (On the other hand, now that they’re finding happy people do better, I dread to see what the “new” lists will be like!)

    Then again, I wouldn’t have read Gatsby or Shaw, and I learned more English history from Moore than through history class. The lists helped prevent me from being more narrow-focused than I am.

    I was grade 7 or 8 when I read LotR. Enjoyed most of it. In grade 8 my English teacher saw me reading Rilla of Ingleside, the final book in Anne of Green Gables, after wanting it for years. She took one look at the print size and told me it was too young for me. She recommended The Northern Magus, the biography of P. Trudeau. Ugh! I retaliated with original Lorna Doone, written 1869, printed 1892, which seemed to burn her fingers even faster than Montgomery.

  14. AnotherFaceInTheCrowd

    We never had book lists, for which I should perhaps be grateful. 🙂

    I’ve really been bad at children’s literature — as an inveterate bookworm, I’d devour the entire class-appropriate bookshelf in a couple of weeks. I used to judge how well I was doing by how many of my parents’ books I could first read, second, reread and understand and finally re-reread and enjoy.

    Stuff that’s survived for me (i.e. that I still read with joy): Roald Dahl, Steinbeck (it was East of Eden that did it for me in fifth grade), Amos Tutuola, Solzhenitsyn, Dickens. Wouldn’t care for now: LotR: once was definitely enough. And the only fiction of C.S. Lewis that I still care for is ‘Till We Have Faces’.

    I’ll concur that reading tends to be a solitary and isolating activity: the only time what I’m reading has attracted interest was when I was reading ‘The Science of Immortality’ which I found hard going, not so much because of the prose as because since the book was published, space-time had been found to be flat and not curved, upon which the author’s entire thesis rested. On the other hand, someone reading merely says that ‘my gaze and attention are temporarily elsewhere. I am able to be roused.’ Someone listening to an MP3 player is saying ‘I don’t want to listen (to anything you might have to say)’.

    Have you *seen* black literature? It’s pretty darn close to not being chosen by its supposed readers — it’s a ghetto (in the Warsaw, not Harlem sense of the word) that publishers eager to be seen to be ‘diverse’ throw books into. A third is books that really, really, really belong in other sections that are filed and forgotten there because their authors are black and most of the rest is herded into really limited and limiting themes without which the work is judged to be ‘inauthentic’.

    One really good book I read satirising this tendency was Percival Everett’s ‘Erasure.’ And I found it in the library, filed, where else? In the black writers section. Point proven.

  15. cathrl

    The summer reading list at my daughter’s school is written by the students in the year above. Since Twilight was on it, I’m reasonably sure that it wasn’t particularly vetted by the teachers (unless it was in there as a wildcard to see how they reacted). There’s all sorts on it. She’s not an obsessive reader the way I am (and her little brother is) so I generally have to nag and remind her that she’ll be expected to have read some of it to get her started. I try to push equal numbers of “classics” and modern trendies. She’d prefer to read just the modern trendies 🙂

    Of Mice And Men was on it (and she read it), but not Lord of the Flies. I don’t remember how old I was when I read that, but a lot older than ten and it gave me the heebiejeebies. I don’t think I’d give it to her even now – she’s 12.

    I looked at the list of Newbery winners and medallists. Now I’m British – so the Newbery isn’t a big thing over here. I’d only register books which had actually become bestselling enough to be published cross-Atlantic. The only winner or honor book I’d even heard of, right back to 1980, was Holes. 1979 and earlier I recognised loads of them. But I was only 10 in 1980, and I have two kids now. And I love kids books! They obviously do consider British books – the Dark is Rising series is in there several times in the 1970s – but where’s Harry Potter? Where’s Uglies (which isn’t British anyway)? Where’s anything by Jacqueline Wilson or Malorie Blackman? “An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793”? Sounds like a Master’s thesis. I wouldn’t buy that for my kid regardless of what it had won.

  16. kherbert

    The Bluebonnet award is voted on by the children of Texas.

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