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Young Adult Fiction Doesn’t Need to Be a ‘Gateway’ to the Classics

31 October 2014

From The Atlantic:

I tried to get my 10-year-old son to read George Orwell’s Animal Farm recently. He read a few pages gamely, but was mostly uninterested. He’d much prefer to chug along in The Blood of Olympus, the last massive volume in Rick Riordan’s massive Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. An adventure story about demigods kicking butt beat an acerbic parable about the failures of Communism. No wonder totalitarianism is winning.

Obviously, it’s a bit much to jump to apocalyptic conclusions based on the reading habits of one fifth grader. Everyone knows that. And yet, at the same time, children’s reading habits consistently provoke if not panic, at least nervousness and tasteful hand-wringing. Over the summer, Ruth Graham argued that young adult literature was fundamentally different from, and inferior to, adult literature, and that adults who read it were doing so in order to indulge in “escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia.” Rebecca Mead at the New Yorker presents a softer, more ambivalent version of that argument, worrying that (as in my son’s case) reading a book like Percy Jackson “makes young readers hungry for more of the palatable same” rather than “urging them on to more challenging adventures.”

Discussions like this often seem to presume that there was an idyllic time, somewhere in the past, when kids’ books were substantially better, or when young people read great adult literature. Graham contrasts Percy Jackson and Riordan’s new encyclopedia Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods to the classic 1925 collection of Greek myths by Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire. She finds Riordan’s book slangy and “inscribed with obsolescence,” since it references Craigslist, iPhones, and other pop culture detritus. The D’Aulaires, on the other hand, remain “lucid”—though their poetic Victorian language is, she admits, “stilted.” Graham seems to conclude that it’s a loss that kids want to read lines like “At first, Kronos wasn’t so bad. He had to work his way up to being a complete slime bucket” instead of  “In olden times, when men still worshiped ugly idols, there lived in the land of Greece a folk of shepherds and herdsmen who cherished light and beauty.”

. . . .

For that matter, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, told me, “When people say children’s literature isn’t that great, a lot of adult literature isn’t that great.” Better Percy Jackson than 50 Shades or John Grisham or the Left Behind books. Better Percy Jackson than James Fenimore Cooper, for that matter—or than The Old Man and the Sea. Inventive, goofy, elaborate adventures with gods and gleeful pop cult references—or maudlin, macho themes shamelessly vaunting simplicity as an anxious marker of seriousness?  I’ll take the first, thanks.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic and thanks to Sara for the tip.

Children's Books

27 Comments to “Young Adult Fiction Doesn’t Need to Be a ‘Gateway’ to the Classics”

  1. Ahhhhh-hahahhaah! Dis to the Left Behind books. High five, article.

    On a more serious note, wasn’t Rick Riordan going to do a series based on Egyptian mythology? I could have sworn I heard something about that years ago. I want to read that.

    • My wife was the “Kids Expert” at the local Borders, she started reading them and really enjoyed them. If I’m remembering correctly there’s a series based on the Greek gods, a series based on the Egyptian gods, and I think the next set is going to be on the Norse gods. I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong.

      • Yes you’re right. He just wrapped up the Egyptian series and now is starting the Norse god series. I haven’t read too much of his work but what I have read is really good and I can see why kids like him. If it gets them excited about reading and it seems to be working with this series, then it’s a good thing.

    • Are you referring to the “Kane Chronicles” series?

      In reference to the article, and the one a day or two back. I don’t really have that heavy of an opinion of young adult vs. classic literature.

      However, I do know that English and literature related classes are what my children excel at in school, according to the comprehension tests that are mandated, and I also know that Rick Riordan, Erin Hunter, Tolkien, and Lewis, are the types of books they read. If it keeps them from viewing reading as a chore, and helps them with comprehension, language structure, and vocabulary, I couldn’t care less for the opinions of others.

  2. Smart Debut Author

    I still think half of this “kids reading wrong stuff” nonsense is promulgated by rice-bowl-squatting literary gatekeepers terrified that an entire generation of kids is learning to discover and read the books they personally like, rather than what the gatekeepers decide to “curate” for them.

  3. It seems utterly self-defeating to attack people for reading the “wrong” thing: the fundamental challenge we face is ensuring that the next generation reads for entertainment at all.

    Traditional publishing seems to be dedicated to the proposition that the reason you need more ammunition is so that you can shoot yourself in the foot more times before you have to go out and get more.

  4. 5th grade = Animal Farm? I’d say by 7th grade, I was reading adult literature but in grade school, my favorites were Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. If Riordan is initiating kids into the mythology of other cultures, isn’t that a good thing or are we still trying to get past the idea to let kids be kids?

  5. I may be showing my age with this, but some of my favorite books when I was a kid included the “Danny Dunn” series, and, of course, [i]A Wrinkle In Time[/i].

    I’m sure that they weren’t considered “classics of literature” back then…but they surely fired up my imagination! And isn’t that what it’s all about?

  6. ” …adults who read it were doing so in order to indulge in ‘escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia.”

    I’m afraid I don’t see the problem with this. Do the curating gatekeepers now think we not only need to be reading the books they pick for us, but also our motivation for doing so has to fit their acceptable list of reasons? WTF?

  7. Back in the late ’70s, the latest educational craze was the “open school,” based on the book “Summerhill.” Students create their own curriculum based on their interests, evaluations are used instead of grades, simulations were used instead of lecturing.

    I went through all three years of it at West Charlotte High School in North Carolina, supplemented by actual classroom studies. It was not a bad way to learn, if you’re a self-starter.

    What amazes me more, in these very liberal days, what kinds of books were laying around the classrooms for anyone to pick up. None of this was required reading, but if you were interested, you’d pick it up. Here’s what I remember seeing.

    “Catcher in the Rye”
    “Siddhartha”
    “Lord of the Rings”
    “Soul on Ice”
    “Summerhill” (naturally)

    I especially remember “Soul on Ice,” especially the part where Eldridge Cleaver advocated raping the white women.

    These were my gateway books to the classics.

    • School is for required reading. Home should be foe enjoyment. Now in the days when families all ate together, some families required that each member bring some current event to the table to discuss. This is one way to try to install critical thinking in your kids.

  8. Everyone tosses about words like “good” or “bad” when talking about books. I thought we weren’t supposed to make such judgments because all of that is a matter of individual taste and smacks of gatekeeperism.

  9. Of course the kid wasn’t interested in Animal Farm. Animal Farm is boring and pointless, unless you know what it’s referring to historically and socially. Engage the kid in history first, and then Animal Farm might take on some interest.

    If the kid is interested in Percy Jackson, it might lead him to take an interest in mythology, but it’s not going to get him all excited about reading about the Russian Revolution.

    So give him the right book. Geeze.

  10. Why does it seem like there’s so much hate for Percy Jackson recently?

    Percy Jackson rocks (though I’ll admit, the Kane Chronicles really isn’t quite as good). Granted, Percy Jackson isn’t the best book series ever, but I think it’s pretty well-written and entertaining just the same.

  11. I must have the strangest kid ever. Because he reads and likes Percy Jackson (he bought the last book in the most recent series at his school’s book fair this week). And other modern dystopia, such as Hunger Games, which is so heavily marketed to teens these days.

    But he also reads things that are being derided in this article. Animal Farm is one of them. And he actually gets the meaning in these books (but he also loves history classes, so there’s that). He finished 1984 a few weeks ago and then, over pizza last Friday, we asked him what he thought of the book. He launched into a detailed description comparing policies in his junior high, and the behavior of one of the principals during a recent brouhaha, to events in the book. (It was highly amusing, and I was genuinely impressed that he so well understood the themes from the book and could immediately compare them to his own experiences. Because this kind of analytical thinking about literature isn’t being taught in middle school anymore.)

    I just… let people read what they want.

    Personally, I am thrilled he’s interested in widely reading on his own, because thanks to Common Core, they are reading hardly any novels at school anymore. He’s read far, far fewer school-assigned novels now than I had, at his age. They are too busy cramming for benchmark testing all the time these days.

  12. Smart Debut Author

    This idea of not “reading correctly” has also been applied to adult readers of ebooks.

    I remember one article written by some drooling moron who theorized that indie ebooks were selling so well only because the advent of the Kindle and other ereaders had brought a bunch of new “inexperienced readers” into the market who couldn’t tell good from bad.

  13. Based on my own experience (as a former child, that is, not a parent – I am not now and have never been a parent. Thank you merciful Satan.), parents assigning their children books to read is probably the least effective way of sparking the child’s interest.

    Just leaving books conveniently lying around, however, is an entirely different matter.

    My parents couldn’t even get me to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy by recommending it. I had to find my own way to it a few years later.

    On the other hand, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, a whole host of short stories by P.G Wodehouse, and, if not Animal Farm, then at least 1984 all made their way to me just by being left lying around the house.

    Realistically, most people don’t grow up to be great lovers of “serious literature” – whatever that might mean. But you at least have some chance if you make sure that a wide range of intelligent reading material is available for children to approach at their own interest and inclination. Maybe even to approach gradually through a series of gently graded steps. The first book that seriously grabbed me was Enid Blyton’s The Adventurous Four. I still think she was a genius at what she did.

    You have zero chance if you turn reading into an instrument of torture in the name of edification.

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