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.”
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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.