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FW: NYTimes.com Article: Summer Reading List Blues

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  • Croft, Janet B.
    An interesting article on summer reading lists for school children, and the trend away from suggested reading lists including plenty of fantasy, to required
    Message 1 of 9 , Jul 22, 2004
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      An interesting article on summer reading lists for school children, and the trend away from suggested reading lists including plenty of fantasy, to required reading with lots of "issue" books (ugh). No wonder reading rates are dropping!

      Janet Brennan Croft


      Summer Reading List Blues

      July 18, 2004
      By BARBARA FEINBERG


      HASTINGS-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. - I  don't remember exactly what
      books were on the summer reading list handed out on the
      last day of school back when I was 10 - more than 30 years
      ago - but I do recall that they were merely "suggested
      reading." I can remember scraps of stories: children making
      kooky inventions; a lonely girl making a Japanese doll
      house out of bright fabric; something about a fat little
      witch afraid of Halloween.

      But mostly it's the easy feeling I remember when I picture
      reading that summer. I imagine myself sitting under a
      broad, shady tree, surrounded by distant hills, turning
      pages of a crinkly covered library book. There is a breeze
      high up in the branches. I might never have actually sat
      under such a tree then; we lived in the city, and it's
      unlikely we went away that summer. I've come to think it's
      just as likely I am remembering an expansive landscape
      conjured by the books themselves. In any case, it is a
      shady place I recall, one that let my mind rest, and roam.

      I can't imagine how I would have fared if I had been asked
      back then to read the hard-hitting books on current summer
      reading lists. Like many parents of fourth- to
      seventh-graders today, I wasn't asked; none of these books
      had been written yet. Take a look, and you'll find that
      resting and roaming are not key experiences in many of the
      "young adult" novels on the lists. Less common too is
      "suggested" reading. "In September," reads an addendum to a
      summer book list handed out to sixth-graders in a nearby
      school, "you will be given a computer-generated test on
      your summer reading. This will count as 20 percent of your
      grade, or two quiz scores."

      The required books are often the "good books" - that is,
      the ones that garner the highest literary prizes, like the
      Newbery Medal. They tend not to be about children having
      adventures or fighting foes in slightly enchanted realms,
      as the young characters do in, say, "A Wrinkle in Time,"
      the 1962 classic by Madeleine L'Engle. Instead, they depict
      children who must "come to terms," "cope with" and "work
      through" harsh realties. Where characters in my books
      lollygagged in meadows, as it were, the children in these
      books are trying to hack their way out of cellars.

      Their suffering is generally caused by adults: a parent has
      died, or run off, or otherwise acted irresponsibly,
      drunkenly, selfishly, dissolutely. The children are left
      trying to put together the pieces. No magic swoops in to
      aid a resolution; no fantasy cushions the pain. As a group,
      these books are well written; they have some complex
      characters and subplots, and are rich in cultural
      description. But the angst and crash landings of the books
      is what sticks with you. A 10-year-old attending the
      creative arts program I run told me, "Those books give me a
      headache in my stomach."

      I can see why. Here are some novels assigned this summer to
      American sixth-graders, all winners of the highest literary
      prizes: "Walk Two Moons," by Sharon Creech, chronicles a
      daughter's search for her missing mother, who fled, it
      turns out, because of a deep depression after a miscarriage
      and subsequent hysterectomy. At the end, the girl discovers
      that her mother was killed in a bus accident. In "Belle
      Prater's Boy," by Ruth White, a missing father is found to
      have died because he shot himself in the face; Belle
      Prater, the errant mother, is never found, although her son
      remembers her saying that she's in a straitjacket:
      "Squeezed to death. I can't move. I can't breathe. I have
      to get out of here." A far gentler book, "Because of
      Winn-Dixie," by Kate DiCamillo, is about a girl who finds a
      friendly dog who in turn helps her rebuild her life. But
      she must do that because her mother abandoned her; we are
      told also that the mother "loved to drink."

      These kinds of books, often referred to as "realistic" or
      "problem novels," emerged as a genre in the 1960's, and
      have been in full swing ever since. In the last few
      decades, writes a children's literature historian, Anne
      Scott Macleod, "the path of American adolescent novels has
      been from outward to inward; from concern with the young
      adult's relation to the larger community to a nearly
      exclusive emphasis on the adolescent's inner feelings."
      Sheila Egoff, also an expert in the field, writes that such
      books "take the approach that maturity can be attained only
      through a severe testing of soul and self, featuring some
      kind of shocking `rite of passage.' "

      The rationale for exposing 10-year-olds to such potentially
      upsetting books is that children who read about situations
      different from their own gain a larger frame of reference
      for understanding human behavior and cultural diversity.
      Some educators believe that life is harder than it used to
      be; books shouldn't shield children from this. The argument
      is, as the head of the English department in a school here
      in Westchester County told parents, that anxiety is useful
      to children.

      But what makes a book useful to a child? A book provides
      insight into oneself, the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim
      has written, only when one is already needing and ready to
      receive such insight. Otherwise, presumably, a book at best
      has little impact, or at worst, sideswipes the reader with
      an emotional force he's not ready to handle.

      The kind of realistic fiction that seems more "useful,"
      according to my observation of my children and their
      friends, affords its young heroes and heroines a certain
      measure of emotional protection. These novels manage to
      relay rich material, but don't need to tell all, and
      instead are quirkily selective, in a way that feels
      consistent with how an authentic child might filter
      experience. "The Devil's Arithmetic," by Jane Yolen, about
      the Holocaust, and "The Watsons go to Birmingham - 1963" by
      Christopher Paul, about the racist South, are books my
      16-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter loved when they
      were 10. While the circumstances of these stories are
      indeed harrowing, they are not experienced as emotionally
      shattering: the child characters are protected by adults
      throughout.

      But what remains most loved, and most useful in helping
      children "face adversity," is the realm of fantasy, or the
      realm of the slightly less real world - like Louis Sachar's
      "Holes," for example. A universe where scary things are
      blunted - that is, by a blanket of fantasy - is easier to
      enter; it's helpful too for the main character to have
      access to a tiny bit of magical power. One need only to
      remember that Harry Potter, after all, has had to deal with
      the murder of his parents and an abusive foster family. His
      magic accompanies him; he is looked out for at every turn.
      Rather than confronting evil in the form of a violent
      realistic father, say, it is vastly less stressful for some
      children to contemplate evil in the form of "he who must
      not be named."

      But should helping children face adversity be the main goal
      of children's literature? Why does facing adversity have to
      be understood as work, in adult terms? Don't children have
      their own ways of processing experience distinct from
      adults'?

      We seem to have lost sight of what children can actually
      process, and more important, of their own innate
      capacities. Instead of our children being free to roam and
      dream and invent on their own timetable, and to read about
      children doing such things, we increasingly ask our
      children to be sober and hard-working at every turn, to
      take detailed notes on their required texts with Talmudic
      attention, to endure computer-generated tests. And the
      texts we require them to pore over have become all too
      often about guarded, world-weary, overburdened children,
      who are spending their childhoods trying to cope with the
      mess their parents left them.

      Strangely, it seems that in such stories the only people
      who get to break free are the missing parents: these
      characters seem to have found their lives too stressful and
      boxed-in, and have fled - right out of the books. 

      Barbara Feinberg, who runs a creative arts program for
      children in Westchester County, N.Y., is the author of the
      forthcoming "Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories,
      and the Mystery of Making Things Up."

      http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/18/opinion/18FEIN.html?ex=1091449374&ei=1&en=e8c356021586c71d
    • JTHeyman@juno.com
      ... Synchronicity is a strange thing. In today s papers, syndicated columnist George Will, commenting on a survey of reading literature, bemoaned the trend
      Message 2 of 9 , Jul 22, 2004
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        "Croft, Janet B." <jbcroft@...> writes:
        > An interesting article on summer reading lists for school children,
        > and the trend away from suggested reading lists including plenty
        > of fantasy, to required reading with lots of "issue" books (ugh).
        > No wonder reading rates are dropping!
        >
        > Summer Reading List Blues
        > July 18, 2004
        > By BARBARA FEINBERG

        Synchronicity is a strange thing. In today's papers, syndicated
        columnist George Will, commenting on a survey of reading literature,
        bemoaned the trend toward electronic media over the printed word, but he
        did so in a way that makes me wonder if he really understands what has
        been happening. (Sorry, I don't know if this particular piece is
        available on-line, but wouldn't it be ironic if that was the only way
        most of the list could view it?)

        Anyway, my opinion of his column is that he wandered through several
        topics, but a few things particularly about books struck me in his piece:

        1. Mr. Will spends a good quarter of his column talking about Charles
        Dickens and how the works of Dickens influenced people and made Dickens a
        celebrity. Frankly, I've hated Dickens ever since 7th grade when our
        English teacher spent three months on "David Copperfield" ... all 734
        pages of it. I very nearly gave up on all books after that one.
        Luckily, I didn't and later discovered that reading could be enjoyable.

        2. Mr. Will actually commented negatively that the definition of
        "literature" included "any fiction ... and most fiction, like most of
        most things, is mediocre." Whenever I hear someone try to limit
        "literature" that way, I start to wonder who gets to decide ... and I'm
        reminded of what a professor once called "the Puritan work-ethic of
        literature - if you enjoy it, it's not real literature." Ms. Feinberg's
        article seems to suggest that this view has made a comeback again. Yes,
        of course there's a lot of mediocre stuff out there, but when it comes to
        children, I'd rather they read the mediocre stuff that they enjoy rather
        than learn to hate reading by being forced to read the "important" books
        that leave them with a dread of reading, wondering which horror they'll
        be required to experience next.

        I won't comment on some of Mr. Will's other assertions which would more
        properly be discussed in a sociology or political forum, but I notice
        that he seems to ignore that literature which people, especially
        children, enjoy (not a mention of "Harry Potter" to be found anywhere).
        And all I can think is that if kids are given books that they find to be
        *enjoyable* for a change, maybe Mr. Will's article would never need to be
        repeated.

        <shrug> The above is my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

        ~ JTHeyman

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      • WendellWag@aol.com
        Is it really true, as Barbara Feinberg claims, that there are that many more issue children s books out there that there was a generation or so ago? As she
        Message 3 of 9 , Jul 22, 2004
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          Is it really true, as Barbara Feinberg claims, that there are that many more
          "issue" children's books out there that there was a generation or so ago? As
          she says at one point, these sorts of books have been around since at least
          the 1960's. It's not as though fantasy and science fiction children's books
          have suddenly disappeared, after all, given the popularity of the Harry Potter
          books. There was always a large subset of teachers who didn't like fantasy and
          tended to steer their students away from it towards realistic fiction.

          Wendell Wagner


          [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
        • David Bratman
          On the one hand, two of my elementary-school teachers (in unwitting collaboration) were responsible for introducing me to _The Hobbit_. For which I am
          Message 4 of 9 , Jul 22, 2004
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            On the one hand, two of my elementary-school teachers (in unwitting
            collaboration) were responsible for introducing me to _The Hobbit_. For
            which I am eternally grateful. That book changed my life.

            On the other hand, I was fed crappy "relevant" literature even then, in the
            60s. I remember in particular a loathsomely high-minded book called _The
            Pigman_ by Paul Zindel.

            I was also fed a lot of crap that was distinguished as "great literature."
            Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad are the ones that still make me flinch
            the most.

            On the third hand, I discovered and loathed Dickens all on my own.

            On the fourth hand, the great author probably most loathed by the most
            students, Shakespeare, is one I lapped up eagerly both in school and at
            performances I went to voluntarily.

            - David Bratman
          • Lisa Deutsch Harrigan
            The one thing I HATE about Harold being a Gifted Child, is the Sr High School idea that Honors English Students should read things like War & Peace over summer
            Message 5 of 9 , Jul 22, 2004
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              The one thing I HATE about Harold being a Gifted Child, is the Sr High
              School idea that Honors English Students should read things like War &
              Peace over summer vacation between Jr & Sr year.

              I know the kids are bright, but they are still kids. Moose is hardly
              ready for that kind of book, and I don't think 2 years are going to
              help. Jennie wouldn't have been able to understand it either and she was
              16 going on 26!

              In fact the only part of the gifted English thing Harold has problems
              with is when they require adult books with adult themes, other than
              that, he's doing fine with all the work.

              His teacher last year had an independent reading list that had a good
              range of subject matter and level with a lot of good SF&F. He enjoyed
              Huck Finn, 2001, 2010, Hitchhiker's Guide, Ender's Game. The Hobbit,
              LotR were on there, but he'd already read the Hobbit and wasn't
              interested in LotR. We'll see what they come up with this year. I pray
              there is stuff he likes. Otherwise, this won't be pretty.

              Mythically yours,
              Lisa
            • juliet@firinn.org
              You re starting to look like Vishnu or somebody, Mr. Bratman, what with all those hands!
              Message 6 of 9 , Jul 22, 2004
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                You're starting to look like Vishnu or somebody, Mr. Bratman, what with
                all those hands!

                On Thu, Jul 22, 2004 at 09:00:15PM -0700, David Bratman wrote:
                > On the one hand, two of my elementary-school teachers (in unwitting
                > collaboration) were responsible for introducing me to _The Hobbit_. For
                > which I am eternally grateful. That book changed my life.
                >
                > On the other hand, I was fed crappy "relevant" literature even then, in the
                > 60s. I remember in particular a loathsomely high-minded book called _The
                > Pigman_ by Paul Zindel.
                >
                > I was also fed a lot of crap that was distinguished as "great literature."
                > Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad are the ones that still make me flinch
                > the most.
                >
                > On the third hand, I discovered and loathed Dickens all on my own.
                >
                > On the fourth hand, the great author probably most loathed by the most
                > students, Shakespeare, is one I lapped up eagerly both in school and at
                > performances I went to voluntarily.
                >
                > - David Bratman
                >
                >
                >
                >
                > The Mythopoeic Society website http://www.mythsoc.org
                > Yahoo! Groups Links
                >
                >
                >
                >
                >
              • Ginger McElwee
                ... the ... _The ... literature. ... flinch ... I think the problem with the summer reading list is not that children are reading “relevant” literature,
                Message 7 of 9 , Jul 23, 2004
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                  David Bratman wrote:

                  >On the other hand, I was fed crappy "relevant" literature even then, in
                  the
                  >60s. I remember in particular a loathsomely high-minded book called
                  _The
                  >Pigman_ by Paul Zindel.

                  >I was also fed a lot of crap that was distinguished as "great
                  literature."
                  >Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad are the ones that still make me
                  flinch
                  >the most.

                  >On the third hand, I discovered and loathed Dickens all on my own.

                  I think the problem with the summer reading list is not that children
                  are reading �relevant� literature, but that they are not being given a
                  choice of a variety of things to read. As a child I loved Tolkien, but
                  I also eagerly read Dickens, Shakespeare, and even Grace Livingston
                  Hill. My children read Lloyd Alexander along with Cynthia Voigt, and I
                  read both types of books along with them (and enjoyed them all.) Summer
                  reading should have some choice involved, and probably some variety as
                  well. To limit reading to one genre or theme is to limit the mind and
                  the imagination. Let the kids have some fun with their reading during
                  the summer.

                  By the way, it�s been years since I read _Heart of Darkness_ or _Moby
                  Dick_, but I remember really enjoying them both. _The Pigman_, on the
                  other hand, was an awful book. I was forced to teach that when I worked
                  in a high school years ago.

                  Ginger McElwee








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                  [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
                • Christine Howlett
                  English teachers seem to have a lot to answer for! I learned to think that literature must be something quite unpleasant after being marched through Dickens
                  Message 8 of 9 , Jul 23, 2004
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                    English teachers seem to have a lot to answer for! I learned to think that
                    literature must be something quite unpleasant after being marched through
                    Dickens' "Tale of Two Cities" in junior high (which requires a lot more
                    historical context than most eighth-graders have). And I LOVED to read at
                    the time, would read cereal boxes if nothing else offered. I took the
                    required English comp course in college and then abandoned the English
                    department with relief. After college, while idling in a friend's house and
                    feeling very bored, I picked up Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" with no
                    expectation of any pleasure and was amazed at how wonderful it was. Within
                    a short time thereafter, I had read all of Austen's books, all of Dickens,
                    most of Trolloppe, several of Thackeray, George Meredith's "The Egoist"
                    (unjustly neglected), and the Bronte sisters' books. I still don't like
                    "Tale of Two Cities"; I think it's Dickens sappiest and it doesn't have the
                    comic relief of the minor characters and subplots - but then it's the
                    shortest and I think that's why teachers choose it. I have to admit I
                    really like Dickens generally. I even spent real money just to have the
                    Oxford hardbound set.

                    Has anyone tried Jasper Fforde's fantasies where the protagonists get caught
                    up 'inside' these books? I liked the first, "The Eyre Affair" tremendously.

                    Christine
                    ----- Original Message -----
                    From: "David Bratman" <dbratman@...>
                    To: <mythsoc@yahoogroups.com>
                    Sent: Friday, July 23, 2004 12:00 AM
                    Subject: Re: [mythsoc] Summer Reading List Blues


                    > On the one hand, two of my elementary-school teachers (in unwitting
                    > collaboration) were responsible for introducing me to _The Hobbit_. For
                    > which I am eternally grateful. That book changed my life.
                    >
                    > On the other hand, I was fed crappy "relevant" literature even then, in
                    the
                    > 60s. I remember in particular a loathsomely high-minded book called _The
                    > Pigman_ by Paul Zindel.
                    >
                    > I was also fed a lot of crap that was distinguished as "great literature."
                    > Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad are the ones that still make me flinch
                    > the most.
                    >
                    > On the third hand, I discovered and loathed Dickens all on my own.
                    >
                    > On the fourth hand, the great author probably most loathed by the most
                    > students, Shakespeare, is one I lapped up eagerly both in school and at
                    > performances I went to voluntarily.
                    >
                    > - David Bratman
                    >
                    >
                    >
                    >
                    > The Mythopoeic Society website http://www.mythsoc.org
                    > Yahoo! Groups Links
                    >
                    >
                    >
                    >
                    >
                    >
                  • Berni Phillips
                    From: Christine Howlett ... caught ... tremendously. Oh, yes! It was recommended to me by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull so I
                    Message 9 of 9 , Jul 23, 2004
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                      From: "Christine Howlett" <chowlett@...>
                      >
                      > Has anyone tried Jasper Fforde's fantasies where the protagonists get
                      caught
                      > up 'inside' these books? I liked the first, "The Eyre Affair"
                      tremendously.

                      Oh, yes! It was recommended to me by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull so I
                      thought, hey, if they recommend it, it must be good! I loved it and the
                      whole concept of a universe taking books so seriously. I enjoyed _Lost in a
                      Good Book_, too, but I like the first the best (maybe because you have all
                      the wonder of being introduced to these things).

                      Berni
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