Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Reading Lists: the good, the bad and the ugly

Let me preface this by telling a story:

When I was a rising 7th grader, a friend and I went to a little hole-in-the-wall used bookstore in the small town where we lived. I loved to read - constantly - and was thrilled to be surrounded by a million (more or less) books. I can't remember all of the books I picked up for a song, but I remember that one was Jane Eyre. I hadn't read it but I knew it was a "classic" that one was supposed to read. I took it home, started it, and hated it. I put it down and forgot about it. I was disappointed that I couldn't find it interesting, thinking that this denoted some lack of intelligence. I also developed the very mistaken ideas that (1) I had actually read it and (2) that it wasn't very good.

In the fall of ninth grade our family went on a short trip to visit family for Thanksgiving. I honestly can't remember why I decided to take this book along but I read in the car until it was too dark to see. Then I fell asleep. When we arrived, at 2 AM, I wound up without a bedroom (in a large family accidents happen). Not too displeased I settled in an overstuffed lazyboy with a new package of oreos and a large glass of milk. And Jane Eyre. I finished the book and most of the oreos at dawn. Then I went for a walk. [Note: when you're 13 you can do things like this.]

I discovered two things: (1) I hadn't actually read the book before and (2) it was very good.

The reason I am telling this story is to illustrate a point. It does children a disservice to ask them to read things before they are ready. I was perfectly capable of understanding the vocabulary and sentence structures of Jane Eyre in 6th-7th grade, but I hadn't the life experience. Ok, not that I had it in 9th grade either, but I had more than I did earlier. I repeated this sequence with many books over the years. Fortunately, I figured out what had happened and after college went back and read a lot of the "uninteresting" books I hadn't liked in high school. The majority of them I liked. (There remains one exception: The Scarlett Letter. I still hate that book. Anyway.) Another good example is The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I just wasn't ready for TLOTR in 9th grade. I got it in my head that it was "too hard". It's a good thing I married a Tolkien fan or I might never have read them.

I've looked at reading lists for various grade levels over the years since we've been homeschooling. Most of the time I feel positive about the lists, but there are some lists that just leave me appalled. Sometimes the books are too advanced  in the way that Jane Eyre was for me. Les Miserables in 7th grade? Are they really going to get much out of it? 

Sometimes the material is emotionally inappropriate for the age level. Some children can read Lord of the Flies without nightmares at the age of 10, but not many. Yes, I saw that on a fifth and sixth grade list. And Animal Farm? To this day I still tear up when thinking of the ending. What about Island of the Blue Dolphins? That was on my fifth grade reading list. I don't think it was a good idea at that age to be reading about a girl whose brother had his throat ripped out by wild dogs after they had been left alone on an island to fend for themselves. All of these might qualify as great literature, but if you read them before you're ready, they do more harm than good.

It is a shame that reading lists have become a status symbol for private schools and a point of pride for parents. I love reading and I want my children to love reading (and they do). BUT, I would much rather they read Pride and Prejudice for the first time at age 18 and fall in love with it, than read it at 12 and decide it's not so good and never pick it up again.

13 comments:

  1. Usually I don't like movies made from books, especially favorite books, because they get important things wrong, or change them, or leave them out. But I find that watching BBC miniseries versions of classics helps me approach books that I may have put down out of despair or boredom too many times. I know I've read Jane Eyre more attentively than ever since watching the 2006 BBC miniseries after Pascha. Same with Shakespeare. Sometimes it really helps to see the play first. And if the movie or play is inappropriate for a certain age, then probably the book is too. (My 12-year-old wanted to watch Jane Eyre with me, and I didn't let her see certain parts that I thought were too passionate for her.)

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  2. I have similar feelings about abridged versions of books. I don't like them myself, but I think they can be good "training wheels",giving children the essence of the story before they are capable of reading the original works. As long as you don't mistake reading the abridged version for reading the real thing.

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  3. Agreed! I remember several times in my childhood trying to read books - generally great literature - and being totally unable to appreciate them, only to later find them amazing. (Most of Tolstoy comes to mind :-).)

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  4. I never understood why they taught Scarlett Letter in the 11th grade (do they still?) Waste of time. However, I taught it to a night lit class of mostly adults and they just ate it up -- having been in marriages and relationships made the book real to them.
    Maybe now that I'm Orthodox, I should try to read Dostoevsky again.

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  5. Yes, I did Scarlett Letter in 11th grade. Stupid. I think the reason I still don't like it is because the teacher beat it into the ground. There was nothing left when she was done. I had a much better teacher for 10th and 12th grade (same one), thank goodness!

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  6. I am with you on The Scarlet Letter...or anything Hawethorne, really.

    My biggest mistake was reading Walden in the eighth grade. I was too young to realize not to take that stuff so seriously.

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  7. It is a challenge to find GOOD age-appropriate literature for those late childhood/early adolescent years. I don't know if you have been in the "children's" section of a book store lately, or have noticed what sorts of books are being marketed for those ages, but it's terribly depressing to me.

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  8. Vershal - I don't really like any Hawthorne myself. Or J.F. Cooper either.

    Carlyn, I agree. The section is generally dreadful. It's so hard to find good books that challenge good readers - but are appropriate for 10-14 year olds. Ugh. Consequently, most of the books I'm pulling off the shelves and handing to my oldest were published before 1940.

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  9. Matushka, I'm wondering if the two oldest would like "I Conquer the Castle" -- vaguely remember that being an interesting book. Also, Diana Wynn Jones held *my* interest. When I was about ten, my dad got disgusted with my steady diet of "Sue Barton, Student Nurse" and forced me to read Charles Lindbergh's "The Spirit of St. Louis." It was a struggle, but I still remember sections of it!

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  10. Ha ha, I have a Cherry Ames and Donna Parker collection! I like starting the new readers out on the Bobbsey Twins and then later on Nancy Drew just to get them reading. I'll check those books out you mentioned.

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  11. It's "I CAPTURE The Castle" -- sorry.

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  12. There were several books that I came across later in my school years. Just because your 5th grader has a "college" reading level doesn't mean they should be reading college level books.

    I had trouble appreciating anything by Jane Austin until I was in my twenties. But boys had cooties up til then - maybe that's why?

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  13. I read Jane Austen before my 20's, but enjoyed it much, much more after. I caught more of the humor.

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