Will there be a test on that…?

My almost-11-year-old son has always been an avid reader. When he was younger, the kid would read just about anything he could get his mitts on. Case in point: when I was pregnant with his little sister I took him to the doctor’s office and he sat there, five years old, reading the side of the sonogram machine. In the last couple of years, he’s blown through the Harry Potter series, Percy Jackson, every Wimpy Kid, the Fablehaven books, Goosebumps and a gazillion others.

Then, something happened.

He was assigned Treasure Island this year as summer reading.

At first, he was excited. An adventure book! About buccaneers! And buried gold! He couldn’t wait! Until…

He started reading. And not more than two chapters in, his eyes glazed over and he looked at me and moaned, “Mom, this is sooooooo boring!” (This, from a kid who read a sonogram machine. On purpose.)

Now, I don’t want to sound like I’m bashing Treasure Island. Because I’m not. Clearly, it’s just not my son’s cup of tea.

But the fact that my son actually put down a book — on purpose — well, that makes me a little sad. Because I was just like my son as a kid. Always had a book in my hand. Read anything put in front of me. Could likely have told you how many grams of sugar, protein and polyunsaturated fat were in a box of Cheerios.

Then, something happened.

Right around the end of middle school, I discovered to my horror that reading could be… drudgery. All of a sudden, books had to be dissected like lab frogs to uncover hidden meanings. Symbolism abounded. Every novel seemed to feature a “Christ figure.” A story could no longer just be a story. It had to have a moral. A theme. A lot of convoluted English that no one had spoken for centuries.

And I hated it.

So much so that once, for a book report assignment in my Honors English class sophomore year, I did mine on a Danielle Steele novel. (Hey, there was no Twilight back then and I was a lovesick 15-year-old). My report was incredibly detailed — filled with morals, symbolism and overriding themes. I covered the whole checklist — and then some. My teacher reluctantly gave me a decent grade — but not without a big note across the top pointing out that Danielle Steele’s work was NOT “literature.”

And, that I should take my assignments more seriously.

Okay, so maybe she was technically right. But I do recall being somewhat annoyed at the time that just because the book wasn’t a “classic” (ie. written by a dead guy who had an unhealthy obsession with giant fish), that it wasn’t worthy of reading. Or discussing. Now, that’s not to say I think reading shouldn’t challenge one intellectually, emotionally and morally. It should. One of the greatest things about books is how they help us see things from another viewpoint and challenge our assumptions.

But it’s a fine line between learning how to critically analyze a work and just plug plot points into some pre-determined formula. Look! The main character’s initials are JC! He must be the Christ figure! 

So, I get what it’s like to suddenly find reading to be (sadly) a chore. For me, it probably wasn’t until later in high school and college (when I discovered Hemingway, Dickens and Edith Wharton) that reading for “homework” became engaging again. Maybe I was just more mature at that point. Maybe I had more dynamic instructors. Maybe the curriculum was better. I don’t have the answer. And I don’t have the answer now. When my son looks at me and asks if he can read something else this summer, please, do I tell him to buck it up… we all went through the same thing in school? Or is there a way to keep him engaged, especially as the reading gets more complicated… and, dare I say, “boring”?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, Mixed-Up Community… And I promise, there won’t be a test at the end!

Jan Gangsei writes stories that she hopes will keep young readers engaged. If not, there’s always symbolism. 


Reading Beyond The Lists

There might be one lurking in the pile of papers on your counter. Maybe one is hiding in the depths of your child’s backpack. Perhaps one is stuck to your refrigerator with a cutesy magnet from your last vacation. Aliens? Zombies? Unicorns? No, book lists.

Whether they are assigned, suggested, or chosen, book lists are popular ways of navigating bookstore and library shelves. Yet, part of the joy of reading is in discovery. I think we may be doing a disservice to our kids if we rely too heavily on lists, especially if we allow the lists to prevent our kids from developing their own book hunting instincts.

When I began educating my children at home, I became aware of the Charlotte Mason Method, an educational philosophy popular among home-schoolers of all creeds and faiths. Those familiar with this method will recognize the terms twaddle and living books. Mason advocates the use of narratives and biographies, what she would call living books, over dull, dry, piecemeal textbooks. The latter she calls twaddle, and that definition has grown to include what those of us in the industry refer to as mass market books. Twaddle encompasses books that are deemed to be fluff, without educational merit, or watered down.

I have seen this anti-twaddle position outside of the home-school community as well, even if the same terms are not used. I fully understand that parents desire quality reading material for their children, and that viewpoints on moral and cultural content may vary. However, I am bothered when parents solely rely on lists, many of which are stagnant and seldom include children’s literature published within the last few decades. The word twaddle carries a derisive connotation, and I cringe when it is sweepingly used to describe contemporary children’s literature.

Jeff Carney, an Associate Professor of English at Snow College in Utah, states, “If you want kids to write well (and thus to do well in school and in life) they must be able to read well. My best students are avid readers. My worst can’t stand reading. It’s really that simple. Obviously, different kids grow to love reading in different ways. The important thing is that it happens in the first place. If twaddle plays a role in there somewhere (perhaps part of a mixed diet?) I don’t see how it can matter.”

I believe that sticking too closely to recommended reading lists can be like the new recess rules popping up at elementary schools. No tag. No running. No pumping your legs on the swings. Perhaps these rules keep a child safer, but they also dampen excitement, joy, and discovery. It isn’t healthy to box in our bodies or our minds. 

Naturally, parents want to guide their children’s selections. Book lists are a great tool for that. They are also a good starting place if you are totally lost about where to begin, but there is adventure to be found beyond the lists.

This summer, encourage your children to read a variety of books in the same way you encourage them to eat a variety of foods. Realize that choosing a light read is probably no more harmful than sampling the pickle flavored snow cone from the ice cream truck. Skip into your library. Search the shelves the way you’d hunt for seashells on the beach. Pump your legs, swing high, and soar into summer reading.



Graphics courtesy of  Open Clip Art Library.

I’ll catch up as soon as my Flux Capacitor is fixed…

So there I was, walking to the record store to buy a new 45 when this guy from the future parked his Delorean on the street right next to me. I tried to get a picture, but my camera was completely out of film. I ran to the phone to call my mom, but I was out of quarters, too! I sighed. All I knew, as soon as I got home I was writing my best friend at camp. She’d never believe this. I just wished it wouldn’t take four whole days for the letter to reach her!

Okay, if that paragraph made the least bit of sense to you, then you’re probably over the age of 30. Or, really into history. (Ancient history, if you happen to be a middle-grader.) Because let’s face it, when it comes to technology — be it music, computers, cell phones — change happens faster than some guy speeding through time in his souped-up Delorean.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against change. (If not for change, I’d still be sporting a really bad perm and blue eyeshadow and aspiring to be an MTV veejay.) But rapid changes in technology do present an interesting dilemma to the writer — something I got to thinking about while reading a popular MG series recently with my 10-year-old son. In one book, a key plot point centered around the protagonist’s brother working in a film developing lab. No biggie, right? Except about halfway through the book, I came to realize my son had absolutely no freaking clue what a film developing lab was. Our subsequent conversation went something like this:

Son: Hey, what’s film?

Me (incredulous): The stuff you put in cameras.

Son: You put stuff in cameras?

Me: Yeah, to record the pictures.

Son: Oh. So it’s like an SD card? (Pause) I don’t get it. Why do you need a lab then? Don’t those things plug right into the computer?

(Mom’s old head hits the desk.)

Amazing. In the span of less than ten years, one book managed to become completely dated… And actually on the verge of not making any sense. Not because the writer used some obsolete pop reference (I mean, we all know better than to go tossing in a little Right Said Fred, lest we want to peg our book squarely in dark ages of the early nineties). Rather, because the author included a bit of technology that seemed entirely relevant at the time. I cringe thinking how much my main characters actually IM each other in my first book (my proverbial drawer novel, where it will likely live forever). I suppose I could go back and change all those IMs to texts. But no doubt they’ll go the way of the telegram someday, too. Replaced by what, I don’t know. A chip in the head that transmits messages straight to your brain?

And the funny thing is, technology doesn’t just date a novel. It can help drive plot, too. Just imagine if Harry, Hermione and Ron had Google. Or e-mail. No more hours searching for answers in the forbidden stacks of the library. No more post owls. (Okay, so I don’t really want to imagine that so much.) But what if Judy Blume’s Wendy had a computer and a YouTube account? Cyber-bully, anyone? And I’m guessing if Claudia and Jamie tried to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of the Arts today, they’d be found almost instantly thanks to the GPS apps their parents installed on their cell phones.

So what’s a writer to do? (Besides hiding in the corner, clutching their coffee and please-don’t-ever-let-it-become-obsolete iPhone.) It seems to me one of three things:

  • Create a whole new fantasy world, a la Harry Potter, where there is no technology to contend with… witches and wizards don’t need email. Or the internet. Or regular cameras. They have owls! They have spells! They have paintings that move and talk!
  • Head back to the future — or the past. Here, you can either make up your own technology, as in Feed. Or, just go ahead and set the whole story in some very definable point the past, as in When You Reach Me (which, of course, also featured its own futuristic time-travel technology, albeit without the Delorean).
  • Just roll with the times, knowing that inevitably they are a-changing. I mean, so what if in ten years kids don’t text anymore, right? We’ll all be ROTFL anyway. Thanks to the chips in our heads, that is.

So how about you? How do you deal with technology when you write? Avoid? Embrace? Create your own? Please, tell me in the comments below! Or, send a post owl. That would be pretty cool, too.

Jan Gangsei went from typing her first short story on a Brother typewriter to drafting her first novel with her thumbs on her iPhone. She couldn’t imagine ever having to use whiteout again. Also, she’s had that Maroon 5 song Payphone stuck in her head since she started writing this post. If anyone could suggest a new song, she’d appreciate it. Anything but Right Said Fred, that is.