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.

Parenting Tips I Learned From Reading Middle-Grade Literature

Flick’r photo by sean dreilinger

Confession: I read a LOT of middle-grade fiction.  It’s true.  In fact, I haven’t yet been in the young adult or adult section of my local public library.  I see no problem with this, except for one thing: I want to talk about the books I read with my friends.

This is a problem because none of my friends read middle-grade books.  Their kids read middle-grade books—lately I’ve had more book conversations with those kids than I’ve had with their parents (sad, but true)–and though my friends and I have plenty of other topics to discuss, I can’t help feeling they are missing out on something by only reading books for adults (and the occasional YA).

Lately I’ve been asking myself why I’ve been concerned about this.  Granted, I like middle-grade books because I write them.  But the more I read them, the more I realize there is a wealth of knowledge for parents in those stories, too.  And that might be part of the reason why I feel like my friends are missing out.  It’s a delicious secret I want to share with them, and with any other parent who will listen.

And since I have a captive audience today, I am going to do just that.  The following are three parenting tips I learned from reading middle-grade literature.  They may not be earth-shattering, or particularly exciting, or even new, but I’m glad for them anyway.

Parenting Tip #1: Kids need family. 

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In the opening chapters of Brian Selznick’s WONDERSTRUCK, one of the main characters, Ben, has lost his mother and doesn’t know where his father is.  As I followed along on his journey to find his dad, I realized how important family is.  And I also realized how often I take mine for granted.

As a parent, I need to nurture those connections, especially with my children.  I need to carve out time to play with my kids, I need to listen to them as they share their (often random) thoughts with me, I need to encourage them and praise them and just be with them.  And I need to help them nurture close relationships with their father and siblings, too.  Family is important.

Parenting Tip #2: Kids need choices. 

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In Ingrid Law’s SCUMBLE, main character Ledger comes from a family where each member inherits a savvy, a magical power.  His family line is full of unique and interesting powers, but none are more intriguing to me (as a parent, anyway) than the one Ledger’s mom has been given; she has the power to make people do what she says.

And she does it with a smile.

Now, I don’t know any parent who wouldn’t love to have that kind of power over their children!  But as I read Ledger’s story and watched him stew when his mom made him do what she wanted him to, I realized that children are much happier and more likely to succeed when they are given choices.  It was a powerful reminder to me that it’s my job to inspire my kids to find their own greatness, not to require them to do what I think would be good for them.

Yes, I still need to guide them in their decisions, and I must set rules for them to follow, but I need to remember that, if possible, I need to let them choose for themselves.  And I must allow them to experience the consequences of their actions, no matter how much those consequences may hurt.

Parenting Tip #3: Kids need love. 

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The middle-grade literature world is full of books about orphans who hope for someone to take them in and love them. One of those kinds of books, THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY by Trenton Lee Stewart, introduces Reynie, an incredibly intelligent orphan, and his tutor, Miss Perumal.  At the beginning of the book, no other adult loves Reynie except for Miss Perumal, and her love influences Reynie’s decisions later when he is in the most dire of circumstances.

As a parent, it’s nice to be reminded every once in a while that my love for my children can be more influential than I realize.   In fact, it’s quite possible that someday my love could save the world.


It might not surprise you to learn that there are plenty of other parenting tips hidden in a middle-grade book near you.  Parents, I encourage you to pick up a title and read.  You won’t be disappointed.  And please share any additional tips you find with us here.  I’m still hoping to have this conversation with my friends someday.

Besides, I could use all the parenting help I can get.

Elissa Cruz has lots of children.  Five, to be exact.  You’d think she’d be a parenting expert with that many running around the house, but she’s not.  Unfortunately.  She writes middle-grade fiction for her children, but she also writes it for herself, and for anyone else brave enough to read it.  You can learn more about her writing journey on her blog, elissacruz.blogspot.com.  And if you, too, want to talk about middle-grade books, join her on Twitter every Thursday 9pm Eastern for #MGlitchat.