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. 


Jan Gangsei
  1. My husband is a high school English teacher and he, too, dreads summer reading assignments! Choosing the book is usually not up to him, yet he has to administer a quiz on it, lead a (usually desultory) discussion etc. It’s far from the way he’d like to start his school year!

  2. P.S. I hope J.R.R. Tolkien doesn’t roll over in his grave because I spelled his name wrong. It’s that goofy ie/ei thing.

  3. I’d say hang in there. The thing with classics is that it’s not always the story that’s the issue, but the language itself. I read everything from J.R.R. Tolkein to Agatha Christie to James Michener to Isaac Asimov during my teen years. And I read the cereal boxes, too. I couldn’t help it. If it had words, I read it. But when, as an adult, I decided to read ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ I found my self struggling with the language, even though I knew the story. English has changed and continues to change. Sometimes that’s the issue. Reading loses some of its charm when you have to read a paragraph three times and think about it awhile to understand just what the author is saying.

    Solution: For old works that are in the public domain, have your son listen to them in audio form from the library or on Librivox(dot)org instead. I did this with my kids on old works that I wanted to them to read for home school. The written language from way back was just not something they wanted to grapple with as high school Freshmen. I got them the hard copies, too, but they were better able to follow the stories, some in language that dated back much farther than ‘Treasure Island,’ with surprisingly little trouble once it was being read by someone else.

    Hope it helps.


  4. I suggest letting him read whatever he wants, but listen to Treasure Island on audio–as a family, or just the two of you in the car while running the usual errands. Sharing the drudgery of any homework makes it less odious. Talk about it. Make fun of it. Brainstorm over it. Laugh. He’ll remember the story better as well as the fun he had with you.

  5. Great post, Jan. My three kids (one boy, two girls) have gone through this too! And in junior high and high school, they start annotating, which really takes away from the enjoyment of the book–no matter what it is! When my daughter (a sophomore in high school) got to read a book of choice last year for English, she chose “The Help.” She recently told me it was the only book she liked reading all year!

  6. As an English teacher who emphasizes literature, I have to agree -to some extent- with all of you. Age should be considered when assigning “classics” and I don’t know many eleven year olds who would really appreciate or benefit from Treasure Island. Carefully chosen, well presented required books can be a good thing. It is up to teachers to not get set in their ways and be flexible and creative. I channel my inner performance artist and do quite a bit of reading aloud. It works for me, but wouldn’t for everyone.

    That said, a lot of classics are mind-numbing drivel. That’s from someone who has read LOTS of them.

  7. It’s so strange to come home from having this EXACT conversation with a friend today to find this post. We were wondering why so much MG is aimed at boys and then YA is strictly girl territory (with a few exceptions- hi there, James Patterson!) We theorized that boys stop reading at that age because of assigned reading in school and your post seems to support that argument. I think kids could learn every bit as much from dissecting HUNGER GAMES or WONDER as they could from LORD OF THE FLIES. While there is certainly something to be said for having a knowledge of the classics, perhaps middle school is not the place to introduce this type of literature. Maybe easing kids into analytical reading with more contemporary reads (paced the way books today are) would ensure kids stick with reading long enough to get to those classics!

  8. Maybe see if you can get him to listen to the audiobook from your library or audible. Nothing kills a book like being required to read it AND then overanalyze it. and I’ve always been an avid reader. My 9th grade teacher had us do SO MUCH with The Scarlet Letter that I completely hated it by the time we were through. Read ploddingly through in class one chapter at a time, & disscussion & character charts & quizzes & vocabulary & side readings on the historical context & on & on FOR EVERY BLESSED CHAPTER. I think we spent 9 weeks on the thing. I’d finished it the first week and was completely over it by week 3. Shudder.
    Anyway, hope your son (and you) survive it.

  9. I remember reading books by Danielle Steele, Nora Roberts, and the likes as early as Jr. high! They were what my mom had around the house and I had to read something? 🙂

  10. My sister got away with doing no assignments at all in English because the teacher offered extra credit to read a book and do an essay on it. She aced the class.

    I wish I’d had teachers like that. Instead I was failed for reading too much. Weeeelllll, I was reading in class when we were supposed to be doing other things…


  11. I agree with Karen about broadening our definition of what is a classic. I remember in high school my teacher didn’t think The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas was considered as “quality” literature worthy to be used for a book report assignment (granted, it was an AP literature class, but still…). I shudder to think what he would have said if I’d brought an Agatha Christie novel instead.

    However, AC helped me learn critical thinking skills much more so than many of the books we read that year. I’d argue that there are many books not on the classics list that should be.

    My own kids’ school (k-9 charter school) has adopted a program that allows students to choose any book in a specific genre for book reports, and then they read classics together as a class. I like this idea, because then they get to choose a books that are enjoyable for them and still have a chance to be introduced to those required reading books we all know and (might not) love.

  12. @ Janet — interesting point about the “point” system. I’ve also heard similar complaints about that — ie. it reduces reading to some sort of formula; that you can read a more challenging book and somehow get fewer “points” because the book is short, etc.

    @ Samantha — yeah, I’m continually astonished at what kids do today in school! Pretty soon they are going to head straight from kindergarten to college! Love the idea of the Illustrated Books’ version… I’ll have to check that out!

    @ Karen — did we go to the same high school by any chance?!? 😉 Totally agree the definition of “classics” needs to be broadened, as well!

  13. I couldn’t agree more, Jan. I hated high school English because my teacher was always cramming symbolism and J.C. down our throats and I just never seemed to be on the same page as her (no pun intended). I’m all for reading for enjoyment and whatever appeals to a kid should be allowed. I think the definition of “classics” needs to be broadened too.

  14. Wow, Treasure Island, assigned reading at age 11…. No wonder he is disengaged. He definitely has to finish it, but maybe get him the Illustrated Books’ version, and it won’t seem so torturous!

  15. Sadly, I don’t remember much about reading when I was young. I read and had these little certificates to prove it, though. I also did not like the analyzing of books we read in school. I felt reading should be for fun, not for trying to analyze what the writer was trying to convey to his readers. I have three boys and they never were ones to love reading. But, I do remember sitting down with my youngest son at night, trying to cram in the AR points that he needed, reading the Goosebump books. We loved those and I remember one times we were found by my husband laughing so hard the tears ran down our faces. I write for children and I think reading should be fun, they grow up fast enough.