Preparing my Pre-teen Readers

I vividly remember the day I got bored with the juvenile section of the library. I had read all the Encyclopedia Brown books, all the Lester Del Rey books (about moon rocket pilots and such), and the entire shelf of astronomy books. Walking around the corner to the adult stacks was a powerful epiphany. (For some reason, I checked out a book by Sigmund Freud on the interpretation of dreams.)

With one tween and an 8yo with the temperament of a teenager, we have long been preparing for the time when the kids will put away the Legos and the plastic dinosaurs. What will they pick up instead?

Young readers will read what their parents tell them to read, but there comes a time when the child wants to make independent choices, which operate under the radar of the mainstream literary world.

Think “Harry Potter.” The “Twilight” series. And lately, “The Hunger Games,” a science fiction trilogy that librarian Deborah Fry said has created “quite a waiting list” in her Loudoun County library branch in Ashburn. “Even with all the distractions, even with all the technology, there are books that break through,” said Deborah Taylor of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, who has worked in the trenches of teen reading for more than 35 years.

The way Taylor sees it, getting teens to read for fun has always been a challenge, but now, time is a bigger obstacle. Still, she said, technology “can also pull you together with people who like the books you like” on fan sites and in online forums.

Patton, of the Young Adult Library Services Association, said that sales for young adult books have outpaced those for adult books and that “The Hunger Games” series is as nearly big a phenomenon as “Twilight.” Teen favorites also include graphic novels, such as manga, that include illustrations or comic panels. the–Washington Post

A colleague is teaching a course on the Twilight books, and another is teaching a Young Adult Literature course. Yet another has started a NaNoWriMo group on campus. It is frustrating to hear a creative writing major dismiss a book in a literature class, saying, “I’d rather write my own stuff than read someone else’s.” And it’s disheartening when I find an article I think will help a student gain a big-picture view on a problem, only to see the student scan it, shrug, and go back to hacking away almost randomly at the problem.

I worry about the future of literacy, but clearly books are not dead yet in the wider world. But do I really want my kids to wait for the next mega-hit emerges? Of course not. I want to develop their literary tastes now, so they don’t sit around waiting for Oprah to tell them what to read.

When Peter got too old for The Magic Treehouse, we needed something that would hold his attention as well as that of my daughter, who was about five or six at the time. The perfect choice was the Gregor the Overlander series, which features a tween boy and his toddler sister. (I actually started helping write the Wikipedia entries on the Gregor books.)

My wife read the first Harry Potter book to our son when he was little, but he has read all the rest on his own. Also on his own, he read the Percy Jackson series, and has started The Hunger Games, too.

Peter is quite the bookworm, and loves finishing a “lesson” so that he can go to his room and “read whatever you want” (which is often a book on science or military history, but might also be a Star Wars extended universe book or a fake-science book on surviving a robot rebellion or zombie holocaust).

He did not like Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, but I haven’t tried The Martian Chronicles or The Illustrated Man on him yet. He has, however, read Tom Sawyer, Johnny Tremaine, and edited versions of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, and other canonical adventure tales.

At his age, I was sampling my older brother’s Larry Niven and Arthur C. Clarke books. I never did get into Dune or Foundation or the other mega-epics, but in the mid-70s I read a lot of Star Trek paperbacks. Peter is probably ready for the first books in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, come to think of it. (Maybe I’ll try the IF version on him first.)

Last night I stopped the bedtime reading of The Return of the King just before the battle at the black gate — figuring that my daughter will probably burst into tears when the company hears the bad news about the captured Frodo. (I will want to get through that cliffhanger while we still have time to keep reading, so I can convince her that the story’s not over yet.) We’ve been reading The Lord of the Rings at bedtime for months now… each chapter takes about an hour to read, so LOTR has all but taken over the steampunk bedtime stories I used to make up for the kids. I think we all miss the storytime. (When last we left our characters, a mad scientist had swapped some of their brains around, and a political coup had changed the mission of the United States of Brittania’s blimpship navy in unexpected ways.) So I am not likely to launch into another big-scale epic any time soon. We bought a whole slew of fairy-tale books from Amazon a few years ago, in part because when Carolyn was 5, fairy tales were about the only non-picture books that she would tolerate.

The kids never quite got into Lemony Snickett, and even watching the movie didn’t really grab them, but my daughter would probably like the snark.

We thought we’d try the “City of Ember” series a couple years ago, but the little girl Poppy is not as central to the plot as Boots is central to the plot in “The Underland Chonicles,” so Carolyn had a harder time focusing on the story, and we stopped after the first book. We probably have the second book waiting in the wings, but neither of the kids asked for it. As with Lemony Snickett, the “City of Embers” movie didn’t spark their interest in reading the next story in the series, but I’m sure we’ll make it available to them.

Carolyn doesn’t really think of herself as a bookworm, but she will of her own free will pick up a Junie B. Jones book. She also loves the characters Jack and Annie from The Magic Treehouse books, and I’m really glad that these books are as deeply embedded into her childhood as Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner were embedded into mine. But truth be told there are so many of those Treehouse books that she sometimes thinks of them as a chore. (We’re on the fourth of the longer “Merlin MIssions,” which she finds a challenge.) Carolyn is still at a phase where she identifies with the babies and toddlers and other weaker characters (such as Hobbits), but I felt she connected with the strong female lead September in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (which was initially released for free, but once the internet buzz got the author a book deal she took down the full text). Or maybe I was the one who made the connection.

We’re at various points in classic series such as the Chronicles of Narnia and The Dark is Rising. Not all the classic books are slam-dunks. Last November we started reading Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, which is a classic kids tale from the 1860s that features St. Nicholas Day. But the story was slow going, and the Feast of St. Nicholas had come and gone before I finally put it aside for something else. The book is still out here on the ledge in the living room, and my heart sank just now when I saw that the bookmark is still 150 pages from the end. Will Hans win the race? Will the doctor find a cure for the sick father? Will the boys find their missing lunch money? (Meh.)

Obviously the best way to encourage the kids to make books a big part of their lives is to keep the TV off and a book in my own hand as much as possible. It’s very hard to find time to read for pleasure during the school year, but I always do try to teach some literary works I’ve never read before. Next year, I’m thinking of teaching A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Catch-22 and The Hunger Games for the first time, along with works I teach frequently, such as Machinal, Death of a Salesman, and The Great Gatsby. I’ve taught a whole collection of Flannery O’Connor stories in the past, but I’ll probably drop down to just a few stories, in order to make room for other works. Probably A Raisin in the Sun and various Harlem Renaissance writers.

In a course on Electronic Literature, I was considering teaching The Diamond Age, which I think is a fantastic book, but which got mixed reviews from students the last time I taught it. (Maybe I will podcast some contextual lectures for that book, so that I can highlight the connections I’d like the students to make. I’ll have to think about that.)