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.)

10 thoughts on “Preparing my Pre-teen Readers

  1. When I wrote “Not all the classic books are slam-dunks,” I certainly didn’t mean that none of them were. By sharing a few books that flopped, I don’t mean to suggest that I’m giving up on the classics.
    This certainly wasn’t an exhaustive list of all the books I’ve read recently, for my own pleasure, or all the books that I’ve read to and with my kids.
    I was just being honest about the fact that, when my kids have the choice of what book they want me to read them (“We just finished The Two Towers. Do you want the next Lord of the Rings book, or do you want the next book Rowan Hood book?”) some series have fared better than others.
    Some purists wouldn’t include The Chronicles of Narnia with the greatest of the great, but we have read the first four. (“A Horse and His Boy” is next, which I never got to as a kid, so I’m looking forward to it.)
    At age 5 or 6, my daughter couldn’t focus on Anne of Green Gables, but she was fine with Little House on the Prairie. We’ll come back to Anne later when Carolyn is a little closer to Anne’s age.
    That book and The Silver Skates are the only ones I’ve abandoned midway through. The reason I dug The Silver Skates out was because we’re nearing St. Nicholas Day again, and I thought I’d give it another try.
    Abbreviated versions of the classics? We got those at a time when my older son was just starting to read chapter books on his own. He’s now definitely ready to read the full-length versions, and these editions were very useful during the transition. They were much more faithful to the original book than any movie version would have been.

  2. Dear Friends and College Professor,
    I worry about the future of literacy too…
    There is a reason that the classics are classics. If you want a child to love to read, better himself, improve his vocabulary and understanding of the world, then have him read the classics – in their original forms. Don’t allow the abridged versions to go near your child. The classics are amazing and those who read them know it. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Jane Eyre, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Yearling, A Christmas Carol, A Child’s History of England, Frankenstein, Rip Van Winkle…. these are the stories that will stir your child’s imagination and make them LOVE to read.
    The books that many of you are referring to (series for young people) are fun but they are nothing, NOTHING compared to the classics. They are like wolfing down fast food in a car compared to sitting down to a wonderful, home-cooked meal at a table filled with family. They appeal to childish fancies and immature ideas and desires and do not help us understand the deepest meanings and needs of our humanness.
    Granted you may need to help your child read the classic books when they are younger. Read out loud to them and have a dictionary right next to you – learn together. But get through the first few chapters (it’s like a mental work out) and you will be HOOKED. Your children will BEG you to finish the book or read another chapter. There is a reason children are bored with the juvenile section of the library – because they are reading cheap candy – these books are easy to read, fun, give them a very quick high, and when they are finished there is a big let down. On the contrary, the classics are artistic, fulfilling food for thought! My now college age daughter used to beg me to read a classic she had just read so that we could talk about all the amazing characters and ideas there in. Don’t cheat your children. Read a classic with them. They’ll never look at a book the same way again. I haven’t personally read The Silver Skates but maybe you should read the ending. The Chronicles of Narnia may be more meaningful if you knew a little more about the UK and their differences in language/way of life (we lived in the UK). Reading classics also helps American children to realize their world is not the only one and to learn about rest of the (literally) 95+% of the people on earth.
    May I say honestly, that it’s a sad thing for a professor of literature to not have a taste for reading the classics. I do really like your site though and am using some of your other advice in a course for my son. I would respectfully encourage you to read a classic for yourself and contact me and let me know how it goes. Try any Charles Dickens (so funny and thousands of amazing sentences in one book- in one chapter! You’ll love it!) or maybe Jane Eyre as I am reading now. What beautiful words that tell things so deeply in one sentence – masterpieces! Classic literature may have a slow build (which has the purpose of piquing our senses to the story and our sensitivities to the characters) but it gives you a high – no gives you meaningful “experiences” and thought – that last a lifetime.
    ps I grew up on Sat. morning cartoons and didn’t read much at all. I only began to read the classics when I read to my children (beginning with Beatrix Potter). What I was missing!

  3. Perhaps you should start Peter on Niven’s “A World out of Time”. He might really like the physics in the story. I should have a copy laying around the house :)

  4. It sounds like you have very little to worry about. Your kids are already far better read than the vast majority of their peers.
    The books that affected me the most when I was about that age were the Chronicles of Prydain. The morality is still refreshing. I also read nearly every science fiction novel published between 1940 and 1985.
    The Hunger Games is a pretty grim and graphic series compared to what I was reading as a kid.

    • By the way, I did end up reading the whole Prydain series to my daughter. My son was by that time reading mostly on his own, though I think he did read one or two of them.

      Good times at bedtime!

  5. I did read The Wind in the Willows to Peter, but I don’t think I’ve read it to Carolyn. I haven’t read the other series you mention. So many choices!

  6. You’re not directly asking for recommendations, but it feels like you sort of are. I read part way through this over at LiveJournal before I clicked through to leave a comment with recommendations… but then I got here and finished reading and you’d mentioned at least a couple of them.
    I will admit that I read a lot of kid lit. I try to read other things, too, of course, but of the thirteen books I’m currently reading, almost half are YA. I suppose that in addition to the other things you’ve mentioned, I’d recommend Wind in the Willows and His Dark Materials. I’m also reading The Water Babies right now, and it is pretty hilarious; it’s quickly becoming one of those books that I’m mad my parents didn’t read to me when I was young. I can only assume that they did not know of it.

  7. I picked Oprah’s name simply because she is a TV superstar. Her race, and the race of the authors she might choose, was not a factor in my post.
    Incidentally, I noticed The Gregor books never identify the family’s ethnicity, all we know is that Boots has curly hair, and I pointed that out to my kids.
    Harry Potter deals with diversity in ways other than race, showing anti-muggle bigotry. Likewise, science fiction often uses robots or aliens to explore difference, even though the roots of modern SF and fantasy were formed in an age much less culturally diverse than our own.
    I’d be happy to discuss issues of diversity in literature, but I would prefer to do it in a constructive way, rather than in response to an accusation.
    There is deep, unquestioned cultural racism in LOTR, with swarthy and dark features associated with evil and fair elves and fair hair associated with good, but to a certain extent you find that in all the canonical literature.

  8. My wife points out that Aragorn, king of everybody, is described as dark-haired with gray eyes, so dark is not necessarily bad.

  9. I agree with a lot of what you say, but I’m curious about the Oprah slam. You don’t want them reading Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck? She’s had books by all in her club. And let’s not forget Jonathan Franzen, Pearl Cleage, Maya Angelou, Edwidge Danticat, Isabel Allende, Barbara Kingsolver, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. She’s gotten people to read some amazing work. I notice you have mostly whites listed until you mention Hansberry and the Harlem Renaissance. That can’t be your problem with Oprah, that she doesn’t feature white authors enough?
    I just didn’t get that part. When my son picks up anything that was on Oprah’s list, much of it from my shelves, I’m rather happy about it. And it’s even cooler when he gets a friend to read “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

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