Students are the easiest part of my job. Sure, they’re sometimes loud, and they don’t always have the best hygiene, and occasionally, they meltdown and I have to try and think about what I’d want someone to say to me if I was twelve and crying, but the same could be said about most of my close twenty-something friends. It comes with the gig. After the third break down, you learn what to say; you can always send them outside; eventually someone makes them take a shower.
Once I conquered my fear of middle school children, it was all downhill cruising from there. You can toss me, barely prepared, in front of a class of 7th graders and I’ll make it work so well that somewhere, Tim Gunn will raise an approving eyebrow without even knowing why.
So when our Middle Division head asked us to lead a conversation with the parents about literacy in Middle School, I quite naturally freaked the heck out.
(Just a little bit. I got better.)
The eternal middle school parent question when it comes to our library seems to be: “My kid used to read. Now they don’t. How do I make them?”
Do you all hear this one a lot? It seems to come up often in some variation or another. Especially from parents with boys, but not exclusively. The story is some variation on a theme: they were big readers in elementary school, but got to middle school and just lost interest/motivation/drive. Maybe they gathered a new collection of after school activities. Maybe they just don’t have the time with homework. But either way, they’re not reading.
For these kids there are many doors into readinghood. Oh, you haven’t liked a book in forever? What was the last video game you really loved? Hey, I’ve got something like that! Oh, you’re a fan of this series that you’ve already reread twelve times? Did you know there’s this other series/graphic novel/etc. that fits along with it? And has similar themes? I KNOW! How cool, right?
But the other question I got was one I frankly wasn’t prepared for: my kids is reading the wrong things. All she wants to read is dystopic fiction; all he’ll finish is fantasy. I can’t get them to put the series books down and read something with substance! Hey librarian– how do I get my kids to read “the right thing?”
A personal anecdote, if you will:
When I was a young lass, I loved Nancy Drew. Especially the (deliciously racy) Nancy Drew on Campus series, which saw Nancy facing down problems like plagiarism, date rape, cults, and drug abuse. Give me a Nancy Drew story and take it away at your own peril.
My dad hated when I read Nancy Drew. Hated it. “Trash books,” he’d critique with a frown. “They’re trash and you get through them in two-three hours. You should read something with substance! Here, take The Red Pony!”
Adult situation college fun versus a story about a pony that takes the long road to tragic Old-Yeller death. You can imagine how well this substitution went. Desperate to save my brain from Nancy and her friends, my father issued a new proclamation: “To read one of the trash books, you have to read a real book first.”
I became very adept at hiding my Nancy Drew books behind the covers of “real books.” My father was happy, I was happy, and if there’s ever an Olympic event in stealth reading, I’ll win the gold.
I told this story to the parents, and I’m telling it to you now because it’s very easy to look at a series or a certain title on your shelf and think “wait… they’re reading this? Why are they reading this?” The biggest dirty secret of librarians: we’re judgmental snobs when it comes to books. I still can’t get through the fourth Twilight book without being overwhelmed by the stupid. There are books I get at previews that make me want to cry until they go away. If you liked Fifty Shades of Grey, then I’m sorry, we’re just not going to be friends.
But even if a book makes you wince, when a kid comes into your library and wants it, I’m a firm believer in giving it to them with a smile and a parting “Come and tell me what you think when you’re done!” It’s our job to give our kids access to the literature they want, encourage them to know their own limits, and then step back to let them fly. There is no quicker way to turn a reader into a non-reader than to tell them that what they’re reading is wrong and wouldn’t you rather read…?
Which isn’t to poo-poo a legitimate fear. If everything my child was reading seemed mindless, I’d worry too. But a better place to take the “read the right things” conversation is to turn the question of “what’s literature” into a discussion that goes beyond the parent-librarian circle and onto the dining room table.
Your student/child is reading dreck? Well then, read the dreck along with them. Sit down and discuss the dreck. Find out what they like about it, what they don’t like about it. Talk to them about situations where a character made a stupid choice, or a hasty decision, or was taken advantage of. Give them the adult context and point of view to understand why Katniss maybe should have thought that one through, or why Bella is a poor role model for how relationships should work.
Shifting them onto something “with more literary merit” can be done (“Oh, you liked Twilight? Let’s take a look at some better written vampire stories.”) but it’s a delicate balancing act. And it should come with the following warning– “Say to a kid ‘read this,’ not ‘don’t read that.’”
Similar complaints/stories/anecdotes/words of wisdom? Share it in the comments, folks.