The Right Stuff v. The Wrong Things

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.

11 thoughts on “The Right Stuff v. The Wrong Things

  1. Thanks for a great post, Clair. Lately I’m a little fixated on readers’ advisory –particularly the part where we (try to) recommend titles we didn’t like much, so this is interesting. I always call Nancy Drew and her ilk “Gateway Books”– they get you hooked and then you can’t stop. The first one’s free! Even Nancy Drew is going to improve your vocabulary– really! and the thing we really want to foster is the habit of reading.

    PS– loved The Silver Kiss… Another one is Robin McKinley’s Sunshine.
    thanks again!

    • Ooooh, “Sunshine” was great! And for werewolves, there’s always “Blood and Chocolate.” Pack leader’s daughter, pragmatic and vicious, and a good eye for what “real” drama is? Now *that’s* how you do a supernatural heroine.

  2. I absolutely adored The Coldest Girl in Cold Town!!! I stayed up LATE!!!!!!! to read that book.

    I am a firm believer in all reading is good reading. So, in terms of promoting reading, I completely agree. In terms of purchasing, it maybe a bit more nuanced! 😎 I love, love your post. Thank you.

    • *SO* good. I managed to snag an ARC and it was just five solid days of me sitting on a bench, ignoring the world, and going “OH! OH!” Holly Black does vampires so well; I don’t want a sequel, but I totally want a sequel.

  3. Yes, a great post. Yes, Shannon, Nacy Drew, etc are gateway books. I had to learn from my older son who reread the Boxcar Children well into 7th grade that there is something reassuring about the predictability of “one from column A” plots when all else around him was problematic as a 12-13-14 year old.

    I also discovered from my own love of science fiction an insight that transfers well to the current dystopic craze: both genres take an issue that bothered the author and extrapolate the possible results of that issue into places unlikely. The extrapolation helps students see what might become real if they the readers choose to ignore the issue in the current world. Constitutional law (Article 5), beautiful people (Uglies, etc), organ donation (Unwind), climate change and flooding cities (Ship Breaker), etc, etc, etc. When I have parent complaints, I answer with this expansion of the thinking process and they are usually both impressed and satisfied with the insight.

    I have more trouble with graphic novels. We offered Shaun Tan’s The Arrival as a summer reading option last year and parents threw fits that we would allow such an easy option. The few who actually spoke to me were vaguely satisfied ith my answer also about mind expansion, but the ones who just refuse to let the book be chosen never heard my soap box.

    Readers’ Advisory is persistently interesting!

    This weekend I read Resurrecting Lazarus, Texas – a great sports read about a girls basketball team in football-is-king west Texas. It certainly has all the predictable elements, but is not a predictable story. We plan to offer it as a summer option for grades 7-8, but it will be of most interest to high school.

    • “I had to learn from my older son who reread the Boxcar Children well into 7th grade that there is something reassuring about the predictability of “one from column A” plots when all else around him was problematic as a 12-13-14 year old.”

      I love this reasoning– it’s so true, and something we forget too often as adults. When nothing in your life feels certain, a little predictability goes a long way.

  4. Great post, Clair! And I entirely agree with you that anyone who loved Shades of Grey would not be someone I could hang out with :)- I get really frustrated when some of the teachers at my school dismiss YA literature as unworthy. Our Universal Read pick this year is Endangered by Eliot Schrefer and I’m already hearing complaints because it is a teen book and not a “classic.” Meanwhile the kids who’ve read it find it compelling and readable. Go figure!
    LOVE this article posted on Nerdy Book Bloggers last month – you can find the blog on Word Press.

    • Sing it, sister. There’s always a bit of push back from some teachers when they see that our summer reading list has great YA books, versus “the classics.” It can definitely be a battle to get them to realize “hey, you know what the classics are good for in middle school? Making kids not want to read the classics.”

      Love the Nerdy Book Bloggers article– thank you so much!

  5. Couldn’t agree more, Clair! True with my own children/grandchildren and true with our students! Invariably, we can steer them to a wide variety of titles. My own kids learned great vocabulary words with “Calvin and Hobbes!” (By the way, I didn’t consider that ‘junk’ reading. In our home, it was required!)

  6. Thanks, Clair, I experience what you express here regularly. I find it much easier to sweet talk reluctant boy readers into a book “to try” than to convince parents and many teachers that classics like Moby Dick aren’t appropriate middle school choices. Oh, those classics that we all remember reading — but we read some of them at university not in high school! Our school uses Renlearn’s Accelerated Reader program, and I am delighted that so many of the current YA titles are part of the program. It makes it easier for me to show parents and teachers that the Hunger Games or Muchamore’s CHERUB series are good choices based on reading level and interest level … And that the boys can work their way up to Dickens and twain as their vocabulary expands? Reader’s Advisory is one of the best and most challenging parts of our jobs!!

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