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Posts Tagged ‘reading’

Many years ago there was this thing I heard about that some guy was doing, a project where people wrote a novel in 30 days. Sounded interesting, but I wasn’t writing novels at the time. A couple years later, in 2001, I thought I’d try it as a lark, mostly because it was immediately post-9/11 and I felt this great urge to do or say something. that was the first year I failed National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.

I tried again in 2002 then again in 2004, failed on both counts, and decided it just wasn’t for me. November, it turns out, is just a terrible month for projects of any size. That sounds like an excuse but it’s been true across the board, any new project that starts in November is just a stress-filled wreck, and not just writing projects but for some reason writing projects are especially tough.

But a couple years back I stumbled onto PiBoIdMo – Picture Book Idea Month – which takes place during the NaNoWriMo and I thought Finally, a project that’s just my speed. Instead of a complete novel in 30 days PiBoIdMo consists of one picture book idea per day for the entire month. Not a completed story, no even a title, but simply an idea, a seed, a kernel of something that might one day provide fruit. This seemed like a nice bite-sized goal and one that could keep me feeling like I was still writing-active during a usually tough month.

Did I mention this would be easy? No, I did not. Because as it turns out, you can’t always come up with ideas out of thin air on command.

Nonetheless, for the last couple of years I participated and completed PiBoIdMo, and left the month with a handful of reasonable ideas and a couple of stellar ones, but mostly with a sense of accomplishment.

This year I couldn’t even manage five stinkin’ ideas before the month fell apart on me.

Can I blame the new job I started back in July? Well, for this and many other failures, but that seems like a cop-out because plenty of people manage to wedge in writing and plenty of other creative projects around jobs and family and whatnot. Best I can explain it (again, not to sound like an excuse) is I just haven’t found my groove.

I did have a new idea that I thought would/could have made and awesome NaNoWriMo project, entirely manageable and well-suited for short-chapter writing, but the last thing I want to do right now is start a new project with so many others outstanding. Compounding my November anxieties was the fact that I’d agreed to participate in a New Writer’s series put on at my local library. A reading. Of my own work. In front of strangers. I would be just like the readings I did in grad school, only in front of strangers, i.e. people who weren’t predisposed to being supportive no matter what. You know, like the rest of the real world. So where I might have spent my free time during November working on new pages I instead devoted that time to worrying every line of the one section of my WIP that I would be reading from.

It turned out not to be such a bad thing.

First, when you prep something for reading you are forced to read it aloud. Once you start to hear the lines in your ears instead of just in your head you quickly learn what does and doesn’t work. Sections that “read” well on the page suddenly seem to bog down the story aloud and send action and dialog crashing head-first into a metaphorical dashboard with a tremendous whomp. Stilted dialog gets ironed out, precious details get cut because they are too precious. In the end, the pages are tighter and the story is stronger. None of this alleviates the terror of reading in public, but you take what you get.

My reading suffered as well. I found long passages of text too distracting. This happens when I’m preoccupied, and the best thing I can do is give myself a bit of a reading vacation and let myself get book hungry again.

So here it is, December, and despite the harried holiday season and other possible roadblocks ahead, I’m feeling re-energized. I’m ready to finish this one thing and start something bold and new. Or bold and old. Or anything. I’m ready to tear through a backlog of reading and discover something new to become a new favorite.

November was hard, but November is gone.

Onward!

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I think, I hope, we’ve moved beyond the question as to whether or not comics and graphic novels are legitimate reading for kids and teens. But just in case another case needs to be made, or should you find yourself needing just one more piece of evidence to get the last word, I’m throwing this idea out there:

Comics existed before most people even owned books.

So the word itself, cartoon, comes from the Italian cartone which was the stiff paperboard Renaissance artists used to sketch out their paintings. Da Vinci’s notebooks are full of cartoons. All those frescos in the churches, they began as cartoons drawn on the walls. Historically, the cartoon was a representative drawing done in preparation of a finished work. These cartoons were illustration, plain and simple, and they came from a long line of visual representation starting with those cave paintings in the south of France.

You see, man’s earliest attempts to communicate story came in pictographs. The pictures, spread across cave walls, told a sequential narrative about The Great Hunt or The Battle for Berries or Hunter Tripping on Rocks. These forerunners of the cartoon predate cuneiform and hieroglyphs and other forms of symbolic language. The pictures told the story in much the same way that a wordless picture book or graphic novel does today. Depending on the sophistication of their brains, it would be curious to take a modern wordless picture book back to cave-dwelling man and see if they understood it.

Though it can be a bit of a stretch to call the cave paintings and fresco sketches cartoons they are nonetheless historical artifacts that show that there was a way to “read” before there were words. Up until the Renaissance these cartoons were historical in nature (the Greeks and Romans would illustrate battles from Mythology, they believed them to be historical at some level), but I recently came across what might truly be the genesis of the graphic novel in The Bayeux Tapestry.

Art history majors (and anyplace where the arts are still considered important and taught) know The Bayeux Tapestry to be an illustrated telling of the Norman Conquest and The Battle of Hastings which took place in 1066. The Tapestry itself dates to the 1400s which easily predates the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus by Art Spigelman and the groundbreaking work by the father of the American graphic novel, Will Eisner, by a good 500 years. Cartoons and the sequential narrative are not new.

Last week I was reminded of this when the website Open Culture featured an animated version of The Bayeux Tapestry. I don’t often post media within the blog, but this is worth the diversion.

The tapestry itself is a collection of narrative strips – or panels, to use a modern comic term – that read from left to right and top to bottom, just as if you were reading a book. Because you are, you’re reading a graphic novel from 1476, and the best part about it, it’s non-fiction! It’s not only a cartoon, it’s historical!

I hope this puts a cork in the comics-aren’t-reading argument so we can move on to more important discussions. Like what makes a good comic or graphic novel – and why are there so many mediocre ones out there for kids these day?

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Think back five years ago to 2006. What was your favorite book of 2006?

Is that a difficult question? Do you have to mine journals and blogs and run a Google search just to remember what was published five years ago? Now let me stop you for a moment so I can throw a number out there.

29,248

That’s how many juvenile titles were published in 2006 according to Bowker’s Books in Print database for the year. That number includes fiction and nonfiction, picture books and middle grade books, board books and young adult and everything in between. I cannot imagine any one person even reading a fraction of that number of books in a single year, but of that number what are the chances that a number of them of a lesser quality? What do you suppose the ratio is between a high-quality title and a book that is just plain boring?

And where do you think your favorite book of 2006 falls in the spectrum?

2006 was the year I began to take my writing for children seriously and when I started a review blog called the excelsior file to keep a record of the books that moved me to comment. I started the blog late in the year so I only have a few months worth of reviews, and I was still getting by blogging feet, so I can’t say it was a thorough accounting. But looking over the books I did review two of them stood out as books I still can recall and recommend to people today. One is the Barbara McClintock picture book Adele and Simon and the other is a middle grade books by Gary Paulsen called The Amazing Life of Birds. There were dozen’s of others, some older ones among the new, and many of those other books were easily forgettable and forgotten. No doubt there were 2006 books I eventually read and enjoyed (Gutman’s The Homework Machine, Portis’s Not a Box, Green’s An Abundance of Katherines, among others) but even of this shallow pool of titles how many of them were truly great, exciting books that turned me into a you-must-read-this evangelist? Compared with the total number of books printed that year, the percentage is pretty dang low.

Like 0.0002%.

But this isn’t a science, and with creative arts there is always room for varied opinion. Day after day I try to immerse myself in this world of books aimed at children and young adults and wonder why such a large portion of them are quite simply boring beyond all reason. Teen romances with cardboard stereotypes and predictable endings. Picture books lacking subtlety, some of them even ugly to look at, seemingly aimed at filling in short attention span bedtime reading with quantity and not quality. Rambling middle grade books that confuse bulging words counts with quality and spend more time aimed at providing readers hope rather than delivering believability a reader can identify with. And over all, books and books and books where heroics are more important than ideas.

Cue Tina Turner singing the theme for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

Perched as we appear to be on the cusp of a digital revolution that will provide more content than ever before I think it’s imperative that those of us in the reading and writing game consider raising the bar. We should seek out and produce the difficult books, the ones that challenge a reader’s perceptions and cause a cultural stir. And perhaps we can consider talking less about good books and talking more about exceptional ones.

Five years from now when someone asks “What was your favorite book of 2012” there shouldn’t be a question or a hesitation, we should all be able to recall those titles that demanded our attentions and challenged readers to move beyond the comfort of the “good” books.

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Sports writer (it figures) cum YA author Robert Lipsyte rattled the cages of the kidlit community this past weekend with his essay in the NYT Book Review essentially lobbing the teen boy reading problem back across the net into the “more boy books” camp. This naturally, almost assuredly, possibly deliberately, raised the hackles of those who feel that the problem isn’t books (don’t blame the books!) but in the way society raises the boys (we need to raise boys as feminists!). Here’s the one line that resonated with me out of the whole essay, the one most true, the one ring to bind them:

“We need more good works of realistic fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, on- or ­offline, that invite boys to reflect on what kinds of men they want to become.”

Forget everything else Lipsyte said for a moment (especially if it bothered you) and think about everything this statement embraces.

First and foremost it recommends we need books. Define that how you will, I would love to hear someone argue the opposite side, that we don’t need books anymore.

Second, the modifier good is in there. We don’t just need more crap, we need quality, and again there’s a spectrum there.  Suffice to say we know good when we see it, what defines good isn’t at issue here.

Third, following the rule of threes, comes the type of good books that we need: realistic fiction, nonfiction, and graphic novels. Any naysayers out there? Anyone think we couldn’t use more quality nonfiction, solid realistic fiction, or good graphic novels? No? Let’s move on.

The next part is tricky: inviting boys. This gets tossed around and argued quite a bit, and it usually has to do either with cover designs or whether a girl is involved with the story. This is the “Ew, cooties!” argument, and the division is usually between “if it’s good, it shouldn’t matter” and “we need to teach boys to get over it.”  This is the point where I would think most pro-feminists would want to weigh in with just exactly how boys get to this stage of thinking. There’s an avalanche of advertising and marketing out there that is conditioning boys from a very early age to think of pink as a girly color and that stories featuring girls will contain content of no interest to them. There’s a ginormous world out there molding and shaping the ways boys approach their entertainment and free time, and you want to draw a line in the sand at books and dare boys to cross it? If we aren’t going to invite boys into books, if the stand is going to be pandering versus political, or if there’s just no desire to even bother, then how can we possibly imagine a world where boys even begin to come close to recognizing books as valuable?

Now comes the most interesting phrase out of the Lipsyte quote, to reflect. We don’t just want them to read for the sake of reading, we want them to find meaning and purpose in what they read, we want them to think. This is where I feel a lot more harm than good is done in the schools when there is a dramatic shift from reading for fun toward reading for meaning. I do think boys can and should be able to analyze texts and glean relevent meaning from a story, any story, but I don’t think books should be used to do this. This is where I get a little radical and run my post a little off a side track, but this is the crux of it:

Apply all the lessons taught about subtext and metaphor and literary devices via movies and television shows.

Why? Because we already know they spend more time with visual media than they do books. Because we need them to see that these lessons exist in the world outside the classroom. And because they will be better able to apply those lessons to books if we don’t remove them from the category of pleasurable pursuits. You can take any contemporary television sitcom and use it to teach racial and gender-based stereotypes for example – and there’s a LOT of examples out there, many of them hit shows, a lot of them negative – then have them read any work of fiction and they’ll spot them without effort. It doesn’t work the other way around however. Kids who are whipsmart at spotting literary devices in books view their favorite TV shows as somehow being separate or above all that.

Anyway, if we want our boy readers to be able to sincerely reflect on what they read in books we might have to actually teach them how to reflect somewhere else besides books first.

The last part of Lipsyte’s quote is a loaded gun: what kinds of men they want to become. You ask any boy what character from literature they would most like to be like, and what are the odds you’ll get a character from a fantasy novel, a hero with superpowers? Not very realistic. On the spot I can only think of one good example, and I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of a boy wanting to be like Atticus Finch. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of a guy (outside of fellow writers) who said they wanted to be like any male, author or character, connected with books. There are great men to emulate in the world, politicians and athletes and movie stars, but these are all men of action who give no appearance of having read any books.

So if we want to invite boys to reflect on the type of men they want to become, and we want them to do it through good, realistic fiction, nonfiction, and graphic novels – and there’s nothing in that restatement I find objectionable – then we need more books that allow this to take place. This isn’t an argument of pandering versus bootstrap feminism, it’s about saying, simply, let’s put out more books like this and give them time to find an audience.

Boys and reading are like a teen driver and his broke-down truck by the side of the road. You can either give them a lift to the next town and help them one step further along the road to reading, or you slow down long enough to smirk at their choice of vehicle before driving off and leaving them in the choking dust.

We can argue all we want, but there are boys all over the literary map who need lifts into town.

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Apparently, it’s potentially my fault.

Over the weekend the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece (as news) examining how contemporary YA books had grown dark and whether or not it’s a good idea to be feeding teens a diet of kidnapping and incest and self-mutilation. The kidlit community went all a-Twitter as a result and began a counter campaign called #YAsaves* to prove that these books did more good than harm. Which has all been well and good, but I can’t shake off the guilt at my alleged contribution to the problem.

As an unpublished writer of contemporary and historical YA, I have had bad thoughts and included them in my writing.

I have written about a teen boy who has accidentally burned down a portion of his school while presenting an ecology project, vividly fulfilling a secret fantasy in the hearts and minds of many readers. Never mind that they haven’t yet read it, I have committed the words to the digital page and thereby one day shall be accused of having pushed that evil influence into the world. In that same story I have included characters of deeply questionable moral character – a teacher who dropped acid in the 60s and is implicated in drug dealing, a former student who became a radical socialist, another student who became a law-breaking monkeywrenching activist.

I have also written an outline for a future project where an abused teen boy runs away from home and finds life out on the streets can be harsh. Teen prostitution and petty theft, though not the main issues of that story, make an appearance. I have another story where a girl runs off to meet a man she’s met online, who steals a credit card to do so, and who at a young age in order to get attention falsely accused an adult of molesting her.

And I am currently involved with a contemporary story where a teen boy discovers through a series of summer jobs that some employers mistreat employees, break the law and take advantage of the elderly and disabled, and generally exploit teen ignorance of their own rights in order to save or make a buck. In these books I have included teens getting drunk, or high on marijuana, having or talking about sex, or breaking the law (sometime inadvertently) in my attempts to present a world a teen reader might find resonance in.

Yes, I have committed these thought crimes, and worse: despite how they sound above, some of these stories are comedies.

Would you like to hear some real tragedies?

As a public school teacher I once had a student who lived in or next to (it wasn’t clear) a crack house where the windows had been replaced by plywood because the glass kept getting blown out in drive-by shooting. That student came to school maybe once or twice a week and spent the rest of his time riding the city busses everywhere looking for someplace he could run away to.

I saw a fourteen year old girl who stopped doing her school work, stopped coming to class, and eventually dropped out before anyone could figure out that she had become pregnant and suicidal over the fact that her father had raped her.

And there was another student, a sweet kid who wouldn’t harm a fly, one day brought a gun to school because he’d been goaded to by other kids and ended up getting expelled as a result of a zero tolerance policy. After that, no public school would take him, and his parents couldn’t afford to put him in a private school or to do homeschooling, and who knows what happened to him after that.

And there was the girl who even on the hottest days of the year insisted on wearing heavy jackets because they were the only thing she owned that covered the welts and bruises from the beatings she received at home. When Child Protective Services was brought in the girl cussed out the teachers and administrators who were responsible for breaking up her family and preventing her from taking care of her younger brother.

If these stories are dark it’s because not all teens live in the light of happy narratives. Teens living in these dark situations need to know they are not alone in the world, and they need to see how others have come to articulate and cope with these issues. And for the teens who don’t live these dark stories, they, too, need to see what the world is like in order to gain understanding and empathy.

But while I’m apparently contributing to all this darkness in teen literature I have to ask the question: Why, when I talk to so many adults, do they say that high school was the worst time of their lives? Why do they say this and then as parents and guardians for the world of teens want to deny current teens the opportunity to realize they aren’t suffering alone?

Unlike “reporters” for the Wall Street Journal (and The New Yorker and The New York Times who have also done their share in the name of protecting the children) and all those ostrich parents with an unrealisitc view of the world, I remember what I wanted to read when I was a teen and why. I didn’t want Horatio Alger stories of lifting myself by the bootstraps into a better life, or fluffy fantasy tales that reinforced a Harlequin Romance view of finding a perfect soul mate (I’m looking at you, Twilight, and all the adult readers who love you), I was looking for a window onto the world that showed me what I suspected was true: that adults didn’t know everything and that the world wasn’t the perfect place the adults wanted me to believe it was. I wanted to know what to expect out in the world, I wanted to know the entire range of human experience beyond the scope of my home town.

And just to cover the bases here for those who worry about the dystopic nightmares kids are reading about today, they were there when I was a teen and I gobbled them up just as readily. My favorite in high school was Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer, a story about what happened before and after a comet slams into the earth. There was also Stephen King’s The Stand, a jaunty little good-versus-evil story that covered the entire spectrum of human behavior. And if I really wanted to see the folly of human behavior on parade I went to Vonnegut, and his stories were funny.

So, yes, the world of literature aimed at teens and young adults is full of darkness. As a writer of stories for that audience I feel there is a sense of duty in sharing with readers a world that they can identify with, including the ugly parts. I make no apology for those adults who prefer to ignore their own past and would rather shove their kids heads into the sand when it comes to deciding what they should read.

Hey, do you believe in freedom of choice? More importantly, do you believe in teaching young minds how to exercise that freedom of choice by giving them opportunities to do so?

Essentially, do you trust your kids? And if you do not or cannot not, whose fault is that?

Stop blaming books.

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* a collection of others looking at this situation can be found at Bookshelves of Doom.

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…like myself, and any others out there who were (and occasionally are) meant to feel somehow not as good as all you people who can whiz through books.

I know there are some of you out there who can polish off books in mere hours while us slow readers will take days.  Sometimes it’s a question of mood.  Sometimes its fatigue.  Occasionally our minds winder, us slow readers.  We aren’t necessarily savoring these books either, we read at the speed that is most comfortable for us and when that gets in the way of other goals it can have a huge detrimental effect on things.

Back in 1986 when I took my first stab at an MFA in creative writing, we grad students were marched across a hall at orientation and meant to stand in front of a freshman undergraduate class and introduced as the students who would be delivering lectures on selected titles.  Our names, books, and lecture delivery dates were chosen at random right then and there.  I was given two weeks to read and prep an undergrad lecture on Moby Dick.

I dropped out of grad school instead.

But I tried first.  I went home and sat down with Melville, and tried like mad to get that damn book read and could not get past page 32.  Even without a lecture assigned, we were expected to read two books a week, write compare-and-contrast papers on them weekly, and in our spare time keep a log of “all the other” books we read.  It was expected, and none of the other students raised an eyebrow.  Many relished the opportunity to devour books like mad and get little gold grad student stars on their heads while doing so.  I felt like a failure of a student, and it took me another 20 years to get over that feeling and try again.

I’ve always had this “problem.”  In elementary school things were mostly fine, but by the time I hit seventh grade the expectation to read and read closely never came to me.  To do close readings slow me down even more, because there’s a part of my brain that’s second guessing whether or not I’m missing something.  The epic battles in my head to shut down the doubting voice and the negative voice and instead listen to the story voice are sometimes an additional cause for the slowdown.

Stepping back a bit and thinking in defense of slow readers I have a question: just how many books a year is a person supposed to read?

Absurd question, no?  It isn’t like we have a national average or standard for this sort of thing.  People who like to read and read a lot occasionally tally how many books they’ve read in a year – Goodreads and Library Thing exist almost entirely for readers to show off their virtual shelves of books – but how many books should we, could we, expect an average human to read in a year?  A dozen?  A hundred?  One?

Out of curiosity I asked my teen daughter what she thought would be a good number of books for a person to read in a year.  After admitting that people read at different speed – she herself can polish off 300 pages in less than five hours – she thought it was reasonable to say eight books a year.  She said, as an average, sometimes you’d read more books back-to-back and other times you’d go for long stretches without reading and sometimes you just wouldn’t be in the mood.  Could she have been saying that for my benefit, knowing the old man isn’t anywhere near as fast a reader?  Perhaps, but it was an interesting thought that an “average reader” who was reading for pleasure and at leisure would spend eight weeks between titles.

When I’m not busying myself with plot or picking at the bones of craft, I sometimes think about what an awesome responsibility it can be to tell stories.  To ask strangers to take time out of their lives to read the words and think the thoughts and experience the emotions, it’s not something I take for granted or lightly.  I am constantly thinking about that teen boy I was, and what he would read, and what he wished was available to him, because I remember how bad it felt to be effectively standing still while everyone whizzed past him in the fast lane of reading, and how he felt like he was somehow doing it wrong.

I pick up so many books now that stretch to nearly double the size of the books I would have read as a teen and find myself wondering why they had to be so long.  Recently at this summer’s SCBWI conference Jon Scieszka was quoted (and retweeted) as suggesting that most picture book manuscripts need to be cut in half.  I would say the same thing should be done with most middle grade books and a fair number of YA titles.  I won’t name guilty parties here, but what a lasting testament to all those books I read that the main thing I remember about them is that they were too long by half, not their stories or their authors intent or that I enjoyed the experience, but that reading them felt like a chore.

It’s easy to dismiss the slow reader.  He or she (most likely he though) is probably a marginal force in the market.  Slow reading is anathema to the idea of book commerce, of quick sales and quick profits.  And while it’s easy to blame our accelerated culture for leaving slow readers in the dust, I’m going to argue that the very same acceleration that has built fast readerships has done so to the detriment of books the way fast food has assaulted nutrition.  I find I’m just not interested in hurrying up to gobble up the next book and then the next.  Its like literary indigestion, I don’t find that pleasurable.

I am a slow reader, and I enjoy reading.  It takes me longer to read most books and it’s taken me a while to be okay with that. And I am okay with that.

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Once again the girls have come home with their letters from the school talking about the grade-wide book that was chosen for required summer reading along with a catalog of titles to choose from to fill out the remaining minimum requirement of five books.

The problem: summer reading is not required by the school district’s curriculum, much less the state’s.

But that’s not how the letter reads, it’s not how the teachers present it to the kids, and it’s not how the kids see it.  To them it is an annual requirement that threatens to impose homework upon their summers.  Few parents question this requirement, and whenever the need for summer reading is questioned in general the response almost assuredly is that without it there would be an educational “slide” as kids reading muscles atrophied over the course of twelve weeks.

The problem: if summer reading is that necessary to prevent serious backsliding, why aren’t schools in session year-round?

Much like the requirement itself, there is an illusion presented to children in giving them book lists to choose elective titles from.  For the better readers the lists are compiled of books they have either already read, or are beneath their reading level and thus less interesting; for the weaker readers the lists serve as an exercise in calculation, a question of combing the list to find the shortest books that require the least amount of commitment and effort. That either of these options somehow prevents a slipping in ability is never addressed in the documentation for summer reading.

The problem: is this really the sort of message we want kids to take away about reading, that it comes from a list that, in its attempt to be all-inclusive, actually leaves little room for kids to get excited?

I wonder at times if summer reading isn’t designed to make parents feel better about their children’s education, a way for schools to look like they’re being proactive in helping kids learn and excel and be better prepared for the following school year, and has nothing to do with kids.  Unlike during the school year, when texts are discussed and analyzed in class, there are usually nominal reports attached to summer reading.  For the required grade-wide book, those students who haven’t read it in advance find it is discussed during the first week of school where there are opportunities to “get caught up” and cram-read it then.  They are not punished for failing the one thing “required” of them and they are quickly brought up to speed with the rest of the class.  Never have I heard of a student who had problems or was held back during a school year for failing to do his or her summer reading.

The solution: stop telling kids they are required to do anything for the summer – repeatedly.

You can view this as a “trick” if you want to, but if you want a surefire way to get kids to do something tell them pointedly not to do it.  Forbid sixth graders from reading YA books over the summer, especially specific titles, and watch the libraries have a run on those books as kids scramble to find out why.  Granted, the titles would need to be choice titles with rewards for the curious, but the word of mouth would do what no summer reading list could.

Another solution: if going cold turkey proves too radical, stop assigning titles and instead assign kids to explore and read as many genres as possible.

I would much rather kids explore the types of books they don’t normally get in school, if for no other reason than to show them that there are books without ALA medallions on them.  I think kids are smart enough to know what interests them and aren’t given enough credit to choose interesting titles without having their reading lives micro-managed.

As for the older kids we don’t really teach sci-fi or mysteries or horror in the schools, but does that mean they shouldn’t know they’re out there? In the days before summer reading – yes, they existed, I lived through them and survived – we used to read Stephen King and Jackie Collins and Frank Herbert on our own.  I found Raymond Chandler and went on tear reading all the Marlowe I could.  I read a few of Fleming’s Bond books as well.  If I were a teen today I think I’d spend a summer reading Elmore Leonard.

Yet another solution: assign summer reading that requires the reader to take action.

Yesterday on the Guys Lit Wire blog I suggested Hoyle’s Rules for Games as a perfect summer reading book for boys. With that book, a deck of cards, maybe some dice, a kid could have a pretty good time filling in all the empty hours of a summer learning dozens of new ways to learn strategy and tactics.  Logic and luck have plenty of lessons to teach, and there’s the added bonus of the book providing lessons in following rules and directions. And gambling.

But it could just as well have been a book on filmmaking.  Or a book on science-based projects, or on website design, or any how-to book on any subject.  I would much rather see a kid spend a summer mastering model rocketry, from design to execution complete with a notebook documenting their triumphs and experiments, then see them plow through a meaningless list of titles, selecting the four least-offensive on offer with nothing gained in the experience.

The ultimate problem: summer reading smacks of lazy education.

Like busywork, summer reading’s potential rests in the individual, and far too often it is presented as just another hurdle in an education system that looks to teach kids to achieve artificial goals rather than learn strategies for real and critical thinking.  Reading for pleasure, yes, that’s good, but assigning pleasure reading turns it into a passive activity – one kids repeatedly call boring.  Again, kids are smart enough to see that summer reading is another thing to get through and they approach it with that same lackluster approach they take to a mundane worksheet.  It isn’t a question of assigning activities to the reading but finding a way to make the activity of reading as something desirable, something to pursue.

Required summer reading kills both the summer and reading.  With all the recent hoopla over kids being over programmed and not having enough unstructured time to explore themselves and the world around them, I’m not convinced there are any real benefits in assigned summer reading.

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