virtual children by Scott Warnock

Lists, literature, and summer reading conquests

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So, how much will your children read this summer? How attached are you, emotionally, egoistically, to that question’s answer?

I think it is crucial that children learn to become good, interested readers. I dig the sports trophies and all, but I’m probably at my dad happiest when I walk by kids’ rooms and they’re quietly reading books.

That’s a feeling I think most parents share. We want our kids to read. We read to them when they’re little, and we love to see them engaged, focused.

But it’s easy for those desires to turn reading into a game of conquest, a series of checkable accomplishments, a resume thing.

Now, I should come clean as a listaholic. I love lists. I have  a somewhat neatly typed list of the amount of TV I watched, to the minute, every day for 21 months when I was 12 to 14 years old (on the remarkable July 5, 1980 I watched 11 hours and 46 minutes of TV. This is all true and will be the subject of a future column). So the idea of devising summer reading checklists has great appeal.

I fight this urge (compulsion). While such lists can be useful (the ubiquitous 100 Book Challenge, which helped my eight-year-old crush 300 books this year, comes to mind), I’m also concerned, especially for older kids, about reductive reading. Reading just to say, “I read.” Reading purely for extrinsic reward. Reading with the main goal of saying on your Elite Zenith University college admissions essay: “In additional to my grammar school experiences as an astronaut, I read 862 books the summer between 7th and 8th grade. See attached checklist, signed by my Mommy.” The scholarships will pour in.

Reading, I feel, shouldn’t be reduced to a mere process of accounting and tabulation, particularly one run by parents.

The goals should be to open minds, learn, get smarter, and develop early that great solitary habit: Reading.

I know this is complicated. Quantity can seem important. Teacher Claire Needell Hollander writes that when people ask her about what kids should read in the summer, she wants to say “any reading is good reading […] we’ll take whatever we can get.” However, she points out that may only be true for less experienced readers, perhaps eight and nine, “who attain knowledge every time they read,” whether verbal knowledge or subject matter knowledge. “But for students in middle school and high school,” Hollander continues, “reading selection does matter. Students attain more knowledge of both kinds reading Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage than they do reading the Hunger Games series.”

Also, reading is subversive; this is often overlooked in the parental zeal to have kids inhale books. Check out the nine most subversive children’s books ever written. I remember reading The Cat in the Hat to my kids years ago and being stunned at the ending: “What would you do/If your mother asked you?” I wanted to blubber, “Why, tell the truth!”, yet realized my folly. Instead of dutifully completing dad’s list, children will — and should — look to books to help them wonder if they should trust you at all. That’s why fascists always get into book banning at some point.

Your checklist also may be a problem simply ’cause it’s yours. After all, I’ve always loved fiction, so would I be frustrated if the kids don’t just want to dive in to imaginative narratives as good ol’ dad did some 30+ years ago? Rather than lament, Hollander offers nonfiction choices for young readers who aren’t into suffering along with Frodo or philosophizing with Scout. While reading classic literature with students “is my passion,” she says, “I prefer that students explore literature in the summer as a pleasure and return to school curious about the world around them, not weary from having written about books they could not fully understand, or smug from having earned credit for an essay on a book they could have easily comprehended in fourth grade.”

I know we need to light that reading spark for some kids. The Harry Potter series is famous for this. “Undaunted by the length of the Harry Potter novels, they hardly batted an eye when I assigned long, complex works by writers such as John Fowles or Gabriel Garcia Marquez,” writes teacher Kay McSpadden; her students became willing to engage in discussion and to treat “each text as a worthy destination […] They have become – partly because of their early experiences with books such as the Harry Potter series – people who like to read.”

So all these Web reading lists, they have their place. But we should be wary of turning reading into nothing more than a competition of conquest of quantity. Look, I’m around smart college kids all the time who declare, almost proudly, that they haven’t read many books. I mean kids read a lot now — these digital miners — but they don’t encounter the long narratives, the deep explorations of other people’s thinking, that we’ve thought of as the best reading. So when someone says students should, damn it, read 50 books a year, I get it.

In my desire to motivate those in my house, maybe the best thing is for me to just keep reading my own books (and magazines, newspapers, and blogs). Even though a lot of what dad does is lame, maybe my crew will see the pleasure I get in that quiet; when they see me with a 1,000-pager, maybe they’ll realize they can’t just read anything, quick and easy. Maybe they’ll then seek their own choices for their own reasons.

I guess I worry because reading is one of the few slow-down activities in life. If we start kids reading with the idea that it’s a race whose rewards are primarily extrinsic, so you can brag to others, yes, they will be “readers,” but what will we mean in using that term?

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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5 Responses to “Lists, literature, and summer reading conquests”

  1. Interesting, prevalent topic in our house. I am comfortable with encouraging/guiding but leaving room for the kids to choose it. Our 11 year old reads very little, but he loves sports, loves photography, can cook meals from scratch for the family, and tends the garden. Even though he reads less than I’d like, he soaks up information that we’d hope quality reading might offer. It is different learning, but it’s who he is. Meanwhile, our 9 year old will probably finish 1,000 pages of novels this summer.

    “…I do not judge the universe.” – Dalai Lama

  2. Red Badge of Courage as knowledge? Why? And didn’t The Hunger Games remind you at all of The Lottery?
    Fortunately my son reads as voraciously as I do but we’ve changed the competition portion to be about the number of pages read instead of lenght of a book or quantity. This allows us to include web pages (though he lobbied hard for “iFunny” to be “reading’) magazines and technical resources.
    I remember having the same kind of competition with my Dad and stepmom. My sister and I were always searchign for a book she hadn’t read, a person whose biography he hadn’t read and a topic he could not speak to. I am still losing to my Dad in that arena.
    But I also know my son and I may be a minority (just no in my family.) To each his own!

  3. Necessary structure for potential growth? My town has “mandatory” reading which includes them logging online their reading minutes/hours. I had mixed emotions until I told my daughter one day her time was up and she said “I want to finish this chapter.” Mandatory reading won the day; at least that day.

  4. Good article Scott. I’m dying to review all tv journals for 1980.

    Children are one thing. I find myself requiring managers to read in their annual evaluations. I have to push them to continue to be life-long learners. We’re collectively losing our desire to learn.

  5. A great post. Kids need many things from books, but two are foremost: critical thinking and pleasure. We learn mainly what we love learning. Well said, Scott.

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