Friday, July 23, 2004

The depressing state of kids' books

In a New York Times article last weekend (quick, let me talk about this a minute before the links are archived and inaccessible), Barbara Feinberg takes a look at the summer reading lists distributed to kids these days — the books kids are subsequently tested on.

(I don't remember ever having been given a reading list, let alone being tested on what I did on my summer vacation.)

They depict children who must "come to terms," "cope with" and "work through" harsh realities.

Their suffering is generally caused by adults: a parent has died, or run off, or otherwise acted irresponsibly, drunkenly, selfishly, dissolutely. The children are left trying to put together the pieces. No magic swoops in to aid a resolution; no fantasy cushions the pain. As a group, these books are well written; they have some complex characters and subplots, and are rich in cultural description. But the angst and crash landings of the books is what sticks with you. A 10-year-old attending the creative arts program I run told me, "Those books give me a headache in my stomach."

Why, why, why do we do this to our children? Where do these books come from?

The rationale for exposing 10-year-olds to such potentially upsetting books is that children who read about situations different from their own gain a larger frame of reference for understanding human behavior and cultural diversity. Some educators believe that life is harder than it used to be; books shouldn't shield children from this. The argument is, as the head of the English department in a school here in Westchester County told parents, that anxiety is useful to children.


At least Feinberg takes the approach that of this genre, the books best received by their audience are the ones where child characters are afforded some measure of protection by the adults in their world. "But what remains most loved, and most useful in helping children "face adversity," is the realm of fantasy."

This is why Harry Potter is such a success. Poor orphan boy escapes miserable life, comes to terms with his past, confronts his "demons" — it's real but it's not real. All the difficult, award-winning novels have been judged by adults, not children, as teaching valuable life lessons. Like the kid cares...

But should helping children face adversity be the main goal of children's literature? Why does facing adversity have to be understood as work, in adult terms? Don't children have their own ways of processing experience distinct from adults'?

We seem to have lost sight of what children can actually process, and more important, of their own innate capacities. Instead of our children being free to roam and dream and invent on their own timetable, and to read about children doing such things, we increasingly ask our children to be sober and hard-working at every turn, to take detailed notes on their required texts with Talmudic attention, to endure computer-generated tests. And the texts we require them to pore over have become all too often about guarded, world-weary, overburdened children, who are spending their childhoods trying to cope with the mess their parents left them.

(There. Have I quoted the entire article yet.)

This trend, this genre of — what do you call them? — young adult life's-a-bitch-and-full-of-misery-so-have-a-cry-and-deal-with-it books (Cup of Chicha offers a collection of titles and summaries that serve as examples) started in the 60s. I don't believe we as a society actually examined the life of our young ones and determined growing up was more difficult than ever before. This was a me generation of parents: life got hard for the whiny and spoiled whose expectations weren't met. They embraced the cult of therapy and self-help books. Naturally this spilled over onto their children, the books their children got to read, the books they wrote for their children. What makes you think your kid wants to read about how you got over your problems, you selfish, whiny, overanalyzed and misguided soul? Grow up.

Why, why, why do we insist our children grow up so fast? (Cuz we never did?)

Why do we not give kids any credit? You don't learn coping skills from a book. Set an example for them and they'll figure it out. They're smarter than you think they are, and they have a pretty good handle on what's good for them.

On a lighter note, there's plenty of kids' books that make fine reading for everyone.

What is so important about the crossover novel . . . is not what it says about adults, but what it says to children — that the stories which matter to them matter to us as well. If I think back to my high school reading assignments, novels like The Scarlet Letter, Crime and Punishment, and The Grapes of Wrath come to mind — all books that examine adult issues and situations. How can we tell children that adult stories are worthy of their time and attention, but their stories are not worthy of ours?

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