Back Off, Adult Gatekeepers?

"Which assigned novels did you appreciate when you were in high school?" an aspiring teacher asked recently.

"None," I answered, after a long pause.

I can't remember any novel assigned or recommended by an adult that deeply affected or captivated me during my teen years. What I do remember is browsing the stacks of the public library and finding books for myself, some that bored, some that entertained, and a few that absolutely addicted me to the subversive power of story.

Now that our boys are in high school, I see them doing the same thing, seeking their story fixes outside adult circles and finding them mostly in film (probably because their parents are bookaholics.)

Do adult gatekeepers actually get in the way when it comes to the mysterious, life-giving connection between kids and stories? Take the Newbery Medal, for example.

"Of the 25 winners and runners-up chosen from 2000 to 2005, four of the books deal with death, six with the absence of one or both parents and four with such mental challenges as autism, and most of the rest deal with tough social issues," observes Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post in Plot Twist: The Newbery May Dampen Kids' Reading. Is our goal to depress North American children en masse?

"If you force someone to read a book, the less likely you are to like it," Elias Feldman, 13, an eighth-grader at private Landon School in Bethesda, told Strauss.

The kid's onto something. You can't compare the girl who wrote to say she'd already read my novel Monsoon Summer four times this year with the bored student who informed me he barely slogged through it for a homework assignment.

So why do we force-feed our kids stories? I think we're scared that Hollywood and Madison Avenue might "dumb them down" to consume only popular, shallow stories via television and movies. So we organize committees and award medals to give them richer literary fare. "Richer" defined by us, of course.

History and anthropology reveal that young people have always appreciated meaningful, entertaining, delightful storytelling, but we hover-adults don't trust this generation's ability to resist influence and find their own stories as they come of age. 

I'm not suggesting that parents and teachers stop sharing our favorite books with kids, especially younger ones; in fact, it's one generation's duty to nourish the next with stories. That fourth-read fan of Monsoon Summer might never have discovered it without an adult handing her the book. But what would happen if we stepped back a bit, especially as they age, and let them find their own life-changing tales -- without judging the media or the message? Scary, yes. But revelatory. And maybe even revolutionary.


Mitali, as a teenager, I found my life-changing book all on my own. A paperback at a Walden Books in a mall! "Coming of Age in Mississippi," by Ann Moody, told me the truth about the Civil Rights movement in my home state; I had never heard a clear version of those very difficult, tragic years until I read the book.
The only assigned novel that I can recall that really hit me was A Separate Peace- even though I haven't read it for years, I still remember that Phinneas wore a pink shirt...

But to be honest, I loved so many that we never talked about at school:-)
Anindita said…
Oh man, I was an uber-nerd. I loved so many of them - East of Eden, A Separate Peace, Crime and Punishment, As I Lay Dying, Catcher in the Rye, The Scarlet Letter... the only thing I remember hating with a passion was The Great Gatsby. I read different books outside of school, but they were never in conflict with school reading. I guess I was lucky in my teachers and school librarian!
Elaine Magliaro said…

I hated some of the required books--and loved others. Among the ones I really enoyed reading: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, BRAVE NEW WORLD, THE GOOD EARTH, and 1984.
Mitali Perkins said…
Okay, maybe it was just me and how bored I was in high school.
Elaine Magliaro said…

No, it wasn't just you. The books I hated--I really hated. I endured twelve years of rigid parochial school education in the fifties and early sixties. I may have been bored--but too scared to know it!
Sarah Rettger said…
Since it doesn't look like I'm going to get a full blog post response up any time soon, here's the beginning of my thoughts on school reading...

The assigned novels I liked were mostly ones that I had read on my own before they were ever assigned in class - Jane Eyre (that was my beach reading when I was 16!), The Bean Trees, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (I grew up on the Great Illustrated Classics version of that and so many others).

Ambrose Bierce's short stories are the only thing I remember discovering and enjoying in English class. (And I didn't even know about The Devil's Dictionary at that point.)

There were plenty more I couldn't stand, and I wasn't shy about letting my teachers know. When I had to write a paper on Great Expectations, I listed all the similarities between it and a soap opera, and asked why one was trash and the other was Art. (Didn't get an answer, as I remember.)

Having The Pearl and Of Mice and Men assigned when I was 14 nearly ruined Steinbeck for me. It wasn't until I started college and heard the audiobook of Travels With Charley that I discovered how wonderful his non-fiction is.
Keira said…
I remember one novel that I absolutely hated. A English teach decided to pull together a list of books whose number matched the number of kids in the class. Through an elimination process of first come first served (done unfairly I think in alphabetical order) books would be assigned and taken off the list for a 10 page essay book report. I had a list of 12 books that sounded interesting to me. That was slightly under half the list. Getting to my name however resulted in all 12 being taken by someone else. I was suggested Tess of D'Ubervilles, b/c the teacher thought I would love it and that it was only about 300/400 pages. I have never been so frustrated with a book - and it was 800 plus pages. I always finish books. I was three days from the due date fo the report and more than half the book to go... I didn't finish it - I learned to read the bare minimum to pass and filled my essay with a ranting diatribe about how awful the book was and let me just count the ways. The heroine was raped - once/twice/thrice? I don't remember but I remember thinking OMG what was my teacher thinking saying that I would LOVE this book?

However, I loved the state reading selection that was broken down by grade levels. I found and read so many books that were just wonderful... Ella Enchanted being the one I best recall. I loved it so much that I bought it as an adult when I somehow passed it in a bookstore. The book is entirely different from the movie and unfortunately I found the author's other fairy tales to be lacking depth and distinction or I would be sporting the entire collection of them.
shadowweaver said…
While I wasn't thrilled with all of the assigned reading we had in school, some of my most memorable reads also came from assigned reading as well. These include Shakespeare (who I adore, but haven't read outside of class), James Joyce's The Dubliners (Senior Year English), Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf (Soph Year English - Hesse wasn't on the list of choices for a term paper, but the teacher was open to any author we talked to her about-especially since it was world lit.), Antigone (had a choice of that or another play for 8th grade *rolls eyes at self*), and The Story and The Scarlet Letter (Junior Year AP Prep), Billy Budd (9th grade) was also good and introduced Joseph Conrad to me.

Other assigned reads that I remember liking (if not when I had them) were Great Expectations, The Pearl, Childhood's End and, of all things, 1984 (okay, that one I didn't much care for, but it was a 'thinker').

I'm an admitted bookworm and my view of assigned reading may come from the fact that I wound up having great English teachers that fed the fire that I had for reading with the fuel of books.

I'm also sorry that you had that kind of an experience in school. I know I'm thankful for the teachers that I had and the recommendations that I had from some of them outside of the classroom as well (my 7th grade grammar teacher, for instance, started me on Jean Auel by recommending Clan of the Cave Bear to me and I didn't look back since then, World History teacher had quite a few of his books in the classroom and if a student had an interest in something he had he was willing to loan it out-which led to my introduction of Stranger in a Strange Land, Tales of the Horse Clans and a reference book on Barbarians).