Books: What Should Kids Read?

I was recently pointed toward an article about teens and reading by another blog. I wish I could remember which blog, but I saved the link to the article and not the blog post. Very silly of me. I shall try not to do that in the future.

Anyway, this article was written by an English teacher who teaches primarily in lower-income urban schools and he proposed (and I’m poorly paraphrasing here) that kids should not be reading contemporary fiction about the lives they’re living, they should be reading things like Lysistrata and Oedipus. I read his arguments and could understand where he was coming from, but at the end I was left with one huge question.

Why in the world do the classic and contemporary fiction have to be mutually exclusive subjects?

Growing up, I never really understood Shakespeare. I read it, I passed the tests on what I read, but if I picked up a play on my own I probably would have been completely lost a couple pages in. Not until I got to college and found a teacher who knew how to teach Shakespeare was I really interested and intrigued, not only by his work but by the man behind the words. How did he (the teacher, not Shakespeare) do this? By relating the classic to the contemporary. I think that teachers who are able to do this have a much better chance of pulling their students in. This may not always involve contemporary literature, but why does it have to exclude it? I would have found it amazing if a teacher had assigned, for example, Wuthering Heights and then asked us to read a contemporary novel that is a spin off that story and find the parallels. How cool is the teacher who teaches Romeo & Juliet and then plays the Baz Lurhmann version for the students? I know so many kids–especially in my younger sister’s generation–who just don’t read. At all. Ever. I find this so sad. And these kids aren’t from low-income environments. Most of them are thoroughly middle class, but it takes the right book to spark a lifelong interest and none of them have found it. For my middle sister it was Harry Potter. Before those, we couldn’t pay her to read; now we have to pay her to pry her away. Not everyone is going to be sparked by the classics and I believe children should be encouraged to find their interests before being taught to broaden their horizons.

Also, on a personal note, I disliked the way the article’s author concentrated his attack on contemporary literature almost solely on Walter Dean Myers, a YA author whose books center mainly on African-American children in the projects. This attack seemed almost like a personal vendetta by the end of the argument and, at least to my way of thinking, actually took away some of his credibility. Sometimes it is exactly what someone needs to look at a book written by a stranger and see a reflection of one’s own life. To know that someone somewhere really knows what you’re going through because they were there to. To have the hope that they survived and so can you. Taking that away entirely would be as cruel as losing the classics the article’s author is so worried about.

2 thoughts on “Books: What Should Kids Read?

  1. Kamille Elahi

    What a horrible and ghastly man! I have read Homer's Iliad and I can say that I would much rather pick up a contemporary book that can affect me emotionally and relate to my life rather than read something that gives me a headache. I was interested in the Iliad but it was in no way a book that has helped shape me as a human and teenager.

    We live in a world that is so much different from that of the past and we face many more complex issues than we did two thousand years ago. Of course, books are going to reflect that. Thank god I never had a teacher like him.

    The Iliad is a great epic but children should in no way be made to pick up books that they show no obvious interest in. I'm glad that I wasn't forced to read epics at the age of 8 as if I had, I would've been put off reading completely.

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  2. Sera Phyn

    Exactly. I mean, I understand where he's coming from because sometimes I feel as though we're losing our grasp on the classics, but that doesn't mean we should throw contemporary lit out the window! People can be such extremists sometimes.

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