Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Not ALL Reading is Good Reading

If your children are enrolled in a local school, no doubt you have become familiar with the annual summer required reading list. Whether your child eagerly embraces these literary suggestions or roils at the thought of homework on vacation, you will want to take time to familiarize yourself with the titles proffered so that you can help your child select books which best suit him.

A good reading list will include a variety of books -fiction and nonfiction, classics and new titles - and you will recognize a few right away. It will contain suggestions for books on grade-level and also offer a selection for more advanced readers.

Not all summer reading lists are of equal value. For instance, the 2010 Richmond Public Schools reading list contained no classic literature at all. None of the suggested books was more than four years old. Of course it is wonderful to read current authors, but an educational institution has a responsibility to introduce students our great literary heritage.

Likewise, parents have a job to do: they must look carefully at the kinds of books that schools are promoting. A quick perusal and some Google searching will give parents an idea of whether or not a text is appropriate to his child’s reading level, the story is engaging, and the subject matter is of value. Just a short discussion will tell if the child comprehends the story and enjoys it.

Enjoyment is key. Reading is a lifetime skill that provides information and entertainment. With so little time being devoted to reading nowadays, it would be irresponsible for parents to let a child get bogged down in worthless stories that don’t engage him. Instead, parents must help him choose books from his recommended reading list that appeal to his interests while guiding his moral development according to the family’s values.

This is very important. What we choose to entertain ourselves with has a vivid impact on our character.  Stories can lift our spirits or drag us down into darkness. Parents should be very wary of librarians and teachers who insist that ANY reading is good reading. This is absolutely not true. These days, there is much in print which is dysfunctional, violent and perverse. 

Meghan Cox Gurdon brought this trend of depravity to the foreground in her June 4th,  2011 book review for The Wall Street Journal. Her essay, “Darkness Too Visible,” points out vivid examples of the grotesque, of shocking plots where every character is either a victim or perpetrator of unspeakable violence, currently found in young adult novels.

Gurdon caused an uproar in the publishing community by daring to point out the plain fact that teen novels are growing more and more lurid. Members of the American Library Association, Publishers Weekly, authors and book reviewers have vilified her for it, calling names and accusing her of being a danger to …well, what? Indecency? The loudest protests have come from those who insist that adolescence is hell and such books are somehow therapeutic.

Librarians insist that dark books with objectionable subjects are merely providing families with “teachable moments,” forgetting that teens rarely read stories with mom and dad anymore. Parents are falling for this line of twisted logic because it is pervasive.  Entertainment Weekly (June 17) ran a piece about Jay Asher’s teen suicide novel, “Thirteen Reasons,” with a headline that boasted “... This Guy’s Mystery Novel is Saving Teen Lives."  Those who imagine lifesaving aspects in these distorted portrayals of teen life refuse to admit that such a book could also have serious negative consequences for a reader.

Stories with twisted values - where meanness rules, and parents have abdicated their roles - are not limited to the young adult genre. These corruptions of innocence are seeping into books for middle readers as well.

Jeff Kinney, author of the hugely popular “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series admits to Parade Magazine’s David Browne in a March 20, 2011 article that his main character, Greg, is no role model. Browne describes Greg as “a proud slacker,” who is “whiny,” and “self-absorbed.” The article also tries to advance the notion that any reading is good reading, and that disrespect, bullying and foul language in books don’t really matter.

Parental alarm bells should sound when a librarian such as the one mentioned by Parade rationalizes, “It’s not like we’re endorsing the bad behavior in the books.” And red flags should go up when Kinney claims controversial author Judy Blume’s titles to be “the gold standard for children’s fiction.”

It shouldn’t surprise that these books are sneaking onto summer reading lists coming home from schools.

So look carefully. You have the right to demand from your schools worthy books for required reading. You also have the responsibility to choose well when faced with a list of suggestions. Yes, it is difficult, and not everyone is on your side. But if you do your homework well, you and your child will benefit from the pleasure of sharing a really good book.

M.D. Clark recommends that you read Meghan Cox Gurdon's article. Click here or go to the Wall Street Journal website.

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