September 28, 2007

"Just Right" Stories

I have been interested in these recent discussions about what books ought to be assigned to young readers. Like the seemingly endless array of articles about Harry Potter's success and what, if anything, it means for the literary tastes and aptitudes of current and future readers, these exchanges have made me think back on my own youthful experiences with books. For instance, I'm not in a position to assess whether in fact the boom in literature aimed at "young adults" has created readers ready and eager to move on to other books (books for "old adults"?). But I do have reservations about sending the message to younger readers that there are books that are for them and books that are not, either because of their content or because of their more demanding or sophisticated style and vocabulary. Judging difficult, depressing, or confrontational books inappropriate for young readers in fact seems to me the most likely way to contribute to a "decline in literary reading." I read Judy Blume and Jean Little pretty enthusiastically as a "tween" and teenager, for instance, and Barbara Willard and K. M. Peyton, among authors who wrote with readers more or less my age in mind. But I also read Charlotte Bronte, Dorothy Sayers, Dorothy Dunnett, Jane Austen, John Steinbeck, James Michener, Louisa May Alcott, Tolstoy, Dick Francis, Jean Plaidy, Margaret Mitchell...anything that looked interesting to me, that fed my love of language and of story, or that I hoped would help me live up to my aspirations to be a bookish person, involved in what I saw as a highly-valued adult activity. I read books that I did not understand, books that disturbed me, books that were trashy, books that were philosophical, books that were innovative, books that were formulaic, books that I've completely forgotten and might as well not have read, books that I still love today. My reach often exceeded my grasp--but what strikes me, in retrospect, is that I was grasping, and that I was encouraged to do so, rather than encouraged, as my daughter now is, to seek out books that are "just right" (which, we've been told, means books in which no less than 90% of the vocabulary is familiar, and are also, as far as I can tell from the assigned books she brings home, entirely wholesome and entirely flavorless, like pablum). Admittedly, she's in Grade 1, and it's a reasonable goal to want her to get confident about reading. And it was my parents, rather than my teachers (with rare and memorable exceptions), who made reading seem to me such an exciting pursuit--largely by reading incessantly themselves. But in Grade 1 I was reading The Young Mary Queen of Scots, to my teacher's surprise, and loving it. Comfort with reading quickly becomes a pretty limiting standard, and one that no doubt lies behind some of the complaints academics hear so often about the kinds of books we assign--too long, too hard, too boring. I'm not really worried about my daughter: she will do her homework with the "just right" books, but she'll have lots of books around to challenge and excite her, lots of support with moving beyond her comfort level. That way I hope she'll feel bold, critical, and confident not just reading but also responding to whatever books she's assigned, as well as any she picks off the shelf for herself. But I worry about how pervasive the theory seems to be that what is taught should meet or reflect, rather than raise or challenge, the reader's current interests and abilities. It seems all to easy, to me, for "just right" to settle into "just enough"--and no more.

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