June 3, 2020

Riffs: David Mills/Noel Cordle: What Are Our Kids Reading, Anyway?

croppedbwOur guest blogger today is my daughter, Noel Cordle, who is riffing on David Mills review of contemporary young people’s literature in the current issue of Touchstone magazine. Noel recently finished her English degree from Ohio State and is teaching middle school English at the school where I serve. Her blog is Mere Musings.

During part of last year, I had my freshmen students completing bi-weekly book reports. Unfortunately most of them chose to either a.) not do the assignment or b.) pick some book from the library that was of no interest to them, simply to get the assignment done. However I did receive a couple of reports from students (almost always girls) who enjoyed reading and had chosen a book on their own that was of interest to them. That, my friends, was an eye-opening experience. Two of these experiences stand out to me.

First was the time one of my students was asking for clarification of the book report guidelines. As I was explaining that she could do a report on any book of her choosing as long as it was on her reading level, she got a bit wide-eyed and asked, “Really? Any book? You don’t care what it is about?” I gave her a hearty, “Sure, any book! I’m just glad you’re reading!” As I read the book report that was handed in to me, I started to regret saying those super-teacher words. I have no idea what the book title was, but it was basically something about lesbians coming out of the closet. While this could perhaps be written as a tasteful novel about finding one’s identity, I was not under the impression that this teen trash had been written as such. Yet this is what was of interest to my student and what she had read. She was reading after all…right? Shouldn’t I have been thrilled about that?

The second book report that has stayed in my memory was again about a book whose title escapes me, but if I remember correctly the plot centered around a girl trying her darndest to lose her virginity to her boyfriend. That was her main goal in life and she was eventually able to accomplish it. As I read this student’s book report, I was stunned not really by the fact that she was reading this junk, but that she thought it was the kind of book she should choose for an assignment she knew I would read! Again, the little teacher voice in me was thinking, “Well, at least she is reading,” but at what cost to these girls’ values, morality, and well-being?

Having said all that, I was not surprised by anything I read in David Mills’ article “Bad Books for Kids” in this month’s issue of Touchstone. In the article Mills details how he simply became curious about what kids these days were reading, so he plopped down at a Barnes & Noble and assessed the situation for himself. What did he discover? Simply put, oodles of books about teens (mostly girls) facing problems. As he says, “The problems usually being the typical teenage struggles with boyfriends or girlfriends or the lack thereof, cruel teachers, clueless parents, vicious peers, bad skin, bad hair, fat thighs, insecurity, and fear, though they are sometimes serious problems like sexual abuse and drug addiction.” Sound like what my girls were reading? Most definitely.

Mills seems very concerned that this is what our teens are reading, and justifiably so. However what is of more interest to me than, “Oh my goodness, what is little Susie reading?!” is why is Susie reading it? As with any problem, we have to find the source in order to make any attempt to change things for the better. I absolutely have no answers, but I did think of a few things that those of us that either have children or work with and love children should consider:

  • The books that are popular among teens right now all appear to be, in some form, what I would call escapist literature. Whether it is a heroine addicted to speed or suffering from sexual abuse, Bella in love with her vampire Edward, or Harry Potter and the gang at Hogwarts, all of these books in some way provide the reader a means of escape from his/her normal life. For me, it is much easier to understand why a child would want to read about vampires or wizards rather than drug addicts or victims of abuse, but I think that at the end of the day the reason is the same: it is interesting and different from normal life. I don’t believe that in general it is a situation where the reader has been addicted to drugs or undergone sexual abuse, so they find the book appealing. I think it is merely an escape from reality and an opportunity to try on someone else’s skin. Sure, we wish the skin they desired to try on was that of a poor farm boy pulling himself up by his bootstraps, or a smart, popular girl making friends with the new student, rather than an addict or a victim (or a vampire or wizard, depending on your feelings on that issue), but it would be better for us to face the reality that this is what teens are reading and deal with it, rather than lament this fact.
  • I also think that it is important to remember that we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. As I read Mills’ article, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak kept coming to mind. I kept thinking of it because I recently read this book myself (my review can be found here) and it is basically the only work of popular teen fiction I have read recently, other than the Twilight series. Mills does not mention Speak in his article, but I feel like it could easily be sneaked in there, next to titles like Crank and Story of a Girl. It is a “problem story” where a victim of abuse is making her way through her freshman year, plagued by catty girls, a dysfunctional family, and a loss of identity in a very bleak and seemingly hopeless world. But the beauty of the book lies in the fact that not all hope is lost. Anderson is a good writer who does an excellent job of making this book what I would deem appropriate reading material. Although our heroine does have “issues,” by the end of the book she is able to work through them and has, in my opinion, a good “skin” for the reader to want to try on. Just because there is a hefty amount of teen trash readily available, we should not let this become the norm simply because it is easily accessible. We should encourage our teens to read books that interest them, but also books that we deem quality reading material. They do exist! A simple trick I use in stocking my classroom shelves is to only purchase books that have won reputable literary awards (Newberry Medal, National Book Award, etc.). I have not yet been disappointed with this system, and I have not yet heard complaints from my students wanting a book about Steffy losing her virginity to her jock boyfriend Trevor…or whatever.
  • Mills makes a point to mention that books teens are reading now are chock full of gory details that one would not dare find in classical works, yet he fails to point out what I believe to be the obvious reason for this: our children today have literally been born into the digital age. They have been immersed in television and movies practically from the cradle. If they actually do pick up a book – which I increasingly find shocking myself – it had better be able to compete! Of course in a Victorian thriller if a criminal was being chased through a sewer we would not be provided with in-depth details about the dirt and the stench (to use Mills’ example), but the 2009 novelist had darn well better describe the smell and appearance of the feces in depth. Why? Because if the novelist does not, the reader can simply drop the book and pick up the remote and get a visual image pronto. Vivid descriptions of everything from sex to violence are, unfortunately, necessary for this generation of readers.
  • Finally, Mills ends his article by asserting that the publishers are partly to blame for marketing books that appeal to “a child’s worst nature – his resentment, his self-pity, his anger – when they could have sold more by appealing to his desire for glory.” Glory is a characteristic we often find in classic literature, but that is strongly lacking in popular fiction these days. He also blames teachers for not making classic literature more appealing, and I wholeheartedly agree. As parents and educators, it is our responsibility to plant these seeds in our children, so that they want to read great literature. During our final quarter last year, my freshmen and I read both Romeo & Juliet and The Odyssey. As you can imagine, there were many moans and groans when I announced our reading list, but by the end of those nine weeks those kids had eaten it up! I am not the world’s greatest teacher by any means, but I think I do a sufficient job of making the material relate to the students. This is key. It does not matter if it is stuffy, old literature from the 1500’s or even 750 BC! If children find it relevant to their lives and are, subsequently, able to get caught up in the story, it will ultimately be more appealing than your average run-of-the-mill teen garbage. But notice I put the responsibility in our hands, not our children’s. We are the ones that can turn this ship around.

Comments

  1. I guess I need more information about the two examples listed, but I don’t really see the issue with those books. Lesbians coming out has a lot of potential to teach compassion, and understand the pain that many homosexuals go through when revealing themselves to families who are quite often unaccepting. A book about sex has potential to teach kids about safe practices, that it’s acceptable to say no, and end this dangerous “purity” myth. Trash will always be trash, but sex doesn’t have to be bad.

  2. I really don’t understand all the anxiety about what teens are reading. I mean, when I was a teenager I read all kinds of ‘trash,’ Stephen King, and loads of fantasy novels with bikini clad women on the cover. I had teachers talk to my parents worried they did not know that I was reading all this trash. My parents wisely ignored the teachers anxieties and I would eventually go one to read the classics and great works of literature.

    I mean anxieties about what young women are reading (and it is almost always young women) date from the publication of the Gothic novels of the late 18th century. You can read Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abby” as a critique of the reading of these ‘bad books’ as well as an homage to them.

    In the end the reason young people read books filled with sex, drugs, violence etc… is because that is what makes a book interesting. Anyway sorry for the long post but this is an issue that I am very passionate about.

  3. Is the phenomenon of teens and children’s interest in “escapist” literature really new? Has not this demographic read King Arthur, Lord of the Rings, the Wizard of Oz and other classics in years past?

  4. Dana Ames says

    “The typical teenage struggles with boyfriends or girlfriends or the lack thereof, cruel teachers, clueless parents, vicious peers, bad skin, bad hair, fat thighs, insecurity, and fear…” could serve as the plot summary of Goethe’s (late 1700s) “The Sorrows of Young Werther”. The character was in his 20s not teens, but this epistolary novella became the blockbuster of its age, and is viewed as a turning point in literary history. It was pretty much singlehandedly responsible for men giving up powdered wigs: Werther wore his hair “natural”, not powdered or wigged, and everyone wanted to be like this sensitive artist. Oh yes, he commits suicide at the end, using pistols belonging to the husband of the girl with whom he is desperately in love.

    We never restricted our children’s reading, or music (TV and video games were another matter). I made a point to read at least some of what they were reading, so I could talk to them intelligently about it.

    Dana

  5. Dana Ames says

    p.s.
    Nice writing yourself, Noel.

    Dana

  6. Dana wrote:

    We never restricted our children’s reading, or music (TV and video games were another matter).

    Just curious why one and not the other ?

    Greg R

  7. Noel, thanks for the post. I have three kids, the oldest of which is ten, and it’s always helpful to know more about the culture they are or will be living in.

    Dana, I’m curious why you chose to censor video games and TV but not books or music?

  8. “Literature?” I’m not familiar with this concept…

    Seriously, I agree with Noel’s assessment. When kids are raised on TV, movies, and video games, books can be a hard sell. Add to that the postliteracy fostered by the web, and “Little Women” really doesn’t stand a chance.

    On the one hand, I mourn the lack of imagination and reading/writing skill of American youth. On the other hand, I see the inevitability of our conversion to multi-sensory storytelling, and I’m excited about the possibilities. I used to hate the comic book/film/video game adaptations of great literature (they’ve typically been poorly done). But isn’t it a good thing that the stories of our culture(s) are at least being retold rather than forgotten?

    Great post!

  9. I’m reminded of a Miss Manners line I once saw in the playbill to an opera. It said that opera should be a natural diversion for children because the most common subject matter – sex, violence, murder and revenge – all wrapped up with a great deal of very loud noise encompasses virtually everything children are interested in.

  10. Noel,

    I think that your observation that even fiction involving drug addiction and sexual abuse can rightly be understood as “escapist literature” is very insightful. I’ve never thought of it that way before. Seems counter-intuitive at first blush, but it makes perfect sense.

    This is a great article and I look forward to your response to the standard criticisms.

  11. I am curious if you could provide me with a reading list of some good books for my girls. My 11 yr old has already completed all but one of the books in the Twlight series. She is a veracious reader I would like to mix in some other literature for her. I left teaching 10 years ago gave up all my books to other teachers. I would like a suggested reading list if anybody has one. She is entering the 6th grade but is already reading on a high school level. I need challenging books but prefer age appropiate themes.

    My escape as a teenager was Louis L’Amour. I always had one of his paperbacks in one of my pockets. Although there wasn’t any sex there was alot of violence in these westerns. They also taught me what a delicate balance there is between good and evil.

    That being said I surrounded myself group of friends that were very much into bible study. I was very lucky to strike a balance.

  12. cermak_rd says

    I remember reading Hardy’s “Jude, the Obscure” with great anticipation, after all this book had been banned for being obscene! Sigh, in the end I found the book highly depressing, not at all titillating, and had an experience with real honest to goodness classic literature.

    It was a gateway drug though, it led me right to “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”, “The Mayor of Casterbridge”, then leapt onto other authors like Bronte (I think all of them), Austin, Dickens and Hugo.

  13. my 18 y daughter is reading Ragamuffin Gospel (puffs out chest). Of course my other daughters are reading the twiglight series……

  14. I’d take a slightly different view; I think a lot of them are reading this kind of stuff, because this kind of stuff is what is out there for them to read.

    I’m old enough to remember when the first wave of these ‘problem novels’ were coming out – remember Judy Blume? – and I’m grateful that I just missed having them thrust upon me, but there was a definite didactic purpose behind them: (1) Kids are not reading, and reading is good! How can we get them reading? Books that are about things they can identify with! e.g. boyfriends, popularity in school, family problems, etc. etc. etc. (2) Expressing support for young people going through upheavals and giving them guidance by these kinds of ‘issue’ novels.

    And of course, this is the modern version of the Victorian “improving literature for children”; reading books because you enjoyed the story (oh, noes! escapism!) wasn’t good enough, there had to be an educational purpose. So protagonists coping with parental divorce, school bullying, and so on and so forth were the new approved literature.

    Reading vampires and wizards would have been just as much frowned upon because little Johhny or Mary weren’t learning anything from them 🙂

    I am really, really glad I missed out – however near a miss it was – on this phase. I read everything I could get my hands on – yes, trash. But good stuff as well. For instance, when I was nine, I found a tattered old copy of “Shirley” by Charlotte Bronte and because no-one told me I couldn’t or shouldn’t be reading it, I dove right in.

    Nowadays, if a teacher saw that, it’d probably be taken away as too advanced for me to attempt and not relevant, and I’d have a book about an unpopular girl coping with bullying at school and Mum’s new boyfriend shoved into my hands instead. And I would die of tedium, because that would bore me to tears.

  15. Dana Ames says

    A lengthy answer, because the question is “why”.

    Jason,
    The “censorship” diminished as our kids got older, because it’s kind of delusional to think kids can truly be “controlled” after about age 12. (And the point of parenting is to set them free to be themselves with the ability to love and choose to do good, no? Sort of like God with his human children…) But when they were young it was fairly tight. There are several reasons.

    1) My husband and I are musicians by avocation. We don’t think music in and of itself is “evil”, though some of it is certainly just bad music. Our kids were exposed to a lot of good music growing up, and they all play at least one instrument. Music is something we could talk about and enjoy with them. And we did. They never purchased anything with truly raunchy lyrics, at least while they lived at home, and I don’t think even now. Again, I made sure I was educated about what was “out there” so that even if I didn’t want to listen to something, I could at least discuss. I actually really appreciate Tool.

    2) Reading is the key to education. Along with speech and writing, the act itself teaches the brain how to work. We had plenty of good literature around the house, and the kids knew they could order anything from the Scholastic classroom program, subject to the family budget. We made a big deal about each one getting their library card on their fifth birthday. Again, as they grew older we always knew what they were reading (at least “publicly”) so we could talk about it, which is a great way to find out what your teenager really thinks, if he/she is honest.

    3) We allowed TV and a few video games- we did not want them to be social misfits- but screen time was limited. Computer time was VERY limited, because I had to use our computer for work (yes, only one computer in the house- each child received a laptop for high school graduation, and that was their first computer all their own), and the Internet can be just plain dangerous.

    One, we wanted them to play. It’s how the brain learns to solve problems (I know, some video games help the brain work, but they’re not meant to be the only or even the primary way), how the heart learns to deal with other people, and how the body can remain fit. As they got older, they were encouraged to make time for one activity they enjoyed besides the musical one, and this helped them not only develop discipline and delayed gratification and all that other good stuff, but gave them positive options that helped “keep them out of trouble”.

    Two, not much on TV is appropriate for young children. My 23-year-old son has recognized this and now thanks me for not letting him watch certain things when he was little. I have a job that enables me to work at home, and I could monitor this pretty effectively. In addition, we only have one TV in the house. Yes, only one. (Well, we had a tiny old portable for the video games, but that was its only use.) So all TV watching at home was “public”, and that made us grownups think twice about what we were watching as well.

    Three, there’s a lot of violence in video games. It’s not such a big deal with cartoonish characters, because certainly by school age kids can tell the difference between Mario and their parents or schoolmates. But as graphics got better, the images on the screen don’t look much different than the “real world”. Not only is solving problems by hurting people and things a mockery of why Jesus came, I think the more realistic graphics are a problem because,

    Four, from my own admittedly subjective experience, I think our psyche (catch-all term) can process and bracket negative/damaging images that come from the imagination, as with reading, in a much more integrated and healthy manner than images that come from our sensory experiences, especially the visual. I remember a strong negative impression being made on me by some scenes from movies and TV I saw when I was very young, and I didn’t have the conceptual ability at that age to figure out why they affected me the way they did, or even to explain to my parents why I was upset. Yes, I eventually did figure it out, but my childish ideas and reasonings that came from trying to make meaning out of those images contributed to unhealthy relational patterns I later developed. I still remember the images after 50 years. I know children can’t be protected from everything harmful, but they do need to have space to develop the capacity to deal with the abstract, and not have negative abstractions forced upon them by means of images before they are ready to tackle the abstract in general. IOW, I think this premature exposure to these things can be a kind of trauma that can stunt one’s emotional/intellectual growth.

    I hope that makes sense.

    Dana

  16. In my humble opinion, the most dangerous books are those that expose kids (or us) to lies about reality. This does NOT include fantasy because when we read fantasy, we know it is fantasy and we can enjoy it of the creative-entertainment value.

    But books that distort reality, and the reader comes out on the other side with a distortion of reality, is not healthy. With this criteria, many Christian books (like the Left Behind series) or those which paint perfect solutions to every life problem . . . should be avoided. I don’t think we have anything to fear from books that expose us to the real human condition.

    Great topic and thanks for your unique and professional perspective.

  17. Dana Ames says

    Oops, also to greg r…

    addendum to 3.4:
    The development of our capacity to think abstractly pretty much keeps pace with the ability to handle the increasing complexity of literature as we mature; therefore, not so much trauma when we encounter disturbing things in what we read.

    J. Michael Jones,
    I’m with you on the lies about reality thing. That’s why great art can sometimes make us uncomfortable, not only about reality “out there”, but reality within.

    Dana

  18. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    And of course, this is the modern version of the Victorian “improving literature for children”; reading books because you enjoyed the story (oh, noes! escapism!) wasn’t good enough, there had to be an educational purpose. So protagonists coping with parental divorce, school bullying, and so on and so forth were the new approved literature. — Martha

    i.e. the Go Ask Alice/Heather Has Two Mommies school of TREN-dy didactic “educational” children’s literature. Skanky characters in bureaucratic committee-approved stories set in crapsack “real-world” settings.

    I remember a strong negative impression being made on me by some scenes from movies and TV I saw when I was very young, and I didn’t have the conceptual ability at that age to figure out why they affected me the way they did, or even to explain to my parents why I was upset. Yes, I eventually did figure it out, but my childish ideas and reasonings that came from trying to make meaning out of those images contributed to unhealthy relational patterns I later developed. I still remember the images after 50 years. — Dana

    I remember a LOT of strong negative impressions, but with books as well as movies and TV. I was a kid genius and natural-talent speedreader and just because you can speedread grownup subjects doesn’t mean you can understand them correctly. As Stephen King put it, “When you’re six years old, most of your bingo-balls are still floating around in the draw tank.” And with no prior experience to compare with what you’re reading and/or watching, the line between reality and fiction and deception gets very very blurred — my intro to UFOlogy was through the Adamskyites (a Fifties Space Brothers/Saucer Cult) and to Christ through the more lurid Jack Chick tracts, and those still color my gut reactions.

    (Though one of those specifically movie/TV tropes that DID affect me was seeing adult actors in little-child roles in some older comedies. Now THAT squicked me out. Always has, always will, especially since I see the same combination too much IRL.)

    P.S. What were some of those images that still stick with you over 50 years?

    But books that distort reality, and the reader comes out on the other side with a distortion of reality, is not healthy. With this criteria, many Christian books (like the Left Behind series) or those which paint perfect solutions to every life problem … should be avoided. — JMJ

    Then that cuts out CBA-approved CHRISTIAN (TM) fiction and most all Romances. Those are so bowdlerized and/or wish-fulfillment fanservice (I include both Twilight and Left Behind in the latter) that they can mess up your sense and expectations of reality BAD. Crossing the line from true fiction into false fact.

    (At least when you’re writing about a man-sized Goth ferret adventuring her way through a space-opera universe, said hypothetical reader really has to work hard to mistake it for false fact…)

  19. You got freshmen high school students to read the Odyssey? Props! I agree with your conclusion. As a youth minister, my observation from my very limited experiences confirms that they WILL fail to achieve the standard that you do not set. Set the bar high and enable.

  20. Topher—I couldn’t agree more with what you said!

    As for gore in the classics–clearly Mills has never read those White Trash Boys, Shakespeare and Milton!!

    🙂

  21. It seems here that there may two separate issues as to what the article discusses:

    1. What ‘ought’ children read: My goodness, when I have kids, I would love to just throw some Grudem there way in 3rd grade and call it a day. I think most teen books today wouldn’t be good to read in the sense that they are the best use of your time. However, kids are kids, which leads to . . .

    2. What ‘do’ children read, and how do we respond? I myself loved a lot of fiction, mostly fantasy and some sci-fi, when I was a child. Ender’s Game was one of my favorites. Though this did not develop a completely true worldview (it is secular, after all) it did at least begin to develop the processes of thinking about right and wrong and other areas. Thus, when theological writings did become a greater interest in my later teens, it wasn’t as alien to me.

    Basically, I think it hits a balance. There are some things that we just should not allow them to read if it is in our power at all (e.g., to the extreme, pornography). Yet we cannot right expect them to be perfectly wise about what to read. So give them some leeway, and then think about reading it yourself and begin a conversation with it.

    As a side note, my dad always had theology books in bookshelves all over the house. Though I wasn’t interested as a child, it was definitively something that led to a higher interest. If they don’t see good books (even books you approve that aren’t strictly non-fiction or theological in nature), then it will take that much more effort for them to find the desire to read them.

  22. Amen to J. Michael Jones.

    Both Tolkien and Lewis have excellent essays on the difference between fantasy (which neither consider escapist) and truly escapist literature such as the book where the awkward young boy gets the girl in the end, where the dowdy teenage girl blossoms into the well-loved and beautiful homecoming queen, etc.

    I’m not really sure where to place HP, because it has some elements of both, but overall I think I put it more in the true fantasy category, while I consider the kind of books Noel is talking about to be dangerous perversions of reality.

  23. tutt84: Your girls sound like me when I was that age. 😀 I’m not really up to date on what is popular middle-school reading, but I can give you something of a list of what I read (or wanted to read) when I was younger.

    + Lord of the Rings + The Hobbit (but I HATED the Hobbit… in case you cared)
    + Fever 1793
    + Where the Red Fern Grows
    + Freak the Mighty
    + A Wrinkle in Time
    +The Brides of Eden (although, I believe I was older when I read this one… I would check it out before giving it to your girls)
    + Huck Finn + Tom Sawyer
    +The Goose Girl

    that is all I can really remember, though.

  24. Noel,

    I feel for you, becoming an English teacher to adolescents today. I have a 13 y/o son who hates to read, even though I introduced him to books when he was a baby. He enjoyed being read to, as did his older (25 now) brother, who turned out to be like me in the reading department. I read all the Narnia books to him, Where the Red Fern Grows, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and even one Stephen King – The Girl who loved Tom Gordon. But when he (my younger son) was old enough to read, I became aware of what was out there for kids – the Treehouse series first opened my eyes to the mediocre choices that were deemed “worthy”. Now that he’s in middle school and they have the A R system, I’m even more appalled. He reads the absolute minimum amount each term, and the things he brings home are mostly sports related. He’s a straight A student as well as an all-star athlete, and I know he’ll do fine in life, I just lament that nothing I’ve done has given him that love for reading. And I can tell already that nothing he’s getting in school is going to ignite it either. It’s a new world out there, and you’re young and are disillusioned with it. I can understand my own disillusionment – I’m an old fogey. Your feelings give me hope that with teachers like you out there, at least some of our kids will grow up with a love for books, not just instant video, or the latest “viral” sensation on You Tube.

    C. Hays

  25. Well, Shakespeare had to compete with bear-baiting. (And did!)

    A number of “classic” authors were initially regarded as vulgar trash. Dickens, for instance. (He published his books as serials, in magazines.)

    Someone mentioned Stephen King–will his writings be transformed into “literature” by future English teachers and their well-meaning anthologists? (I like many of his books, by the way.) How about Danielle Steel or Nicholas Sparks? Tough call, but there is precedent.

    I remember controversy over Judy Blume, who would nowadays be regarded as quite tame. The issue usually comes down to whether young people are corrupted, or respected, through stories that address issues involving sexuality, drugs, violence, and so forth. (Some of our “cultural guardians” would rather preach at them and give them valuable moral lessons, but this is usually the kiss of death.)

    The two Alice books are almost impossible for moderns to appreciate without a guide. We simply don’t get his jokes. (A hundred years from now, scholars will have to annotate the movie version of “Shrek.”)

    I fail to see anything wrong with “escapist” literature. Interest in vampires seems to be cyclical–remember when Anne Rice was all the rage? And every generation seems to have its own version of D&D.

    Comic books are becoming steadily more intelligent, mainly because their readership is aging. Kids today are more likely to play video games. (A few years ago I could have added card games like “Magic: The Gathering.”)

    Most American superhero comics have been plunging in circulation, partly because of that, and partly because of rising printing costs. (The books themselves tend to look better, though–standards have obviously risen.) Also, the “Comics Code Authority” barely exists anymore. (Back in the 1950’s, in response to a silly expose called “Corruption of the Innocent,” comic companies agreed to self-police themselves not to include, for example, the living dead, or couples kissing while lying down.)

    You know what I see in the future? Kids having to study video games in school.

  26. I’m a teacher also and so I found this to be a very interesting post. I also struggle with the “I’m just glad they’re reading!” attitude, trying to find the right balance there. So many modern books for teens are morally abhorrent that it’s difficult to find much of a redeeming nature in some of them. I’ve found the worst books for kids to read nowadays to be the Gossip Girl books and other series of that nature. Hugely popular, and yet with absolutely ghastly morals and a completely twisted sense of reality. Basically the books are about rich teens running around having sex, drinking, bullying poor kids, and doing drugs while not having to accept any consequences whatsoever. Shallow and materialistic trash. The problem with modern kids is they take away more impressions from the media than we might have done ten, twenty years back when we were all kids. One thing I’ve noticed about kids nowadays is they seem to get their entire worldview (morals or lack thereof included) from TV, the internet, books, etc, and not really from parents or their surroundings. Modern kids can be really gullible when it comes to the media, it’s such a huge influence on them. That’s why I would be worried about putting certain books in the hands of students. I just see too many students influenced in a negative manner by certain types of media, books included. Students thinking they can get away with the kind of stuff that goes on in the Gossip Girl books, and getting into serious trouble when they hit reality and find out they can’t get away with the things that the rich kids in the books get away with.

    So…it’s just a very difficult subject for teachers and parents who want to encourage as much reading as possible, and yet don’t want to encourage their children to read dangerous trash that’s going to warp their worldviews.

  27. Am I right in assuming that “Gossip Girl” is basically “Sex in the City” for teens? (One of the masterpieces, so to speak, of “Chick Lit.”)

    I too find the issue of curricular goals confusing. A century or so ago, the goal was to learn Latin grammar and at some point begin the study of Greek. Reading classics in translation was considered cheating. By the 20th century classical languages gave way to modern ones and science (the origin of US “high schools”), and native-language education turned into (a) reading for its own sake, and/or (b) the acquisition of cultural knowledge, e.g. selections from Homer and Bowdlerized Shakespeare. Is this any more useful than the old grammar school curriculum? Why?

    It’s always a fine line between trying to elevate and improve their taste, and shoving something down their throats. (I absolutely hated “Great Expectations” when I was young–was any purpose served in forcing me to read it?–and only much later was able to appreciate it.)

  28. I read to my four kids, now 18-32, twice each day (naptime and bedtime)when they were very young, then at bedtime until they began to read chapter books on their own. I read the complete Narnia series, all the Newberry award-winners, all the Beatrix Potter & Paddington books, The Hobbit, and tried the Lord of the Rings but found it too boring (for me!). As they grew older, I required a 30-minute minimum reading time each day during summers, which they seemed to enjoy. My idea of “trash” at the time were those Goosebumps books that they seemed to love! Only the youngest never really developed a love of reading on his own as a young person, although none of them read much today.

  29. “… struggles with boyfriends or girlfriends or the lack thereof, cruel teachers, clueless parents, vicious peers, bad skin, bad hair, fat thighs, insecurity, and fear, though they are sometimes serious problems like sexual abuse and drug addiction.”

    I.e., middle school and most of high school.

    I mean, whoever would want to escape this little slice of Nirvana? 😉

  30. Savannah says

    Dana, for many of the same reasons, we did not censor the written word or music, but we limited television and video games. I think your observation that our psyches process negative/damaging images that come from the imagination in a more integrated and healthy way is spot-on. Like you, I can only rely on personal anecdotal evidence for that, but it seems pretty clear for me, at least.

    I also came into the parenthood thing with a a strong bias against a lot of censorship. My parents were very voracious readers and although they always chose quality literature for our home, it was not literature that would have been found on Christian book store shelves. On the other hand, I attended Christian school through ninth grade, and had several run-ins with the administration over books I had read and reported on in some form. In third grade, I was nearly expelled for a report I did on “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (don’t ask me why; to this day I am not completely sure). Two years later, it was “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” that landed me in hot water. Apparently, I was a very rebellious little bookworm.

    So anyway, when our boys came along, my views of censorship had been strongly shaped by own experiences with it, so we encouraged them to read pretty much what interested them. I cringed through the “Goosebump years” – not because I disapproved of the topic, but because I would have rather they read something “higher quality”. Harry Potter came along and the church went kind of nuts, but I read the first two books and just could not get on board the hysterical “my kid will turn into a warlock” bandwagon. I personally don’t enjoy the fantasy genre, but it seemed no different than a lot of other fantasy that has been written and read over the years. So we sometimes had to put the Rowling books away for certain play dates.

    And I don’t think this has been mentioned, but it was our experience that boys are kind of a different animal when it comes to reading. They are more kinetic, less willing to engage in a “sit down” activity, so there was a bit of gratefulness that they were just reading, when they did so.

  31. We read the Narnia chronicles out loud to our girls when the were very young.

    However, there is a set of literature by women authors that has girl or women heroes and shows quite a bit of character development. Most of these authors are in the genre of fantasy/science fiction.

    Among the authors are writers such as:

    Mercedes Lackey
    Anne McCaffrey
    Lois McMaster Bujold

    One has to be careful which books are read by which age group, as some are appropriate for tweens while others should only be older high school and some are young adult level.

  32. Correction note, by young adult, I meant over 18. Hmm, that is what comes of being in my late 50’s.

  33. aliasmoi says

    I never censored what Spawn read. Although I did try to guide what he was reading by having lots of good books around the house, and by removing anything I would be uncomfortable with him stumbling upon (DH Lawrence comes to mind).

    Can someone please explain Twilight to me? I started reading the first one when getting my oil changed not long ago. I was about 100 pages in when I said, “This is stupid!” and chucked it. I don’t see how the author hasn’t gotten sued. The book seems like a very cleaned up version of Charlene Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries. They changed things like the location and it’s Edward who can read minds – but other than that – there’s a lot of similarities.

  34. Tutt84, my 12 year old daughter *loved* the Maximum Ride series and Hunger Games. I haven’t read them yet — she wants me to badly — because of time, but I am familiar with their storyline and themes. I will read them soon. Those don’t count as “literature” and may not be “challenging” but that’s not really the point at this age. My daughter also reads on at least a high school level. (She maxes all the standardized tests and I’ve never been interested in having any of my children undergo “special” testing. I had to endure enough of that.) It’s important that she reads things that maintain her love of reading. The rest will sort itself out.

    Fr. Ernesto, I smiled when I read your post. My other children had different tastes (though most of them did eventually read Narnia on their own) for reading together times. However, I did read much of Narnia with my youngest daughter (the aforementioned 12 year old). She had me come to her school too in 2nd grade and over a matter of weeks read the entire Magician’s Nephew to her class. Fun memories!

    aliasmoi, my parents were intentionally less cautious with what I might read. They were trying to do better than the way they had been raised. In some ways they did. But I have been more cautious about what I had lying around for my kids to read. I did let my older son read all of Stephen King before I think (in retrospect) he was really ready for it. (Although sometimes I don’t think *I’m* ready for Stephen King. Anyone else go for a long time without picking up another King book after reading Pet Semetary? Shudder.)

  35. “Twilight” takes the standard vampire trope (vampirism as sublimated sexuality) and applies it to high school students, with the twist that the “good” vampires have formed a “vegetarian” cabal which abstains from attacking humans, or turning them into other vampires (except under special conditions). Likely inspirations include True Love Waits (the chastity promoters), the X-Men (each of the vampires has different superpowers, there are “good” and “evil” factions), and the 1990’s novel “The World On Blood” (about vampires in a 12-step group). Oh, and the “Twilight” vampires are in a feud with some Native American werewolves, “vampires vs. werewolves” being the theme of some recent horror movies. By the way, copyright does not protect ideas, only particular expressions of them.

  36. Do people still think “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” is dirty? It seems so tame by contemporary standards. (“…short and sharp he took her, short and sharp and finished, like an animal…”) Actually, the controversy over it arose not because of the adultery, but because it was depicted as a good thing, and (unlike say, in Tolstoy) neither of the lovers die a horrible death or repent. Also there was the issue of the f-word.

    By the way, Lawrence wrote one of the best books on the Book of Revelation I’ve ever seen. (I mean “Apocalypse”, of course.) Apparently he was raised by religious nuts, with the additional benefit of a classical education.

  37. urban otter says

    Cracked magazine skewers the Twilight series in this highly entertaining article:

    http://www.cracked.com/funny-36-twilight/

    Warning: Cracked is an R-rated site (bad language, some T&A) and the author is writing from a purely secular point of view.

    However, his summary of the novels are painfully accurate and seriously funny.

    Someone mentioned having had a classic crammed down his throat. Although teachers hope and pray that their students will enjoy the literature they’ve selected for their class, sometimes a student will just have to read books he is not interested in. School is frequently all about forcing uninterested students to complete their assignments. I am not convinced that it is wise to let students read only the books they want to read. I’m increasingly of the opinion that reading something you’re NOT interested in is a great life skill, one that is particularly useful at university.

    I have a series of English/Literature books written for first through twelfth grades, published in 1909. The teacher’s guide holds to the opinion that reading helps shape character. The entire point of reading great literature is to elevate the mind. I think he’s correct.

    It is true that the mountain of trash I read as a young adult had a negative impact on the way I thought. And as a man thinks, so he does.

    Noel, I hope to read more from you!

  38. Donalbain says

    The Twilight series are dreadful, dreadful, dreadful books and every parent should try to persaude their daughters not to read them. They portray downright evil behaviour as being something to aspire to. Edward stalks Bella, denies her the right to make her own choices of who she sees, kills her, dominates her life and he is the Good Guy of the series.

    *gets down off high horse*

  39. The Odyssey should be a natural for kids – I’d argue it’s the first ever work of science fiction. I think the two problems with getting kids to read it are is imposing length and the fact that most translations are poetry. The Samuel Butler translation is my favorite, and is in prose so it’s much less of a chore to read. If someone would do an abridged version of the Butler translation for pre-high school, I think they’d be on to something.

  40. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    The Twilight series are dreadful, dreadful, dreadful books and every parent should try to persaude their daughters not to read them. They portray downright evil behaviour as being something to aspire to. Edward stalks Bella, denies her the right to make her own choices of who she sees, kills her, dominates her life and he is the Good Guy of the series. — Donalbain

    I second that. Twilight/Sparklepire bashing is common on several blogs I read, and here’s a short synopsis:

    BELLA: “OOOOO! EDWARD! YOU’RE SO *HAWT*!!!!!!!”
    EDWARD: (sparkle sparkle sparkle)
    Repeat for 400+ pages in each volume.
    Repeat for each volume.

    The reviewer over at Hollywood Jesus described it as “Porn for Women” (with Edward as a male version of The Perfect Porn Star) and felt sorry for all the teenage boys who now have to compete with Perfect HAWT Edward (sparkle sparkle sparkle).

    One (secular) friend described it as “Bored Mormon Housewife’s Wank Fantasy”, an opinion shared by the actor who played Edward in the movie (and has had to fight off Twihards since). Another LiveJournal type (who I can’t find now) did an analysis as to how closely Edward (sparkle sparkle) resembles a certain Joseph Smith. (The accompanying picture of a Joseph Smith statue from a Mormon Temple Visitor Center with animated bishie-sparkles makes that entire LJ.)

    Twihard: Drooling Twilight fangirl, Bella wannabe.
    Twimom: 50+ year-old Twihard.

    The RL Washington town where the novel (and its never-ending bestseller sequels) are set is getting pretty sick of Twihards making pilgrimages. (Kind of like that town where they filmed The Blair Witch Project.)

    Plus there are apocrphyal stories of Twihards reacting violently to any dissing of Twilight or Edward — including baseball-bat beatdowns, shank-across-throat, and acid-into-face attacks. (“EDWARD! I’M DOING THIS FOR YOUUUUUU!!!”)

    Now for the real kicker:

    A lot of Christians recommended Twilight because “Edward and Bella Save Themselves for Marriage”. Completely ignoring the creepy stalking behavior.

  41. I’m sixteen and a huge reader. Mostly fantasy, but I do try out other genres (whatever my mom might say). I definitely think that the usual books for teen girls are absolute trash. Although the extent of my reading them was middle school when I started the “clique” series, and I finally just refused to continue, I read them because it was what my friends were reading. When I go to Borders I skip about 2/3 of the entire young adult section, which is pretty frustrating.

    Vampire books pretty much qualify as trash to me too. I did read Twilight, and yes I liked it, but had no desire to try out the other stuff in that category. I look at Twilight as not being perfect, or even great, but it’s way better than some of the other stuff.

    My parents don’t censor what I read, but they aren’t completely oblivious either. I talked with my mom a lot about Twilight, both the good and bad. Then ironically when I asked my older sister (21) to read them for her mature opinion, she became obsessed just like most high school girls. My dad read the Chronicles of Narnia to me and my brother and sister when we were little. I don’t remember that at all, but I’m pretty sure it affected the way I read now.

    Some of my favorites are The Pellinor series, the Darkangel trilogy, the Snow walker, The Obernewtyn Chronicles, Wildwood Dancing, The Chanters of Tremaris Trilogy, Treasure at the heart of the tanglewood, Diana Wynne Jones (author), Robin McKinley (author) as well as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Till we have faces, and anything Jane Austen. That’s only a little.

    I’ve come across plenty of trash, but personally can take the good from a book and leave the bad.

  42. Aliasmoi says

    Well, keep in mind that I have a kid who read War and Peace in 7th grade. I kid you all not!! I have never gotten past page 150 of War and Peace, but my kid read the whole thing, and kept a note book of who was who and how they were related in 7th grade. When we lived near Richmond they had a program called Excellerated Reader. Kids read books and took tests on them for points (determined by test score and how hard the book was), and the kid with the most points at the end of the year got $100. My kid won every year we lived there. Would I have a problem with my high school junior or senior reading DH Lawrence? Nope. My 7th grader? Absolutely.

    Of course this makes me think of the time we ran into a former literature professor of mine, and my son was standing there talking to him about all the books he’d read. I was standing there thinking, “When did you read THAT?” My professor said to me, “Well done!”

  43. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    P.S. re Twilight:

    Another kicker:

    I’m a member of two Christian genre writers’ lists. Around a month ago, one list had a report from some sort of Christian Publishers’ conference (probably CBA/ECPA). Our informant claimed that buzz at the conference was that The Next Big Thing in CHRISTIAN (TM) Fiction was going to be “Paranormal Romance”.

    Note that a common nickname for “Paranormal Romance” among genre writers is “vampire porn” and you can see where this is heading. Add “Christian (TM)” as an adjective and what you get is “Just like Twilight, except CHRISTIAN (TM)!”

    I have terrible images of CHRISTIAN (TM) Twilight knockoffs filling Christian (TM) Bookstores for 2010-2011, where the Uber-HAWT Sparkling Vampires pass out Four Spiritual Laws tracts and walk the aisle for the obligatory Altar Call Ending…

  44. denise and wesley says

    I am 28 years old and I have been reading this blog for about half an hour. It is interesting, and obviously you all are very gifted writers who are extremely well read – I just wanted to throw this out there: I am the daughter (only child)of two Jewish Athiest school-teachers (if you can conceptualize such a thing). I was taught that education is the most important thing in life, God and Jesus are silly things that silly people talk about, and all sex, violence,drugs, cursing, etc. in books, music, tv, and video games were completely OFF LIMITS BECAUSE THEY SAID SO. by the time i was in high school i was vehemently pursuing any kind of exposure to sex, violence, cursing, drug use, alcohol use, etc that i could find in real life as well as in music, books, and movies – i was purposely screaming as many expletives in my parents faces as i could, deliberately failing school…flash forward to my twenties – I become a coke-head, meth addict, bulimic, adulterer, fornicator, drunk chick dancing on bars karaokeing to Jay-Z ….
    LONG STORY SHORT I got saved in Victory Chapel a year ago and my husband and I have been serving God ever since. My parents are astonished, amazed, “proud” even (lol), yet they still feel that they don’t need Jesus, they are successes in life, they don’t need to pray, yada yada. So any way, my point is that no matter what your kids are exposed to in life, God still has the power and the desire to save them and transform their lives.

  45. I have not read the “Twilight” books, but my overall impression is that the criticism of them is probably spot-on. However, I would caution too much attempt to exert control in this area, particularly for a teen.

    I went through an extremely brief phase when I was a young teen where I read about two or three Harlequin romance novels. This was “out of character” for me, because I had already read enormous amounts of great quality literature, largely considered “far beyond” my years. But all of my girlfriends were reading them and they were the “going thing”. My folks were scandalized that I would even consider reading such drivel and said so in no uncertain terms – repeatedly. However, my curiosity was piqued and at that point, I just had to read one. So I borrowed a few, sneaked them into my bedroom, and read them with a flashlight at night. They were stupid, monotonous, and I very quickly tired of them. I never admitted to my folks, though, that they were right because #1) I didn’t want them to know I had read any, and #2), I did have some self-respect.

    I’m not saying that parents don’t have the right to attempt to control their offspring’s reading material; I am just pointing out that making a big fuss can have the unintended consequence of making the “forbidden fruit” all that more interesting. There is just a balance to be struck, that’s all.

  46. “I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
    — J.R.R. Tolkien