A recent article in the Washington Post floated the idea that the Newbery Awards put children off reading.
Why? Because the books selected are frequently downers. And in some cases, they’re inaccessible to the children who read them.
This came up before on my weblog when we discussed The Giving Tree and how I am not alone in despising it. The difficulty here is that children’s literature is the only branch of literature that is not chosen by the individuals who enjoy it.
Imagine the outcry if a bunch of white scholars sat around a table and determined what would be “black literature” and “Latino literature.” Or if only men determined what would be taught in the many women’s literature courses taught in universities around the nation.
But the showpiece texts of children’s literature are not chosen by children. True, they’re frequently enjoyed by children. But not always. And the Newberry Awards do seem to exacerbate this problem.
Children are not reading books in order to raise their consciousnesses, think deeply, or experience catharsis. They do not want moral lessons. (Neither do adults, actually.) What children care about is an entertaining story and characters they can relate to.
Stories about death, bleakness and nihilism really aren’t most kids’ cup of cola, and according to the article, that seems to have made its way into some Newbery selections.
When children are fed a steady diet of “read this, it’s good for you” and then forced to endure a bleak landscape or a heartbreaking ending, they don’t experience what Betsy Lerner referred to in The Forest For The Trees as “a literary orgasm.” They don’t discover the joy of inhabiting another world while firmly within their own. They don’t get to confront their fears and transcend them via the characters. They don’t experience triumph, recognition or that sense of being special.
Is it any wonder that in their off-hours, they then don’t pick up a book?
Try reading in line at the Post Offal — someone is sure to ask you what you’re reading and if it’s any good. The more you try to put your nose back in the book, the more the person badgers you. And I’m convinced it’s because in the back of that person’s mind, he knows reading should be “good for him” and he ought to do more of it, like eating your vegetables and exercising, but he’s just not feeling the love. And the fact that you do love it — that’s just bizarre. He wants to know why.
In an age where reading books for pleasure is something of a rarity, it’s worth the time to find books children can love for their characters and their joy. You can find joy in text. Save the difficult, sad stuff for when they’re older, when they’re already rooted in reading.