Thursday, March 29, 2007

“The World is So Full of a Number of Things….

...I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” This little two-line poem from Stevenson’s A Garden of Child’s Garden of Verses has been an increasingly current refrain in my head as we get deeper into our course syllabus. Now that we are halfway through, I feel like checking in on what we have talked about, in terms of what teens like to read and do, and what it means. First of all, I think I am reminded of the Stevenson verse because it’s clear that these days, not only are there many, many new ways to express yourself, use your time, and just generally entertain yourself, they all tend to be interesting, remarkable, and stimulating.

Youtube, Myspace, blogs and blogging, online gaming, digital media content, not to mention the explosion of young adult literature titles in a number of genres presents an enticing smorgasbord of diversions for everyone in western society. And they feel permanent. I don’t think the next generation will say (as they start looming a new rug or something) “Remember when everyone spent so much time online writing essays and sharing photos?”

This is no CB Radio, folks. And that’s why I think there’s resistance from some parts of our society (in our case, school librarians) who feel threatened by the torrent of new ways to amuse and educate oneself. Personally, I don’t feel the need to get involved with all of these new media right away. I’ve often told myself: “I’m also not going to make it to The Louvre today, either.” It’s a combination of too much of a good thing and not enough time at the moment to explore it all. I think folks who get anxious about where all these new entertainments will fit in should remind themselves of two things: 1.that they don’t have to participate, but 2. those who do are not necessarily missing out on an opportunity to translate a little Greek.

The word Quality keeps coming up. Quality time, quality reading. First of all, who defines quality? I checked out Mary Bell’s link to the newspaper article about teen reading on the rise, and the parallel rise in the quality of teen books. (Thanks, Mary. Here’s a website I found because of the article you posted. I also added it to the resources page on our wiki.)

The article opined that the quality of young adult books in the 80s and 90s was dictated to by corporations and big chain stores. Not surprisingly, this was an era of low-quality literature. Think Goosebumps and Sweet Valley. Personally, looking back on this era, I think our mainstream culture was at a low point, and these kind of books were a product of a society generally going slack-jawed. Previously, editors and librarians were the gatekeepers of young adult books and both maintained a different, higher standard. They defined the entire genre of young adult reading. But speaking in only the broadest of terms, it seems that most material that made it past these guardians of taste was often unappealing to the target audience. And to add further injury, there wasn’t much of it, either!

It can never be a bad thing to have many, many options when it comes to reading. We need light-n-breezy books, as much as we need the made-you-think books. It’s not an either/or equation. Having Goosebumps in the collection does not mean that The Odyssey has to go.

I think school librarians need to support classroom teachers by finding ways to present “canon fodder” in more appealing ways. Sell the sizzle, not the steak. If a student thinks Wuthering Heights is boring, someone forgot to pump them up by telling them how creepy the Moors are, how dark, handsome and wild Heathcliff is…c’mon, we have mild necrophilia in this book, and kids think it’s boring? We cannot blame the book, or the uninterested reader for this one.

So many wonderful books get tossed aside because they are being introduced in such stagnant ways, with such useless requirements like pop quizzes and unoriginal essay assignments. On both sides of this quality vs. junk debate, both parties are misguided about the other’s value. Instructors and school librarians who dismiss so-called junk reading seem to feel it’s necessary because it threatens the existence of established classics, and those who don’t like classic/canon fiction think its dull because there’s no one to present it in a way that would help teens find out why its so wonderful. And then, just to make it extra fun, sometimes junk is truly worthless, and canon fodder is truly boring.

I realize this blog entry has been very broad and general. I think I used to feel threatened by what I perceived to be low-brow reading material but after my children’s lit class last semester, and now this class, I don’t think it’s an either/or issue like I used to.

1 comment:

Linda Braun said...

I always worry about sending teens the wrong message about a particular book. I'm saying that in connection to the mention of selling Wuthering Heights to teens in a more compelling way. I totally agree. But, while doing the sell we have to be careful about not selling it as something that it's not. How do we be honest about the story without getting teen hopes up in non-realistic ways? Does that make sense?