Grade school is relevant to me just now because we at the library are taking down our Summer Reading display. (Which is on the wall. And it’s books for schools. So there’s a Pink Floyd reference. See? NO, I AM DEFINITELY NOT REACHING.) These are the books either assigned or recommended by several of the local public schools. We get special funding to buy between one and six copies of each one, and they occupy a special shelf all summer. I’ve worked with the Summer Reading books for the past three years, but this year seems to have brought a larger selection.
A few of these books have been required reading here since my own middle/high school days. Specifically, I remember reading Edith Wharton’s Mythology, Robert Lacey’s The Year 1000, and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The main difference between these lists and mine is that the shelf we have now holds mostly recommended, rather than required, books. I don’t remember any recommended reading at all.
If you ask me, having the schools recommend additional books is a great idea. Many great books for kids and teens can’t realistically be made into required reading – they’re controversial (His Dark Materials is on the list), too difficult for some kids in the class, or don’t fit well with course material. Naturally, kids who are already readers will find books, but there’s no harm in teachers pointing out some good ones.
I also hope that seeing the books on that list – and that shelf – tells parents that these books have a lot to offer their kids. This is especially important because the recommended books include Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, Avi’s Poppy and Perloo the Bold, Scott Westerfield’s Uglies, and about half the works of Beverly Cleary. While many parents love to see their kids reading, period, a few unfortunate parents are seriously judgmental about what their children read, especially when science fiction and fantasy. Maybe, with a teacher’s recommendation, these parents won’t take issue when their kids pick up a book with a mouse riding a motorcycle on the cover.
Perhaps one of the most valuable benefits of the recommended reading, though, is its potential to win kids’ trust in their teachers’ judgment. While I liked a lot of my teachers, they were, as a group, the people who forced me to read Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury AND As I Lay Dying. My apologies to anyone who liked any of those books. I hated them all desperately. True, teachers also assigned Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, George Eliot’s Silas Marner, and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, all of which I liked, but these were still not the kinds of books I would have read on my own. It would have helped me relate to my teachers to know that they approved of books like Artmis Fowl – to hear them even acknowledge, let alone recommend, books of the kind that you read just because you like them rather than because they are classics, like them or not.
Tangent time! If you glance at the first three books in my "hated desperately" list above, you might not guess what I remembered most about all of them: the violent death of an animal. Yes, even The Grapes of Wrath. Teachers think I’m learning about the Great Depression, but you know what I’m seeing? Their dog is smeared all over the highway! We’re reading about intestines! Smeared on the highway! And the protagonist of Black Boy – who is, I think, supposed to be sympathetic – actually hangs a kitten. Let me say that again: Protagonist. Hangs. A. Kitten. I don’t remember anything else about that book, except saying to a classmate at the time, "I hope the AUTHOR is dead!" Funnily enough, the other day I ran into another girl my age who also read the book for school, and it’s the only scene she remembers, too. It isn’t a pivotal scene plot-wise, as opposed to the dogs’ death in Where the Red Fern Grows, but it’s all either of us took home from the book. I’m pretty sure Black Boy was supposed to have other elements to it. Too bad. Maybe teachers should consider kids’ priorities and emotional responses before they decide which books to assign.
Also: In third grade, after reading Where the Red Fern Grows, we watched the movie in class. When the dogs died, I cried, and a boy (whose name I still remember, but who shall here remain anonymous) laughed at me. Something else for teachers to think about.
Basically, when I was a kid, it seemed like my teachers and I thought that reading was meant to provide two totally different, if sometimes overlapping, things: education versus enjoyment. The recommended reading list shows kids that teachers really believe in both.
Random bonus links:
1. A great intro to fanfiction as a concept. Because yes, some people – like my parents – do not know what it is. This article is heavily pro-fanfiction, but it also does a pretty good job just explaining what it is and why it appeals to some people.
2. Silly profile of a standard Regency romance hero. Her next entry describes the typical leading lady. I don’t read the genre, but was still entertained.