Saturday, August 23, 2008

Read it like you mean it

When students have to produce an essay on a book they care nothing for, it becomes a nightmare for both the student (think "all-nighter") and the teacher, who'll spend precious weekend hours reading papers devoid of content. The upshot of this empty drill: teens increasingly resistant to great books.

This, and the rest of it, a thousand times yes.

Sometimes I think that the hardest part of being a YA librarian is not reaching teens, but reaching teachers, parents, and school administrators who don't know anything about modern YA lit, refuse to learn about it, and see no value in it. Analyzing any book to death does the reader, the writer, and the teacher no favors, but when my youngest sister raided my room for copies of her assigned English books when she was in high school, I had to sigh. She's ten years younger than I am. Also, a true story: When she was in sixth grade, her class was assigned The Dark is Rising and the class had to write an analysis of every page of the book. Every. Page. No wonder she and her friends "hated" it.

Here's another true story: When I was in high school, I was what one might refer to as a reluctant reader. I didn't mind finding books on my own at the public library, and there were books I found on my own that I loved, like What's Eating Gilbert Grape?. All through high school and into college, however, I felt endlessly frustrated by what I had to read. It wasn't that I couldn't understand it, though there was certainly some of that, it was that I always felt like I could never give the teacher the answer he or she wanted to hear. If I didn't analyze the text "correctly," I would get a lower grade. None of my teachers had books in their classrooms other than the ones their classes were assigned. No books but the ones we were assigned were ever discussed in the classroom. I'll never forget reading The Great Gatsby sophomore year. Now, this was a book I actually quite liked once I got past the first chapter. But my most distinct memory was of my teacher reading to us the passage where Daisy is upset that sometimes she misses thinking about the longest day of the year, and he looked up and said to the class, "Isn't that superficial?"

I knew then that I would never make it as an English major in college. Personally, I look forward to the longest day of the year and thought as a sophomore in high school, and still think to this day, that there are many worse things to be upset about missing. I also have distinct memories of taking quizzes on the required reading for my education classes, and getting lower grades because I read the text but interpreted it differently than my professor wanted me to. Yeah, college was hell.

Sure, there's value in analyzing a text. It teaches us to look beyond the simple words on a page and see an author's thoughts about humanity. But there is also value in not reading the same book year after year, in using age-appropriate books that will speak to teens as human beings, not just as minds to analyze a text and take a test on it. There is value in classic books, and there is value in YA lit. There is a time and a place for analysis, and a time and a place for simply enjoying a novel. Maybe one day the majority of high school classrooms will educate their students about this balance.

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