Classics & Cereal Boxes: A quiet morning rant

Good grief, not again. Yet another over-educated and under-intelligent soul is going off on the reading habits of American children and young adults. Now it’s summer reading lists they’re disparaging… we’re not spending enough time on the classics, and we’re turning out a nation of cereal-box readers. Oh, no, not enough classics?!! Who, tell me who will save the children!?

(FYI, there’s some really interesting stuff on the back of cereal boxes. And on Silk cartons. And inevitably reading something of INTEREST to you, even on the back of a box of cereal, can spark you to do a little research on your own… as is intended.)

This is NOT a new conversation. Understand, I’m coming from the rather cranky point-of-view of someone whose growing up literary investigations were closely monitored and usually curtailed. However, as I understand it for most people, summer reading is out-of-school reading, which therefore is a.) rare (thus the Wall Street Journal’s amusing turn of phrase “seasonal illiteracy”), and b.) is therefore a green light to read whatever you jolly well please, because you’re READING, which brings us back to our first reason. Schools and libraries have all sorts of fun programs surrounding summer reading, and encourage people to read — anything, everything. Books. Graphic novels. Encyclopedias. ANYTHING. And here the Journal is complaining because no one is pushing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Don’t those people normally just concentrate on making money? I suggest they get back to that and leave the librarians alone.

How tired I am of people moaning on about the Classics. Do we not yet realize that the so-called ‘canon’ is made up of a.) old b.) Caucasian and c.) male writers and characters, to a large degree? The difficult language and lengthy descriptions of a bygone world may not be as interesting first off to a young person. We can be frustrated with that, but it’s the truth. It takes time and education to appreciate things outside of our milieu. Young adult readers who don’t naturally gravitate those directions can be guided into them — in school. Maybe they’re just not asking for that type of encouragement during the summer, but if they’re asking, librarians still exist and are there to help. Meanwhile, I advocate a more multicultural and balanced approach where Sandra Cisneros can exist alongside Ralph Waldo Ellison and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yes, older books are good. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that newer books are bad. Relegating Edward Bloor’s Tangerine to the category of some lightweight ‘sports book’ is to woefully misunderstand the subtleties of modern YA fiction, and what it can accomplish. (Moreover, it is to obviously admit that you’re commenting on it, and have never read it. Shame, Wall Street Journal. Shame.)

Yes, I read The Scarlet Pimpernel the summer when I was twelve, and then went on to read A Tale of Two Cities because it seemed kind of related. Please note that after that, I reread Anne of Green Gables, a book the Journal would say had “a soap opera plot,” because my brain needed a break. Adults have to acknowledge that a kid moves forward at a kid’s pace, not an adult pace. There will be time for Ahab and the whale, for feisty Jo and her insipid sisters, for Stephen Crane and Frederick Douglass, and all the others. Life is long. Childhood is too freaking short.

(Thanks to Jen Robinson’s Book Page for pointing out both the Journal article as well as Shannon Hale’s good rant.)

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  1. I agree – and have been ranting at my site on this as well. I love Little Women – love love love it! But those sections on Pilgrim’s Progress can become dreary and quite dull. I always tell kids to skip the parts they don’t want. If they fall in love with the story they will eventually go back to read the whole thing.

    And Tangerine?! What was the WSJ thinking????

  2. The Tangerine bit really sent me. Just the IDEA that the author of the piece judged the books by the blurbs, without knowing anything else them… is that how s/he wants kids to make up their minds about things?


  3. Tangerine was the WORST, and not READING a book before you talk about it: Sin! Sin! SIN!

    I found historical interest in Pilgrim’s Progress, but yeah… it’s JUST not for everyone, and it’s simply not something I’ve read over and over out of love.

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