Pottered: Is Our Children Reading?

01harry190.jpgAmidst the hoopla surrounding the final installment of Harry Potter, the Times looks into the effect that the series has had on the reading habits of kids these days. What did we learn? Well, yes, the books have sparked an interest in reading, but “federal statistics show that the percentage of youngsters who read for fun continues to drop significantly as children get older.”

Young people are less inclined to read for pleasure as they move into their teenage years for a variety of reasons, educators say. Some of these are trends of long standing (older children inevitably become more socially active, spend more time on reading-for-school or simply find other sources of entertainment other than books), and some are of more recent vintage (the multiplying menagerie of high-tech gizmos that compete for their attention, from iPods to Wii consoles). What parents and others hoped was that the phenomenal success of the Potter books would blunt these trends, perhaps even creating a generation of lifelong readers in their wake.

Right, so the boy wizard is not the salvation of the pleasure of the written word. If you believe the spoilers, young Harry may not even be able to save himself at book’s end. Surely other series will come along, like The Chronicles of Narnia before it, or more recently, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

I saw firsthand the effects of Pottermania years ago, when I was doing outreach work in schools. And, as a book nerd, every time I read an article about kids lining up for the release of a new book in the series, it warms the cockles of my coal-black heart. Kids. Waiting in Line. For the release a book. It validates all my middle school years, my face buried in a book on the school bus, devouring Ursula K. Le Guin, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, and the bizarre sci-fi/superhero volumes of Wild Cards.

Until Harry Potter, “I don’t think kids were reading proudly,” said Connie Williams, the school librarian at Kenilworth Junior High School in Petaluma, Calif. “Now it’s more normalized. It’s like, ‘Gosh we can read now, it’s O.K.’ ”

So yes, reading is kinda cool now. Whee! But then, here in the article, comes the scholarly counterpoint that rubbed me wrong:

Some reading experts say that urging kids to read fiction in general might be a misplaced goal. “If you look at what most people need to read for their occupation, it’s zero narrative,” said Michael L. Kamil, a professor of education at Stanford University. “I don’t want to deny that you should be reading stories and literature. But we’ve overemphasized it,” he said. Instead, children need to learn to read for information, Mr. Kamil said, something they can practice while reading on the Internet, for example.

Okay, I’m going to try to unpack this load of bullshit logic through my angrily gritted teeth. Reading for information, fine, kids need critical thinking skills, but something they can practice while breezing ’round the internet? Really? MySpace blogs and cat macros are soooo going raise their comprehension. Right. It’s not like tweens are logging on to Salon.com or The Huffington Post. For me, my early enjoyment of fiction led to my reading of non-fiction, from essays to biographies and so on. Would I even crack a book on U.S. foreign policy if I didn’t acquire reading skills from fiction? No. No I wouldn’t.

Also, reading for one’s profession should be the ultimate goal? Well, what professions? When our technical jobs are being outsourced, our middle class is decimated, by the time most kids grow up all they’ll have to do is punch the picture of the cheeseburger on the cash register. (Whoops! Political screed, sorry.) Maybe, just maybe, these kids, when they grow up and work their shitty two jobs just to make ends meet, would like to come home and read to escape, for pure enjoyment, for comfort or solace, or to make a connection with something deeper, rather than be the mindless automatons you, professor Kamil, seem to want. No imagination? No empathy? Just work, sleep, fuck, drink, back to work?

It calls to mind the central argument of the play (and movie and radio play and probably goddamn cave drawing its been done in so many mediums) The History Boys, where one of the pedants, Hector, wanted to instill a knowledge of poetry and language in his charges for the sake of that knowledge alone. To make them well-rounded. To be closer to that indefinable, intrinsic humanity. Professor Kamil is a shining example of our current education crisis, the “no child left behind”, teach to the test methodology that is inevitably going to produce a generation who have no critical thinking skills, no thirst for knowledge, no ability to question, and no curiosity. It’s not as if learning ends when one gets their diploma. Or at least it shouldn’t.

I’d love to rant more, or be more eloquent, but I have to go. I’m in the middle of a really good novel.

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2 Responses to Pottered: Is Our Children Reading?

  1. The Potter books are great, and the resurgence of interest in reading for pleasure among young people is fantastic. For inspiring so much interest in reading, J.K. Rowling deserves all the riches she has received. Christopher Paolini is benefitting from Rowling’s tilling of this fertile ground with his fabulous “Inheritance” series (2 of the trilogy so far, “Eragon” and “Eldest”), books that also are well worth the time to savour.

    However, having spent the last few years as a substitute teacher, I have found that there are still an alarmingly large percentage of middle school children who cannot read and are not very motivated to try to learn the skill. So I wrote a couple of books based on my observations of classroom behaviour of these young people. When reading skills are weak, they are attracted to “picture books”. That is, books with few words per illustrated page. They recognize them, usually, by the primary grades styling. There are some incredibly good ones of those, including the Dr. Seuss books, but few that challenge the reading abilities of young readers to expand their vocabularies or negotiate complex sentence structures to extract the meaning. My books, PUPPYFISH, and PUPPY GOES TO LAMBERGARTEN, (you can see how the even the titles invite young readers to “decode” meaning from unfamiliar words) attempt to offer low reading skill students at about middle school age to catch up from fourth or fifth grade levels (advanced 4th and 5th grade students are BIG fans of Harry Potter, too). The colorful illustrations (unfortunately) make them more expensive than I would like, but they are a key element in attracting those readers who most need the help.

    Parents, too, need to take more responsibility in sharing their pleasure in reading with their children. Reading bedtime stories and other read-aloud times are some of the greatest quality time you can spend with young people, so be sure, whether the young people in your life are your children or grandchildren, to take the time to read to them and with them. (Yes, I often read my stories aloud to my students, and they gobble it up like fudge brownies!)

    Although a few teachers and a couple of schools have put my books to good use, I hope that they will eventually gain wider use because we need to upgrade middle school reading skills if we ever hope to have a better educated crop of graduates. I am no fan of the No Child Left Behind strategy, but I am in favor of giving those who are behind the tools they need to catch up to the ones who are already soaring ahead of them. Narrative remedial reading books like PUPPYFISH and PUPPY GOES TO LAMBERGARTEN are desperately needed, and rarely available for those undermotivated readers. I wish I could afford to place them in every school, or even just to publicize them to every reading teacher in the country. In the meantime, take a look at my website, and consider who might enjoy them or put them to good use.

    Thanks for listening.

    Stafford “Doc” Williamson
    “Tomorrow everything could change. Tomorrow could change everything.”

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