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Okay, everybody and their third cousin is writing about this today (see Leila, Jen Robinson and Shannon Hale for starters). There are a lot of things wrong with this WSJ piece and a lot of ways that the person who wrote this was very off base. I think there is a well intended message here (at least I hope there is), but what a poor way to try and convey it. All this piece has done is infuriate a lot of people who spend most of their time championing kids and reading. I have to agree a bit with Leila here - WSJ is dead to me.

For starters, don't have a person write about summer reading for kids who clearly is unfamiliar with the titles mentioned in the piece. It is obvious that conclusions were made here based solely on titles or blurbs and the writer has no idea what the books are really about. (All readers of Tangerine will agree, but even Travel Team is a deeper book then is hinted at here.) I could give you a very lame synopsis of The Secret Garden - "a young orphan finds hope and friendship while replanting a long ignored garden" and Wind in the Willows? Isn't that just about a crazed toad and his two friends who try to save him from himself? And 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - do you really think this was considered anything other than popular fiction when it was published? This was the type of books the kids read when they didn't want to read the stuff the grown-ups were reading.

Ironic isn't it?

In other words, you can make pretty much any book sound silly if you want to and you can also interpret blurbs and descriptions the very wrong way. And here's the big thing - the way your write about a book to get a kid to read it and the way you describe it in your master's thesis are two very different things. So don't judge a book by it's cover (or brief description), okay?

I received LIttle Women when I was ten years old and loved it. (I still have that original hardcover copy from my Aunt Irene - Christmas 1978.) But it's not such an easy book to read. There are huge portions in there about the girls emulating Pilgrim's Progess and lots of angst about things that would be cleared up if the girls would just talk about it! (Jo doesn't even know Meg is pregnant because it's not something people talked about.) So for a modern kid, it's no picnic - you need patience to read this book and I was patient because I was bored out of my mind. I read everything and anything but don't think that it was Little Women without Nancy Drew and Trixie Beldon and Harriet the Spy and a host of other books I've long forgotten. I read them all - not just the ones that would be deemed "more acceptable" by the terms of the WSJ.

I read it all and I kept on reading.

I just finished reading Here There Be Dragons and it is one great adventure story. Ditto Tanglewreck and Kiki Strike. I love Boy Proof and Queen of Cool, Cecil Castellucci's unorthodox modern romances. I thought Open Ice was an excellent coming of age story for athletes and King Dork is just wonderful for teenage iconclasts everywhere. Dairy Queen and Love, Cajun Style are sweet, smart and funny. Corbenic is outstanding fantasy, From Charlie's Point of View a most unusual mystery and A True and Faithful Narrative a wonderful piece of historic fiction.

All of them are new books, none of them are classics. Is the fact that I read and enjoyed them proof that I am lost in a useless (and apparently tragic) "comfort zone"? Has all chance of making me a highbrow reader gone? Should my mother feel guilt ridden and sad over this?

I don't think so.

To the WSJ writer of "Literary Losers" - have you ever read The Seven PIllars of Wisdom by TE Lawrence? Have you read Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth? Have you read Siegried Sassoon's Memoirs of George Sherston? How classic is your taste? Do you read mysteries on occasion? Do you reach for a Robert B. Parker sometimes? Do you relax with a good book about baseball or basketball?

Do you read the comics in the morning?

In other words - I've read easy and I've read hard, and I bet you have too. It's summer time. In my house the other night it was 85 degrees and my son only wanted to watch Tom and Jerry reruns on the Cartoon Network and we let him. It was so hot, we all watched Tom and Jerry. Kids spend all year being told what to do, what to wear, how to act and where to be. In the summer they get to breathe. They get to play. And hopefully, they spend some time reading. The librarians know this is an opportunity to get them hooked - to show them that books can be enjoyable and not just important (in an "important to western civilzation kind of way"). They are recommending books that are not vapid, but still enjoyable. (I didn't see the Gossip Girls on this list, did I?) They are giving the kids a break.

Can you imagine? Giving kids a break.

And then this is what happens. One day they hear about The Three Musketeers. Maybe it's in class, or maybe they see something on tv or maybe they even see the movie at Blockbuster. It doesn't matter how they hear abou it. But they get a little curious and they go looking for the book. They see that it's big and the words are unfamiliar but because they have been reading for awhile now, because they are comfortable with books, they are not intimidated. They check it out. They open the cover. They read the great classic.

They read it.

That's how I read The Scarlet Pimpernel - thank the Anthony Andrews movie on late one summer night on PBS. But mostly, thank the children's librarians who always let me check out what I wanted and never said I was silly or stupid or foolish for wanting to read about girls and dogs and fun. Thank them for giving me the reading space to get ready for the big stuff.

WSJ, leave book recommending to the librarians - this is their job and they are very good at it. Why don't you try and save the world in a more informed manner - or better yet, why don't you read the books you write about first. Then articles like this wouldn't happen in the first place.


Thanks for a great piece! I enjoyed your comments, especially your whole-hearted defense of reading, and what makes you read. I have to add, too, that I've read young adults books recently that absolutely took me outside of my comfort zone (Inexcusable, Yellow Star, Kind of a Funny Story, Stay With Me, How I Live Now, to name the few that most quickly come to mind). And when I feel like crawling back in to my comfort zone, I think that this is my right. And the right of kids on vacation, too.

Thanks for linking!

The thanks go right back at you Jen! The whole idea of having to read only weighty classics when you're young is insane. The whole WSJ piece was insane, really.

I just passed on requesting The Boy in the Striped Pajamas....I just couldn't go there again - I need a bit of a Holocaust break. So much YA fiction is actually really intense but I don't think a lot of adult reviewers/writers see that - or even look for it.

Bottom line, they think they know everything from just a cursory look and really, it's the librarians who have the most insight as to what is going on out there in the genre, and what kids might want to read.

Great post -- couldn't agree more. The fact is, for the most part, no one needs recommendations or pointers to the classics of children't lit; the new stuff though, parents and kids may not be as familiar with. Particularly disturbing since we are truly in a golden age of lit for kids of all ages.

Excellent post. I couldn't agree more--and I couldn't have sait it better. (BTW, I love, love, love your blog!)

Great post. After reading what you and some others wrote, I went ahead and phoned the professor to ask her about the WSJ piece. I found a smart, funny passionate person who had pretty much been quoted out of context. Here's my brief interview with her:

Love your blog! Thanks again!

Gwenda - you're so right about the classics. Does Black Beauty really need to be included on any lists - or The Secret Garden? I don't remember having any trouble find those books - heck we even had a whole set of classic comic books in the house!

Pooja - thanks!

Paul - Great job running down the quote. Everyone was thinking she was taken out of context and now we know. I'll spread the word!

You are right on the money. As an author of one of the 'cereal box' books mentioned in the article, I'm glad to hear that not everyone agrees with the WSJ.

Janette Rallison

Complete agreement: nice post. Thanks!

Thanks for a great post. As a middle school teacher, I have daily experience with the struggles we go through to get kids to read, and choose books, on their own. Much of the problem is that there seems to be only two types of books promoted in the media and general society--it's a *classic* or it's a *bestseller*--unfortunately, neither of these methods include the most important question--will it interest the child? It doesn't matter if the book is War and Peace, Nancy Drew, or a book entirely devoted to tanks in WWII--the books need to be interesting to the child--and putting meaningless labels and values on them helps no one at all. If they are meant to read through the complete works of Shakespeare, they will--but you can't force a reading habit on anyone. You have to cultivate it by making reading something kids feel comfortable doing on their own.

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