Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Are Your Kids Reading the Right Books?

     My mother hated Nancy Drew -- I wasn't even allowed to spend my birthday money on her! -- and for the life of me, I could not figure out what grudge she held against the intrepid Titian-haired sleuth.  Only as an adult was I able to unravel the mystery:  Nancy wasn't serious enough.  She didn't have a horse named Black Beauty.  She never traversed The Bridge to Terabithia.   Let's face it:  Chances were slim that our Nancy ever would meet John Newbery, much less take home one of his medals.

     Like many parents and even some teachers, my mother believed that to become superior readers, children must read the "right" sorts of books.  I've even known a few purists who question whether interacting with certain kinds of text can legitimately be classified as "reading."

     Take comic books, for example.  For someone so biased against a particular teenage detective, my mother had no problem parking me in front of the comic book rack at our local grocery store.  While she was thumping cantaloupes, I was bonding with all manner of questionable characters:  Archie and his gang, Dennis the Menace -- the Crypt-Keeper!  A complete waste of time, right?  Actually, I can remember more than once raising my hand in elementary school to relay geographic gold mined from these "worthless rags":

(Do you know what "poi" is?  Well, I do!  I spent one summer in Hawaii with Dennis the Menace!)

     Graphic novels pose a similar dilemma for today's parents and teachers.  Do they "count" as actual reading?  I, myself, was skeptical at first.  But Scholastic's Using Graphic Novels with Children and Teens asserts that they often "contain more advanced vocabulary than traditional books [as well as] a range of literary devices, including narrative structures, metaphor and symbolism, point of view, and the use of puns and alliteration, intertextuality, and inference."  (That's a really long way of saying "They count.")  Any librarian worth her salt is now stockpiling graphic novels, including the Japanese manga which breathed new life into the languishing genre:

     This year, Volumes 1, 2, and 19 of the Fruits Basket series made The Top Twenty-Five list of books most frequently borrowed from my middle school's library.  Am I baffled by their popularity?  Yes.  Does that matter?  No.  Students who never before cracked a book are now snarfing down graphic novels as if they were M&Ms.  That's persuasion enough.  Remember:  The only way to improve as a reader is by reading.  With time and improved reading skills, many graphic novel devotees finally gain the confidence they need to tackle text-only publications.

     One last story.  When I was 19, my family took a summer vacation to England, Spain, and Scotland.  As we wandered the streets of Edinburgh, discussing tartan displays and other Scottish curiosities, I contributed some tidbits I knew about bagpipes:  for example, the fact that it's a double-reed instrument like an oboe or bassoon.

     "I never knew that!" my mother exclaimed.  "Where on Earth did you learn about bagpipes?"

     Unable to suppress a smile, I delighted in giving the answer:  "Why, from Nancy Drew!  The Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes"  That was, hands down, my favorite part of the trip.