Last week, researchers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville announced that they had completed a three-year study on children and reading. The study was based on the observation that students who don't read during the summer show distinct disadvantages compared to those who do. Summer vacation is, after all, three months long; and reading, like any skill (especially when you're young), is something you apparently use or lose. According to The National Summer Learning Association, to not read at all during the summer is akin to missing two entire months of school: still one more disadvantage in the long list faced primarily by kids from low-income households.
The research team discovered that simply providing children with twelve free books over the summer resulted in higher test scores after three years -- indicating that for a mere fifty bucks a head, this program might very well kick the pants off traditional summer school in terms of cost effectiveness. But the fascinating part, the most intriguing of the changes that distinguished it from an earlier study, was that the researchers didn't assign specific, good-for-you titles from the Childhood Canon of Quality Literature. Instead, they allowed the first- and second-graders to freely make their own decisions among 600 titles offered for free at a book fair.
So what did they choose? Not surprisingly, the kids overwhelmingly went for books that would make any Newberry Award-revering, New York Times Book Review-citing parent cringe. Let's just say that biographies of Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears and "the Rock" featured prominently among the choices.
Okay, let's get this straight: I'm not knocking the Newberry Awards. Obviously, there have been countless great books written for kids. I myself make my living writing for children (TV mostly, but also graphic novels) and what's more, not a few adults I know, including me, routinely buy and read middle-grade and young adult literature for fun. Who hasn't at least glanced at a Harry Potter?
But perhaps that's where the problem lies. We all want to share good stuff with people we love; that's human nature. But when there's an inherent power imbalance (i.e. like the one between adult and child), the well-intended recommendation can suddenly come across like a homework assignment (i.e. no fun at all.) And frankly, the intention itself may not be so great. Here in New York City, I've seen parents approach their children's reading choices with the same grim, laser-beam focus that they use to shop the right school, find the right piano instructor, buy the right educational games. A friend of mine recently freaked out when her son didn't get into a certain pre-school. "What's so great about it?" I asked. "It's an Ivy Feeder," she replied bitterly. In her eyes, her son (who is lovely, adorable, and bright) was screwed coming out of the gate before he even hit three.
My friend has her reasons for feeling the way she does; and what's more, I never get into the parenting choices of others. But as I said, I do write for children ... and as anyone who does the same understands, you don't really write for kids, but from your own memories and experiences of being young yourself. I recently wrote a YA graphic novel, Brain Camp, with Laurence Klavan (artwork by Faith Erin Hicks), in which the attempts of despairing parents to make geniuses out of their underachieving kids becomes the stuff of satirical horror. And from my perspective, having an adult choose your summer reading for you is just plain wrong.
I grew up in a middle-class family that highly valued reading; and yet my parents (benignly neglectful in a mildly Betty Draper/Mad Men kind of way) let us read anything we wanted. This led to serial obsessions with comic books, horror stories, books about cats, Nancy Drew, science fiction, books about time travel, more books about cats, historical biographies, books about witchcraft, and yes, books about celebrities and TV shows.
Sure, I read "good" books along the way. But frankly, it wasn't the content or the difficulty or vocabulary or even the beauty of the prose that had the greatest lasting impact. Free-range reading taught me to associate reading with pleasure at a very early age. It taught me how to browse and sample and to understand that finding a good book is itself an adventure and exploration. It let me experience the thrill of discovery and taught me how to figure out, by myself, what I liked and why I liked it ... who I was, in a very real sense. Above all, it taught me the discipline of reading: the ability to immerse myself fully in a book, to be caught up in a story, identify with its characters, and feel a meaningful connection with the author.
Kids have to figure out who they are in an active sense -- not just by declarations and feelings, but by their choices and actions. What more pleasurable and profound way could there be than by choosing what to read over the summer?