Much of popular culture offers children and adults a continual education in instant gratification and escapism. Therefore it is necessary to seek out culture, such as good reading, which balances this. Parents especially need to offer their children culture that helps them to engage optimistically with life, build strength of character and form deep, lasting relationships with others.
In this article I’d like to encourage three things: first, the need to SEEK out good books; second, the need to make time to READ good books; and third, the need to DISCUSS the good books you read.
What can we learn from reading?
Culture: Good reading broadens our world and teaches us new things, and this is especially important for children. It helps to acclimatise them to new experiences, and they learn that they are not alone, that others have had to grow up and face challenges before them. It builds a healthy curiosity and they discover that reading and learning new things can be fun.
Humanity: Books are about people and ideas, and when we read good books we learn to go beyond a superficial vision of life. Good literature expresses the drama of life with problems and resolutions; it doesn’t paint an artificially perfect world, but a world richer for suffering and struggle and hopeful in spite of difficulties. We learn to understand people and to share common interests; we learn what others have already achieved for human development and so can carry forward what they have begun without reinventing the wheel.
Language: Good reading helps us to understand language, customs, traditions and cultural works, and what they signify. It makes us capable of speaking with others and making ourselves understood. It teaches vocabulary and gives children a higher aptitude for learning: it enhances concentration and discipline and the ability to listen. These skills are not given at birth but accrue over time and with practice, so anyone can develop them.
Character: Good reading helps to develop maturity in judgment and action and gives criteria for making decisions. We get the benefit of experience without actually having to experience things. Values can be grasped more vividly when we “live through them” in a book. We learn how to get up from mistakes by living alongside characters that do this. In addition, bibliotherapy is said to help all sorts of psychological issues: confidence, social connectedness, emotional intelligence, problem-solving and critical thinking. Children’s author Rosemary Wells suggests, “Screen-watching makes a child a follower and a consumer. Books are about the power of human ideas. Readers are producers and leaders.”
How do we encourage children to read?
We can only encourage reading if we are readers ourselves. Yet it’s important to remember that no one is born a reader; you just need to start. Initially reading is harder than other forms of rest (such TV or Facebook, for example) because it requires that we engage our minds; but as we form the habit we also develop a taste for it.
It’s important to create a reading culture in the home by building a home library, thinking of books that will particularly help your children. Bedtime reading is a very special time that forges a child’s relationship with parents and older siblings. It is good to read aloud so they hear the rhythm of the language and learn correct pronunciation.
We can listen to audio books on car trips, especially the classics which teach us about different types of human experience and can provoke wonderful discussions. If your teenagers are always on their i-equipment (iPhone, iPod, etc.), give them audio books to add to their music collection. Ultimately, reading should become a family value and good books treasures to be hunted.
What to read?
Reading impacts on our way of thinking, and this determines our way of living, so we need to consider well what we choose and what we exclude. It is important to seek out reading that challenges us and is not only for comfort; culture that nurtures wisdom, not lots of superficial knowledge.
Now I’ll run through some popular themes in contemporary children’s literature, both good and not so good. One is sentimentalism: if it feels right, it must be right. Another is superficiality and escapism: sometimes one needs a light read, but a whole diet of fairy floss tends to make one ill.
Many recent and popular books tend to be highly sentimental, such as Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, False Memory by Dan Krokos and The Power of Six by Pittacus Lore. Characters change on a whim, doing whatever feels right, then later they feel bad, but since it felt right at the time you can’t blame them.
Contrary to this we should be trying to teach children emotional intelligence which is to align one’s feelings with deeper meaning, so that, as C.S. Lewis said in The Abolition of Man, we feel delight in what is really good and aversion from what is really bad. In this way our feelings can help us to understand and seek what is good rather than pulling us in the opposite direction. Sentimentalism (in romance or violence or any other genre where feelings are manipulated for their own sake) can become a vicious cycle for teens that kills emotional intelligence.
Superficiality in literature is when it’s all about image, having a good time and living in a constant state of breathless excitement.
This is not reality; it’s a denial of reality that only makes it harder to cope with reality. If readers are constantly immersed in this level of consciousness, they begin to tune in to this level alone and miss out on so much of life — the richness of real relationships, ideas, and aspirations that make life so full.
Challenge young readers to go beyond this. Look for books that engage sentiments in something worthwhile, such as strong character development and real friendship. In books like Sherwood Smith’s A Posse of Princesses, John Flanagan’s Brotherband series, Wendy Mass’s Birthdays series, Christopher Healy’s Hero’s Guide series, Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl series, Sherwood Smith’s A Stranger to Command and Neal Shusterman’s Antsy Bonano series, characters grow and learn from mistakes, each person is appreciated for their own qualities and the peer-group dynamics are healthy. The characters in these books are all people you’d like to know.
Another negative but popular theme is romance or sexual attraction as the purpose of life. This involves intense attraction as well as love triangles/squares/pentagons — where everyone is in love with the same person, or everyone is in love with everyone else, because they’re all attracted to each other, so why can’t they just swap around?
Books like Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Halo by Alexandra Adornetto and Wings by Aprilynne Pike are just a few titles among thousands of “obsessive romances” published recently. How does this teach the healthy “give and take” and long-term commitment that good relationships require?
Instead, look for holistic romances: romances that involve the whole person rather than their merely physical qualities, and which show courage, humility, selflessness, generosity, intelligence and humour as attractive qualities to look for.
Aside from the superb classic romances such as Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Gaskell’s North and South, more recent favourites for teens include Sherwood Smith’s Crown Duel, Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl,Jackie French’s Matilda Saga and Leah Scheier’s Secret Letters (which is more a detective novel, but the two main characters have a great friendship with future possibilities).
Other troubling but popular themes that may be educating readers without our realising it include things like mercy-killing (Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein), where a person is shown to have a problem, and rather than trying to alleviate the problem the solution is to kill the person. Another is that life is meaningless and there is no human dignity common to all (The Fault in our Stars by John Green — a book which means well but is ultimately Existentialism 101 for teens).
Sex is a given in any slightly serious relationship (80 per cent of teen books), and there are now many different definitions of family — it’s no longer mother, father and children but whatever you want, including your pets (Chasers by James Phelan, The Future of Us by Jay Asher).
There’s the theme that “animals are people too” (The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate — Newberry medal winner this year), and the deconstructing and re-reading of history according to particular ideologies — where the Christian worldview is usually responsible for everything negative in the world (All That I Am by Anna Funder and countless others).
But then there are impressive themes such as optimism and hope in difficulties, goodness amidst evil and facing challenges with courage and perseverance. Some outstanding books include Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and R.J. Palacio’s memorable novel Wonder. These books explore the beauty of human goodness in times of great evil; they show how to maintain a sense of humour when everything goes wrong, and that it’s possible to rise above challenges and problems.
As mentioned earlier, part of the challenge is to SEEK out books that are worth reading, aiming for quality, not quantity. Aware of this, the bookstore I work for has developed a book review website called www.GoodReadingGuide.com, which researches and reviews whether books are worth reading.
It aims to give readers information about books so that they can make up their own minds about what they want to read. It suggests themes for discussion with children and offers filtered searches which help you find recommendations for particular ages and interests, for reluctant or advanced readers, something inspiring or humorous, etc.
Next, one must make time to READ. This involves scheduling it in, always carrying a book with you for those few minutes between appointments, and perhaps listening to audio books when driving or doing other manual tasks. It can help to form a book club and to keep a list of books you would like to read so you know where to start.
And on the question of e-readers over the real thing, it’s my opinion that e-readers can be helpful (especially when travelling) as long as you are disciplined with reading time and able to avoid the possibilities for distraction.
Lastly, it is important to think about and DISCUSS what we read, considering why we are reading each book and whether we would recommend it to someone else. When children and teens discuss what they read, it helps them to process it; books can raise many questions in a child’s mind, and going through it with them can help them develop reading maturity.
To challenge yourself (or your child) to explore beyond the realm of the comfortable, it can help to develop a personal reading plan like the one at www.goodreadingguide.com/Personal-Reading-Plan. It is heartening to see one’s progress on paper, evidence that one has broadened one’s mind.
I hope you enjoy the challenge to SEEK, READ and DISCUSS good books, and to stimulate in others the desire to do the same.
Clare Cannon lives in Sydney where she is editor of the www.GoodReadingGuide.com and manager of her family’s book business, which specialises in quality literature for adults and children. The above article is based on a talk she gave at the World Congress of Families held in Sydney (May 15-18, 2013).
Good books mentioned
See reviews at: www.GoodReadingGuide.com
Friendship and character
Sherwood Smith, A Posse of Princesses
John Flanagan, The Outcasts (Brotherband Chronicles)
Wendy Mass, 13 Birthdays (Birthdays series)
Christopher Healy, Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom (Hero’s Guide series)
Jerry Spinelli, Stargirl (Stargirl series)
Sherwood Smith, A Stranger to Command
Neal Shusterman, The Schwa Was Here (Antsy Bonano series)
Sherwood Smith, Crown Duel
Rachel Hartman, Seraphina
Jackie French, A Waltz for Matilda (Matilda Saga)
Leah Scheier, Secret Letters
Hope and optimism
Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray
R.J. Palacio, Wonder
Markus Zusak, The Book Thief