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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

This is a wonderful book but …

I hear this all the time from our book club members. “This is a wonderful book but I could never get kids to read it.”

Why?

That’s my immediate and fierce reaction. Why?

Some of the books we’ve discussed in Chapter & Verse are Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt, The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages, Sweethearts of Rhythm by Marily Nelson. All three of these books, and a number of others, prompted this utterance from the media specialists in our group. As adults we admired the books, found the stories breathtaking, and yet we heard, “This is a wonderful book but I could never get kids to read it.”

Aren’t we training our kids to read the right kinds of books? Aren’t we getting them excited by reading out loud, offering sustained, silent reading time during school, taking them to the library, buying books for their shelves at home? Aren’t we doing the right things to create book-loving, book-yearning, book-discerning readers among the youth of the world?

Certainly there are dire articles that warn of children spending too much digital time doing everything except reading, writing, getting exercise, eating right, or playing outdoors. Are the science fiction novelists right in their predictions? Are we evolving into digital beings who will think, communicate, and create only in bits and bytes?

Why would a child not enjoy a particular book, chosen for publication by a children’s book editor, illustrated by a children’s book illustrator, that is offered up on their school library and public library and bookstore shelves for them to read and cherish?

“This is a wonderful book but I could never get kids to read it.”

Who says that? Librarians. Teachers. Teacher librarians. Not so much public librarians. Parents and grandparents don’t seem to have the same perspective. They often don’t read books before their children do—they’re relying on the experts to provide guidance.

When I read a book, trying to decide if children will want to read it, I am looking for a seamlessly integrated fabric of character, plot, setting, and emotions that pulls me from page to page with anticipation. I am looking for a book that tells me how the world works without tipping over into a sermon.

I try to stay in touch with my child-like reading self. I have devoured books for so long that it is relatively easy for me to picture myself sitting cross-legged on my queen-sized bed in my bedroom at my grandparents’ house, a room that wasn’t much bigger than the bed, looking out the windows at the trees in high summer splendor, knowing I should be outdoors playing, but completely engrossed with the latest Beverly Cleary, Trixie Belden, Landmark biography, comic book (much harder to get my hands on these), Gertrude Chandler Warner, or Madeleine L’Engle novel.

As adults, we forget that children aren’t looking for anything except a good story. At the base of it all, they are not critiquing character development or literary phrasing or pacing or the carefully calculated rise and fall of tension. Children are sponges ready to learn, but most of them don’t consciously open a book with the goal of learning. They are looking for story.

As adults, we know (or we learn) what makes a story good, but I fear that the reviewers and the mentors and the teachers get so caught up in considering craft that we stray to a place that occludes the story.

ReadingMy child-self asks questions while I’m reading. Do I detect an overlying concern with literary craft that makes the story feel pretentious? Is the author’s message coming through so loudly that its bleating distracts me? Are the characters’ emotions beyond my comprehension? Is the art so sophisticated that gallery-goers would admire it but I feel puzzled? Does the historical detail slow down my ability to turn the pages quickly? And, worst of all, is the story (all the parts) just plain boring?

In my role as children’s book reviewer, website developer, booktalker, and exchanger of information, I often read a book a day. Steve and I recently had an evening where we read and considered 48 new picture books. We discussed illustration and story and the balance between the two. Children don’t read books in this same way. They very honestly don’t care about the muckety things that adults talk over when they’re discussing children’s books. And yet that doesn’t keep adults from trying to give awards, select books, and predict which books will succeed.

It’s a quandary I return to time and again.

“This is a wonderful book but I could never get kids to read it.”

Why?

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