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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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