Thursday, August 25, 2011

Lifelong readers

For Cady Gray's birthday, we got her the last three books in the Harry Potter series.  Earlier this summer, she tore through the first four books in alarmingly short order and with great enthusiasm.  So it was a natural gift idea.  When she took them out of the bag, the first thing she did was stack them up and raise them over her head.  "Look at all these pages!" she crowed.

One of the best things about her sudden affinity for Harry Potter is the sight of her, night after night, with a giant thick book in front of her face.  When I trolled the library as a kid, I looked for the fattest books I could find.  The hours upon hours of reading that a tall stack of thick books promised filled me with joy.

My mom expressed a little disappointment that we were encouraging Cady Gray's interest in Harry Potter.  I get it; along with many others with her religious convictions, she disapproves of the series' emphasis on witchcraft and wizardry. "There are so many good books she could be reading," was her comment.

My way of thinking comes from a different direction.  Sure, there are good books and bad books.  But absent a moral opposition to magic, the general consensus from people who know about such things is that the Harry Potter books are good books -- imaginative, well-written, engaging, world-building.  And frankly, I'm less concerned that she chooses books based on a canonical standard of quality than that she chooses books.  That is, that she is reading, that she chooses to read and gets something out of that choice.

The cultural conversation frequently throws me for a total loop.  For years people have been apocalyptic about how reading is on the decline.  And then when there is a surge in interest and reading thanks to some massive hit series, suddenly the crisis is that they are reading the wrong thing.  A few months back,  one of my Twitter friends shared a link to a profoundly misguided essay on young adult literature that complained about a preponderance of dark themes. All of a sudden we're being asked to picture teenagers locked in their rooms devouring books that might harm them, when previously the hue and cry had been about their inability to sustain attention over a novel's length or remain interested in anything that's not a video game.  I don't get it.

It's not that the objections are without merit.  It's just that the priorities seem to be out of whack.  If we want kids to read, let's be happy when they want to read and are excited about reading.  That will lead to a lifetime of reading, and to encounters with all the classics we might think are the best the written word can offer.  A sure way to discourage budding readers is to tell them what they enjoy doesn't count as reading, or isn't worth their time -- that if they want to read, it has to be from this shelf of approved nourishing ingredients.  It's like telling kids who want to cook that all they can make is vegetables.

I could be completely wrong, and I suppose I'll know it when this generation of young people who have grown up on Harry Pottery turn out to be Satanist sociopaths.  Right now I'm too jazzed seeing my just-turned-seven year old showing a preference for the longest-lasting books she can find.  I've been there, and it was the best way to grow up that I could have imagined.


Brandy said...

"When she took them out of the bag, the first thing she did was stack them up and raise them over her head. "Look at all these pages!" she crowed."

When I read that I couldn't help but smile. Kids reading, and truly enjoying it, fills me with joy. You have awesome kids.

StephanieV said...

The last book of HP demonstrates it was "Christian" all along.

I agree with every word you said; HP is wonderful, wonderful stuff. According to an NEA report, for the first time in two decades, reading is on the rise in young people and JK Rowling should get a lot of credit for this. She made reading big fat books "cool" again.

Go Cady Gray!

Doc Thelma said...

StephanieV is quite right. The Harry Potter books have the most Christian symbolism shrouded in fantasy in them since the Chronicles of Narnia.

One of my icebreaker questions I use in my first day classes is Harry Potter, Twilight or Hunger Games? These series are cultural touchpoints in the way only network TV and blockbuster movies were to our generation. That that's a good thing.

Tell CG I said Wingardium Leviosa. (But FYI, she is too young for Twilight and Hunger Games!(