Kids need to read, and have read to them, good, gutsy fiction! And more is better.
What is good, gutsy fiction? So glad you asked! Of course, you are not required to agree with my specific choices of fiction reading material… and naturally that’s perfectly okay. Yet I will take a stand that good, gutsy fiction provides us with exposure to challenging experiences and deep emotions of ALL kinds as well as a great story line.
What better way to ‘try on’ someone else’s experience than from the distance of fiction, experiencing a book that brings you to tears of grief and tears of joy, challenges you with ethical issues allowing you to explore your values, and describes different locations around the world in a way that makes them very real and present?
In a High School English class we were required to read A Death In The Family by James Agee. This is not a book with a lot of action. As the title makes obvious, it explores death… in an ordinary family in the early part of the 20th Century in Knoxville, TN.
Agee gently, yet powerfully, provides the perspective of the experience from various characters. I hated the sadness it provoked as I put myself in others shoes. Thought I was at risk of truly getting swept away by my feelings. Yet I learned otherwise. Instead, I grew… I learned I could move through intense feelings, I learned others hold different perspectives around the same event in some surprising ways.
In the spirit of telling the whole truth, that younger me didn’t have the sense to fully appreciate the English Teacher and his ‘required’ reading list even after reading the book… but I’ve certainly grown to appreciate it all today.
Because today I get it… I understand the way being read to, and reading books of different styles and narrative strategies can help us master the English language, help us become more articulate, which improves our chances of getting what we want.
And I have to admit I appreciate being able to understand references to literary icons. I mean really… who wants to look stupid or ill-educated by missing a reference to Dickens or George Eliot that might come up in some television sitcom? :)
Better yet is the wisdom that can come from reading good, gutsy fiction. Without the great stories I’ve read my world would be very small indeed… with far fewer experiences. I wouldn’t have as full an understanding of how it might feel to be a different sex or race or nationality. Fiction truly can take us to any place, any time, any experience… providing the vicarious experience that can prepare us for ‘real-life’ experiences ahead.
And I’m not just talking about the fiction being read by our high schoolers… the fiction we’re reading to our younger children needs to be good and gutsy too.
Several years ago I was delighted to run across a wonderful book, Heckedy Peg by Audrey Wood, that reminded me of stories from my childhood… you see, it’s a bit dark compared to the ever-shiny, sparkly, and ‘gentle’ storybooks that seem to populate today’s PC fiction landscape for young children. But I boldly decided to risk it… and read this book to a small group (10) of 2-5 year olds.
The children gathered around as I showed them this wonderful book with it’s amazing illustrations. As I started the story it wasn’t long before they were all leaning forward. Their faces were animated with delight, worry, fear, hope and relief as we went through this story where the children, dismissing their mother’s direction, are taken by a wicked witch named Heckedy Peg who turns them into food. Then the fierce (and quite graphic) confrontation between their mother and the witch takes place… resolved with quite a sophisticated twist. As the story ended, much to my surprise something that had NEVER happened before, in 18+ years of daily storytime… happened.
All of the children burst into applause!
WOW! What an amazing thing good fiction can be… combining literacy skills with stories that broaden our reach and understanding of why and how different people, in different circumstances, make decisions, mistakes, sacrifices, etc.
It seems to me in order for fiction to be any good there has to be an edge. The dark has to be dark enough to provide strong contrast to the light in order to stir any meaningful depth of feeling or thought.
And that’s why I’m leery of things like the new Common Core standards that states are adopting in response to the Race to the Top grant because they seem to require students to read considerably less fiction; instead they supposedly need to be exposed to “informational texts”… whatever that is supposed to mean.
What do you think? Equal time for good fiction… or more “informational texts”?