Friday, July 28, 2006

I Read Classics, Ask Me How

So the WSJ editorial got me thinking about children and classics and reading.

What makes a classic, particularly when it's a children's book? Does the definition include adult books? This can go on and on, looking at how something was originally published, who reads it now, etc. Not to mention various editions: to pick on Little Women, are you talking about the original version? Or one of the many edited down abridged versions?

Will a child love a book that he has been made to read? I tend to think not; especially if it's a child that is not a reader.

Is there value to reading classics? Yes. (I imagine that answer shocked some people!) I think it's good to read a variety of things. Just as "old" doesn't mean "better," "old" doesn't mean "of no interest to today's kids."

So the question becomes, how to introduce classics to kids in a way that does not turn them off reading and that does not turn them off classics? Because that is one of my big problems with the WSJ attitude: I am concerned that "force feeding" of classics results in hating both reading and classics. I want kids to read because the want to; and I want kids to read the classics because they want to.

So I throw this out to you: what do you suggest works for introducing kids to classics? What will make a kid "want to" on their own?

In looking back at myself as a kid, here are things that worked for me:

* Finding the book on the shelf. I read both Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice because they were on the shelves at home, minding their own business, and I was bored and out of books. Loved them both.
* Watching the movie/TV version. The BBC version of Brideshead Revisited is why I read the book, and then pursued other works by that author.
* Comic Book versions. This is going back a while, but there was a series of classics turned into comic books, fairly faithful to the originals. When I read the same books later on, in original form, it helped to know the story already, especially with some of the denser books.
* Good teachers. When I did have to read a book for class, for the most part I was fortunate and had teachers who didn't drain the joy out of a book. But, I also didn't have to read books for school (outside of book reports) until High School; before then, we had text books with short stories and excerpts from books, but I don't remember everyone reading one book in third or sixth grade.
* Books mentioned in books. If I was reading a book that had a character reading a book, I wanted to read the book.
* What my parents read; but I put this down rather reluctantly. Because it was never, oh, I see Mom reading this so I will; it was rather, because of what my mother read, they were in the house and available.

For those of you who read classics as kids: what worked for you? What made you pick up that book instead of something else? For those of you who have kids reading classics, what is it that made your child want to read that book?


Melissa Rabey said...

Oh, gosh, the Comic Book Classics! I read a ton of those in fifth grade, and you're right, they did help when I was ready to read the classics. And additionally, it was a good way to build up my knowledge, so I would recognize references to classics in other books.

I think it's important for kids to read classics, but I don't think making them read them is the answer. For me, I chose to read the classics to make me different from the other teens I knew; I liked feeling smart. So for me, reading the classics was a way to express myself. Perhaps that's what other teens are doing today, too.

Liz B said...

You know, you're right -- reading classics was a way to label myself; some kids listened to cool bands or whatever, and I liked reading Shakespeare. But I think its the type of thing you do for yourself; I don't think that someone else (librarian, teacher, parent) can get a kid to do.

Little Willow said...

Remind me to post an actual answer here this weekend. :)

Liz B said...

While I enjoyed the comic versions (because of it being a reinterpretation, I guess), I hate with the passion of 1000 suns the abridged "kiddified" versions of classics. Rarely are they upfront about it, it leaves the reader believing they read the book when they didn't, and parents are shocked when I point out the fine print in the front of the book. As a friend of mine pointed out in an email, one of the good things about older books is the language; readers get cheated out of that with abridgments.

And as for covers, absolutely. Covers do matter; as do the books being new & in good condition.

christine M said...

I remember reading David Copperfield in the comic book version - never did read the real version though. Oh well.

How about reading the classics to kids who might not be completely ready for them on their own yet. This way they can get used to the language and more advanced sentence structure.

Katie just read Alice in Wonderland. (unabridged - she doesn't want to bother with abridged).

Have the books available - make them fun - read them to your kids - but don't force them. There are so many wonderful books to read, why make kids suffer through ones they hate!

Little Willow said...

I have always loved big words and thick books. Thus, I have always liked classics.

My favorite classics that I first read as an elementary school student would be The NeverEnding Story, Anne of Green Gables, and Alice in Wonderland. It's no secret that I enjoy the books just as much now as I did then.

I read a lot of classics as a kid - The Prince and the Pauper, Peter Pan, Wuthering Heights, Little Women, Call of the Wild, White Fang, Pride and Prejudice, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court - because we had them at home, because the summaries sounded interesting, and/or because I thought it was important to read classics.

Anonymous said...

I definitely read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights because my Mom had a couple beautiful illustrated editions around the house. I remember looking at the pictures (which were pretty dark, actually) years before I would actually read the books, and always thinking "these are books that I'll read eventually." But like many of the other commenters, I read everything. I do remember reading the Little House books because my third grade teacher had them in the classroom. Also, when I was a bit older, my youngest brother enjoyed the Illustrated Classics, and I bought him a ton of them. I still feel a twinge of nostalgia when I see them in the bookstore.

I think some of reading classics is about fads, too. My nieces got into a phase, apparently a fad at school, or reading recent abridgements/reworkings of things like The Iliad and The Odyssey. I was pretty surprised, because it clearly came from what other kids were reading, but I thought that it was great. So, I think that if you can latch onto something that's cool, that helps. Right now, pirates are cool, so it probably makes sense for some kids to introduce them to Treasure Island. And so on.

Michele said...

I started reading Jane Austen and Shakespeare at 12/13 because I'd got bored of the children's books and books for teens hardly existed about 25 years ago. I confess I also liked reading them because they made me look clever !

I find the best way to encourage anyone (of any age) to enjoy Shakespeare is via a performance (film or stage) - sometimes I feel that people forget that Shakespeare wrote PLAYS not novels and they were written to be seen not read ! Even listening to an audiobook and reading along with it would probably do more for one's understanding than simply reading the book silently to oneself (although I confess I've not tried that out yet).

Emily said...

I had a big 3-volume hardcover anthology of children's literature when I was 5 years old or so, and it had a lot of single chapters of classic children's books; so as I got older, I got curious about reading the rest of those books.

I was a huge snob when I was a little older (10-11) and very impressed with my own reading ability, so once I got a feel for what books were considered classics I read them just to feel smart. ;)

Jess said...

I got into Austen and Bronte because my mom would watch film versions - I'd beg her to let me watch the movie and then I'd read the book, and knowing the plot would help me work through the language. I went through a phase in middle school where I read a lot of tough, dry books. I'm not sure why. I was stubborn. I felt like it was my duty to read them. I also liked classics because I liked anything old-fashioned.

Anonymous said...

When I was thirteen I picked Catcher in the Rye out of a box of books at a yard sale. I'd never heard of it. I think the title attracted me, and the plain red cover. I read the first page and right away it was like the narrator was talking to me. I had to keep reading, so I bought it. I don't think I found out it was considered a classic til long after that. It was never taught in any school I went to.

Out of all the so-called classics taught when I was in school, To Kill a Mockingbird was the only one I remember succeeding with kids as an entertaining read. Read it in sections in eighth grade with a class and it wasn't a chore at all. People talked about it, couldn't wait for the next part, read ahead, etc. There was no book like that in high school for me.

Anonymous said...

I hadn't really thought this out before your question, although I've been following the WBJ threads on lots of blogs. (My two cents at )
Now that I think of it, I don't think I did read any classics as a kid. The only things I think would qualify as that were the British books that actually ARE for kids--I did read Secret Garden in there somewhere, and I read all the E. Nesbit books--somehow, though, there's a connection with my Mom having grown up in England after WWII--I mean I also read all the Enid Blyton Fabuluos Five books (which are classic, but Classic?!) and Arthur Ransome's Swallows & Amazon series, which nobody over here talks about.

I even escaped most traditional classics in high school. My English department was (luckily) made up of mild hippy types from UC Santa Barbara & Berkeley--their department was WAY across campus from the admin buildings, and they taught me classes on Russion Lit, Peasant Lit, etc. The only real English Lit class I had was by the worst teacher in the school--can't even remember anything I read for her. I took SciFi & Fantasty and picked out my own books to read most of the time.

So...when I got to college and majored in English, that was my first, ever, exposure to Dickens, the Bronte's, even Mark Twain, really. And I dove in head first and couldn't get enough.

There's nothing wrong with assigning these guys at earlier ages--but my sense is that the kids who love them are the kids that have an absolute love of words, of how words can be played with, can sound differently on the page, etc. I'm the only person I've ever met who loves reading the Yorkshire dialect in Wuthering Heights, but the way my son is with reading funny languages in his books, I wouldn't be surprised if he joins me at some point. (Of course, that might be the only thing he likes about WH.)


Nancy said...

My parents' had a whole series of classics on the bookcase when I was a kid. It's funny because it never occured to me that this was unusual, or that it might have influenced my reading. But just now as I type this, I'm having a flashback to all those times I stood in front of the bookcase reading the titles... Doctor Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, Little Women, She, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol, Silas Marner, Treasure Island... So many choices for a girl who loved to read!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading your entry and all the comments!