Thursday, July 27, 2006

Summer Reading Lists

The Wall Street Journal has stepped into the "bash current books for kids/ young adults" arena with its editorial, Literary Losers : Summer reading lists are filled with uninspired choices. (Why do they think that they have to compete with Slate?) How's this for a nice slam at librarians:

But there are consequences. "Child readers haven't cemented their tastes," says Ellen Fader, president of the Association for Library Services to Children, which does not recommend many classics on its Web site. "Adults serve as intermediar[ies] in introducing books to young people." Which may explain why we're raising a generation of cereal-box readers.

Author gets extra bonus points for using Fader's own words against her.

Shannon Hale takes the WSJ to task in a wonderful post that addresses reading for fun, different reading interests for different kids, and the odd notion that the only good book is an old book in her blog post, The Older The Better. Don't forget to read the comments, where one poster points out that any book boiled down to one sentence will appear to be bad/ depressing/ boring/ fluff.

Shanon and many of the commentators don't bash the older books; in point of fact, not only do some of them talk about particular older books that they loved, Shannon also says that she agrees that classics have a place on summer reading lists.

Summer reading lists are a tricky thing. I read constantly as a child, and while I participated each summer in the local library summer reading program, I read because I loved reading. It wasn't to get the trinket or invite to the end of summer pizza party. I read anything and everything, classics included, finding them thru gifts, books at home, books at the library. If a character in a book read something, I wanted to read it.

I think summer reading is important to show kids that reading isn't just for school. It can be fun; and I don't mean fun books, because a classic or a tearjerker can be fun reading. I mean, that it's something you do because you want to. It's not something that one "has" to do but rather something that one "wants" to do. And it's my belief that the more a kid reads for fun, the more they want to read; the more they want to read, the more books they will read; and so for the non-reader, a classic isn't a good place to start; especially if it's a classic that was not written for kids. (And, for the record, not very classic lover will love all classics. I adore Austen and Bronte, yet cannot finish a Dickens novel to save my life. Give the wrong classic to a kid, and they may be turned off all classics.)

With that in mind, I don't like summer reading lists that are "musts", because what one kid will read and love, another kid will read and hate. Nothing kills the joy of reading quicker than having to read a book you don't like. Summer is about building the joy of reading. The best mandatory summer reading lists I've seen are the ones that have pages and pages of options for kids. Some examples: here (pdf file) and here (pdf file).

At my library, we don't have any "must" books for summer reading; I cannot speak for those libraries who do require a certain book to be read for the program, except to say that I disagree with that philosophy.

At the library, we create summer reading lists with suggested titles related to the summer reading theme; and we also do other book lists during the year. When the list is in paper book mark form (as opposed to online), I'm limited to the number of titles (16 max) that can appear. As a general rule, I don't include classics. Not that I have anything against classics; I also don't include popular titles. The reason is the same for both: I don't think Harry Potter needs me to promote it to get kids reading it; and I don't think Little Women needs me to promote it to get kids reading it. I see a list as being about getting kids (and their parents) aware of titles that they otherwise wouldn't know about. As I read the editorial, I look at it from the other side: the belief that an omission means that I don't like the book or that I don't think the book is worth reading. Which, personally? I think is overreading suggested lists.

In a nutshell, what I consider when creating a list:
  • Find books for the theme of the list.
  • Does the book "need" promoting for it to find readers? If it's a classic or very popular, I'll leave it off (as I discuss above).
  • Have I covered all interests? Even with a theme, is there a mix of contemporary, science fiction, historical, sports? Because I tend to prefer certain books, have I inadvertently created a list that reflects only my likes? Do I need to expand beyond the books I know? What about nonfiction?
  • Is the list diverse? Have I unintentionally created a list where only certain people show up in the books? Will the kids looking at this list fail to find something that reflects their world?
  • Are all reading levels covered? Usually, the list is geared towards age of the child; so do I have books that cover the wide range of reading levels that may occur in one age group?
  • How many copies are available at the library? Will there be enough to meet the need created by the list and to do displays around the list? If the library doesn't have enough copies, can we get more copies? Is it still in print?

What about the classics?

The library owns them. There are lists out there that are specifically about classics, or what books every high school student should read, etc. In doing one on one readers advisory, as I learn a child's unique tastes, I will recommend certain classics. They aren't being ignored.

For those of you who put together lists, whether for the library or your blog, what do you consider when putting together lists? For those of you who use these lists, what do you assume a list means? Have I left anything off the above considerations that I should be thinking about?

Thanks to Jen Robinson for highlighting this post and editorial.

Cross posted at Pop Goes the Library.

Edited to add: enjoy additional thoughts on the WSJ at Bookshelves of Doom and MotherReader. And Chasing Ray. And Fuse #8. And Finding Wonderland.


Anonymous said...

I don't know of any public libraries that have required reading for their SRP's, but oh boy do the schools. And the school lists can range from actually kind of interesting to truly...awfully...dreadful. Given a choice, most of the time kids tend to pick whatever's shortest.

Good news on WSJ: it's done a better job of making itself look uninformed than any critic could possibly do. :)

Liz B said...

Whatever is shortest: yes, as the kids look at the page length I find myself using that as a seller. For Airborn, as the kids look at it doubtfully, I talk about pirates and crash landings and adventure and end up saying something like "it only looks long."

On the other hand, I do have kids coming in looking for long books...but they are usually the ones who are already reading, rather than being forced by a list.

Then there are the "only if you have x copies" kids, both boy & girl, who will only read a book if there is also a copy of the same book for their friend(s).

Anonymous said...

Excellent points all. Thanks for the link, and for commenting on my site about this. I completely agree that the point could have been much better made about the classics not being dead. I also like your criteria for creating a reading list - I think that people will find it useful. And that none of us will be subscribing to the WSJ any time soon.