Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Next Generation of Readers

I was one of those kids. You know the ones - who sit in the shade with their noses buried in books, when they're "supposed to be" racing their bikes up and down the street with the other neighbor kids. Or the ones who take books along with them to slumber parties. Or snuck one under the table when it was supposed to be family dinner time.

Pretty much nothing could yank my nose out of a book once I'd started reading. I was about eight or nine when I first remember becoming completely obsessed. It was via a copy of Little Women. I don't know if it was the whining little sister I identified with, or the dashing Laurie I already swooned over, but I have vivid memories of sitting in a corner and dropping tears on the pages of my mother's copy when Beth died.

Even as a child, I was a voracious reader, and so I needed more books - LOTS more books. At nine, Ramona was already a bit young for me, but I read all those. Then I plowed through Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret? But after that, for some reason, all I really remember reading was The Babysitter's Club (ad nauseum) and Sweet Valley High (though I never did like those girls.)

For a couple of years, for some reason, that was pretty much all I found. One bright shining spot was A Wrinkle in Time - oh, goodness, I think ten-year-old-me still has a girl crush on Meg Murry - and another less sparkly one is The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.

By the fifth grade, I was getting pretty tired of EVEN MORE Babysitter's Club (obviously, I was never that fond of children.) But still, every once in awhile a book would come along, now for class reading, that would make me re-obsessed with reading. The Devil's Arithmetic and The Giver ignited my love for dystopian (yes, I know The Devil's Arithmetic is Holocaust, but still dystopian, no? Not trying to diminish it, obviously.), but when no more of those books for children could be dug up for me in the library, it was a huge bummer. I remember being so frustrated about having to pick up those serials again.

But somehow, just at the right moment, my fifth grade teacher got it. She knew I had to read and she knew it had to be something good. I'll never forget the day she handed me a copy of Jane Eyre.

I. Was. In. Love.

And it was about more than Jane and Mr. Rochester, although they remain my absolute favorites to this day. I could read grown-up books! And, even better, my teacher thought I was smart enough to read grown-up books! I read Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. I read Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion (oh, Captain Wentworth!) I tackled A Tale of Two Cities and The Count of Monte Cristo.

I was reading about love! And horror! And social politics! And corrupt government! And starcrossed love! And war! And revenge! It was absolutely amazing. (I thank God every day for that teacher) And even though it was all in grown-up books, I understood everything. I loved it. And I wanted more.

This experience of being a mildly precocious reader has left me with a couple of realizations as an adult:

Kids can read books written for adults, and they should be able to,
but
They shouldn't HAVE to.

When I look at my kids, I want them to be able to get their hands on books that are written for them, that feature protagonists with whom they can identify, but that are smart enough to challenge their hungry little minds. I want the books to take them to new worlds, make them believe in impossible things, and tug at their heartstrings. I want the books to acquaint them with sadness and fear, and tough situations. I want them to drop tears on the pages of a paperback (or reader screen) because the words on the page are so powerful that they've just had their little hearts broken.

In the book-publishing biz, we hear a lot of talk about what will sell. I guess that I wish, twenty years ago, there had been a lot less talk about what would sell and a lot more talk about what would do all that stuff I just said above. Maybe then there would have been more Middle Grade Count of Monte Cristo on the shelves in front of me, to balance out all the Babysitter's Club.

So. Today, I thought we'd do a bit of cheerleading.
Or, you know, copious cheerleading. I love cheerleading.

I, for one, am looking forward to hoarding some of my YA favorites for my kids to read. Here are my top three loves for that particular purpose right now:

Break by Hannah Moskowitz
Possession by Elana Johnson
Graceling by Kristin Cashore

All very different - Contemporary, Sci-Fi/Dystopian, Fantasy. Wildly divergent protagonists on all levels. Some have swearing, some have sex, all have kissing. All are multi-layered and ripe for wonder, excitement, discussion, and obsession. There's something about Hannah's books in particular that are dear to my mother's heart, because I can shove them in my kids' faces and say, "See? Teenagers can write important things, too."

Here's where my CPs come in. (of course!) We're all on the tough road to publishing, and some of us know that the books we're querying now might not make it (chv'sh ptuh ptuh ptuh). But I'll be darned if my kids aren't going to have the chance to read about conflicted Kelsey, spitfire Maggie (and dreamy Tommy,) brave Grey, smart Avery, stubborn Tam and Izuko, and schizophrenic Alex.


It is at this point that I take a moment to reflect on my gratitude for e-readers. 

At the end of the day, I really don't care what sells. I want to pass stories about bravery, hope, and believing in oneself to my kids and all their cutie friends. Because even if they never get published by a Big Sixer, they're the stories I wish I could have had twenty years ago. Maybe, just maybe, one of them will make one of my kids fall in love with reading.

And I'm sure they'll never, ever forget it.


Your turn, sweet readers! What books made you fall in love with reading? Which ones do you wish were around when you were a young reader? And which ones are you looking forward to passing on to kids you know?

15 comments:

  1. What a lovely post, Leigh. I was a big reader as well when I was a kid. I remember reading The Babysitter's Club, though I wasn't too fond of those books. I remember reading Number the Stars and loving it. I loved the Dear America books as well. To this day A Wrinkle in Time is one of my favorite books.

    I didn't read many adult books. The only one I can remember reading was Wuthering Heights, which I adored. I loved Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, and of course J.K. Rowling.

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    1. I remember thinking TBC was so TRIVIAL. But, yeah. The problems in Number the Stars and A Wrinkle in time were pretty darn real, lol. I think that's why I loved them.

      It's so funny how tastes differ. I HATED Wuthering Heights. But I think it's just because I was too impatient to decipher the weird moorish dialect. :)

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  2. The first books my kids are getting are Harry Potter. You know, once they actually learn how to read. But I think I'll only give them one a year, so then they have to work their way through.

    But yeah, I agree completely. All I really had to read was Harry Potter, because I wasn't into adult books back then. I would have killed for some good YA. (And, of course, some awesome CP books.)

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    1. Yeah, so...this really shows my age. Because HP didn't even come out till I was in High School. But I'm already reading the books to my kids aloud. Totally magical.

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  3. You are so right! There wasn't nearly as much YA around when I was a kid as there is now, and I went straight from reading stuff like Sweet Valley High and Point Horror to adult fiction, but with a few exceptions (Jane Eyre being one!), I never really fell in love with it. It wasn't that I couldn't understand it; I just didn't connect with it, somehow. Discovering YA was a revelation. 98% of what I read now is YA – I LOVE writers like Hannah Moskowitz, John Green, Kevin Brooks… and too many others to name!

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    1. Ahhhhhhhhhh another Jane Eyre lover!!!

      I read 98% YA now, too - I just don't have patience for the navel-gazing and weirdness that I find in most adult fiction. :)

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  4. What a great post! I always say that, with everything you can say about Twilight, one really great thing it did was open the door for a lot more YA. (Hey look, we can make money in this market!) :)

    Yep, I definitely remember reading all those you read when I was young. I remember reading Wuthering Heights when I was like 8, and feeling all grown up--until I read it again a few years later and realized that, the first time around, I didn't know what was going on at all.

    And yep, Chess, I'm definitely looking forward to giving my kids HP!

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    1. I LOVE Twilight. If my kids read it, we're going to have a lot of conversations about how boyfriends SHOULD behave, but...yeah. Just irresistible somehow.

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  5. When I was a kid, my big brother was an English lit major in college and I would steal his books from his room when he wasn't looking (yes I was THAT bratty little sister :P). So my childhood reading involved some of the Babysitter's club and Sweet Valley High (which my very elderly grandmother threw a fit about because she thought it was too old for me), but mostly things like Shakespeare (Midsummer Night's Dream FTW!), lots of poetry, and all the adult Sci-fi/Fantasy novels I could get my hands on (Piers Anthony, Terry Brooks, etc.). YA had not yet exploded and really, most of what I read was not technically age appropriate (Brian Jacques Redwall series was one of the few that was). But I loved it all and it definitely played a role in shaping my education. When I got to high school, I'd already read half of the assigned books in English.

    I don't have kids yet, but when I do, I fully intend to let them read whatever they want. I also plan to have a fabulous library by that time for them to choose from :) And I completely agree with what you said in a tweet about talking to them - communication and context is KEY.

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    1. Okay, but you weren't THAT bratty sister...because normal kids steal things that aren't books!

      I really came to love poetry in high school...Tennyson....*swoon*

      My husband has promised the kids E-readers and whatever books they want as soon as they learn to read. Believe it or not, it's been a motivator for my 4-year-old. I think he doesn't know he's getting one of the ones that ONLY reads books LOL.

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  6. I had 30 or 40 of the Babysitter's Club books. And I read the Christmas Carol version of Sweet Valley High until it practically fell apart... where Jessica's unicorn poster came to life and showed her the error of her ways, Ebenezer Scrooge style. I also loved Christopher Pike, and Anne of Green Gables.

    And if I do have kids some day, and they don't love to read, I'm pretty sure I won't believe they're actually mine.

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  7. I've always devoured books--from the kidlit section in our library to historical fiction and everything fantasy. Interestingly, we've always had a good share of teen fiction here. The books I grew up reading would probably still be classified as YA now. And not TBC (although I read those too, and anything Enid Blyton for that matter) but detailed accounts of the Crusades, of the Hundred Years' War, of futuristic feminist utopias, of knights and science fiction and politics and otherness and abuse and war and identity.

    Interestingly, because these days bookstores here are only just now beginning to 'discover' YA. All those books I mentioned were published between twenty-five and fifty years ago.

    I kind of want to read them all again now.

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  8. I couldn't imagine reading those adult books as a kids.

    I fell in love with Enid Blyton's The Famous Five books when I was a kid. In junior high, I loved horror and Sweet Dream books. I lived for those. :D

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  9. I remember devouring Little House on the Praire and the Anne of Green Gables series. In middle school, I read scifi and epic fantasy then mostly required reading until Harry Potter reminded me of why I loved books in college.

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