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In Which I Climb On My Soapbox...

'Scuse me while I do. Srsly.

This is a post as a writer and a parent.

For school, Miss E has to read a novel a month from the school library, from a provided selection of books, I believe. I don't think she's allowed to pull a book from the shelf by herself. Miss E is in 4th grade this year and reads at 4th grade or above because she's 10, not 9. She's by no means a sophisticated reader, though she's been tackling books that are complex (and some that aren't, and ignoring some that I'd love her to read). The novel was 'realistic fiction.' I don't know if they all will be or if it was just this month.

She selected a chapter book (novel) about horses, set in modern-day eastern midwest US. (Oh, how I know it well.) It had all the charm of the eastern midwest, because, well, the author happens to live there herself. We let her read it on her own. She asked us no questions about the content or any words. We assumed (stupidly) that the school had vetted the book as appropriate. When I read over her workpapers on the book, I realized that she had no clue what the book was about beyond a superficial understanding that the protagonist was someone who worked with horses, the horse had a problem, she solved the problem by having someone ride the horse. The Dude skimmed the book (being a fast reader) in half an hour and all became clear. The protagonist's best friend's parents are getting a divorce and the best friend is ashamed. Miss E doesn't know what divorce is, though she has friends whose parents are divorced. She's never known anyone going through one and has a weak concept of shame, too. The book deals with the girl's father dating again (and the girl's jealousy) a few years after her mother died. Miss E understood that the mother was dead, but the rest of it went over her head. I don't think she has ever considered that a parent might date someone else. It deals with depression and talks about drugs and antidepressants, in the guise of horses. Miss E knows nada about what depression is. Hence, her inability to articulate the horse's problem, even. No concept, no referent. The book labels someone as 'comic' because he dresses like a hippy and 'should have been born in the 60's.' He's a recurring character and apparently the author hasn't worked out that he really should have been born in the 40's or 50's to be a hippy. The book also talks about 'pairing off' and couches a lot of it as 'best friends' but it's a prelude to romance because the 'pairing off' includes the father dating. Waaaaay beyond Miss E and there's no way I'm going to discuss that aspect with her. I explained 'divorce' and 'depression' to a degree so she could grasp the point of the book.

And I've never mentioned that the book is 'spiritual.' Which means the protag talks to God constantly. This was the part of the book Miss E found totally unrealistic. Duh. She wrote 'gods are unreal' in her workpapers and I helped her adapt that to 'talking and praying to God all the time seemed unrealistic.' And when we say 'spiritual' apparently we mean Christian spirituality.

According to the author's own website, the series this book is from is listed as "teen." Not even middle school. Granted, I think she means 7th-8th grade, based on the protag's age, the very early teen years. But it most emphatically is not shown as a book appropriate for either 4th grade or 10 year olds.

In most of the above, I'm a concerned parent. But as a writer, I was put off by the author's personal prejudices that were blatantly on display. And by the mediocre writing. Serviceable. The Dude picked up several subplots, so that's something.

For comparison, I offer up three books Miss E slogged through this summer. They're by Lauren St. John. The writing is excellent. They're set in South Africa and Zambia and immediately sent Miss E to the globe and internet to learn more about these places, see photos. They feature animals. There is a bit of characterization of the animals, a bit of magic realism, but in general, they're realistic fiction. And deal with tough subjects, such as the death of both parents at the start of the first book, by fire no less. Miss E, naturally, preferred the two later books over the first one where the protag is grieving and learning to live with her grandmother. Like the protag above, she has special skills when it comes to animals. But the spirituality is broader-based, not restricted to Christianity. Miss E understood much more of the plot and subtext. The Dude and I read parts of these books aloud to her and she hung on every word. But she read one of them completely by herself and asked me questions about whether something was real or what it meant. A dialog with my child.

I do not want the school to ruin my child's love of reading, that they worked so hard to develop, by handing her mediocre works as examples of what you read for school reports. Especially when the work contains content that is way beyond her comprehension.

End of rant. I hope next month's book is better.

Frog Out



( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 2nd, 2009 01:15 pm (UTC)
Interesting for another reason.

Seems like E was reading for what she wanted out of the book, a good horse story. She wasn't reading--as many YA readers do--for teenage angst and "pairing off" and struggles with depression. I think a lot of kids read that way, looking for something specific in a book, and anything not related to that will not seem relevant and will slip away. I suspect MG fantasy is doing so well right now exactly because of this reading phenomenon.

But yeah, there's a lot of mediocre crap out there.
Oct. 2nd, 2009 02:25 pm (UTC)
I used to read a lot of Nancy Drew-style "girl/young woman as detective" when I was young. Cherry Ames, [fill in the blank] Nurse was a big one, as well as Nancy herself. I also read some Felicia Cartwright books (I am really showing my age!) where in the middle of solving the mystery, Felicia would show some poor deluded soul that he/she needed to accept Christ as his/her personal savior. I was ten or so, but I would just skip those parts and read to solve the puzzle. As Sarah said, kids can take what they want from books.

Good luck to Miss E! And good on you for keeping an eye on what the school is giving her to read. I do wish they gave kids more leeway at that age.
Oct. 2nd, 2009 02:31 pm (UTC)
I read all the Nancy Drews, but I was just a bit older than Miss E. I liked ND, but I wasn't reading her in order to do a book report for school, nor did my school offer her to me. I found her in the public library. By that age (5th grade) I had read widely in historical as well as contemporary and could adapt to the mores of the time I was reading about. Plus, it was a contest as to who could read the most books in the school year (I won). The teacher never did believe I had read all the books.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 2nd, 2009 05:41 pm (UTC)
I totally agree and the only reason I explained ANY of it to her was to help her complete the assignment. I have a copy of her original answers and it's so clear that what Sarah said is right. It's what I was trying to say about the South African animal stories. Eloise slogged her way through those with a lot of determination. She could tell me what was happening and what parts she liked and which ones she liked more. Much less of the story went over her head and she was clearly excited to learn more about the part of the world it was written about.
Oct. 2nd, 2009 04:23 pm (UTC)
You post reminds me that when I was a much younger Lawrence and attending 7th grade (aka, year one of Junior High), I had to read and report on Orwell's Animal Farm. To me it was just a book about talking animals and how some of the animals lorded it over and outsmarted some other animals, and that's what I reported on. Other students who had to do reports on the same book talked on and on about Russia and Communism. I recall being stunned, and wondering what book they had read.
Oct. 2nd, 2009 05:45 pm (UTC)
Oh that's a great story! I would have read about the talking animals, too.
Oct. 2nd, 2009 04:27 pm (UTC)
Ugh. What a horrible book. But one bad book won't kill her love of reading.

The teacher assigned this book to her? I wonder if the teacher thought about it at all?
Oct. 2nd, 2009 05:46 pm (UTC)
Librarian put a pile of books on a table for the kids to choose from, I believe. All the 4th graders are doing these reports.
Oct. 2nd, 2009 04:39 pm (UTC)
You might want to talk to folks with kids at the same age/reading level. If she is reading substantially above her grade level you will be running into a lot more of this. Divorce is certainly considered to be an age-appropriate subject. The dating angst is more YA, but if she is reading at the 5 or 6th grade level then it will crop up again.

Point of comparison: I have a 6th grade boy. He is 11 and he is reading the Eric Nylund 'Halo' novels (some people would consider this violent content, it is certainly mil-fic). He is considered to be reading at grade level. When I questioned the content, his response was "It can't be crap, it's Eric Nylund." (and He bought me "Signal to Noise" as a birthday gift:-D). Quite a few sf writers are supplementing their income by writing Star Wars/Halo/other franchise books. He now knows to look for certain names that also appear on our bookshelves.

Last year in fifth grade most of the girls and some of the boys in his class read the "Twilight" novels

In fourth grade he was reading:
the 'Franky K. Stein' chapter books (girl mad scientist)
the 'Akiko' novels and graphic novels (classic space opera; girl with ufo/alien friends)
'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' books (boy with social issues)

Oct. 2nd, 2009 05:56 pm (UTC)
I know what you're saying. She actually doesn't read much above her grade level, as a rule. She's able to, but not by much. She's had some learning issues. Until last year, her favorite tv shows were for pre-school kids. She's sensitive to a lot of content, is far less precocious than kids her age, esp. girls. In Kindergarten most of the kids had seen PG content and she was scared by G content.

Well, my dad always said that a librarian told him not to challenge what your kid reads, as long as they read. My issue was that this was for an assignment. If she'd read it all on her own, I wouldn't mind. She's asked for another one in this series and I found it through the public library. I made no comment on her choosing it and if she wants to read it, ok. I just found it interesting that she asked no questions about the school assigned book, but lots about the books SHE chose to read during the summer.
Oct. 2nd, 2009 11:18 pm (UTC)
If she likes horses, I'd recommend National Velvet, Black Beauty, and Misty of Chincoteague.

I also like the abridged classics series. These are sold in supermarkets and chain pharmacies around here.
Oct. 2nd, 2009 11:31 pm (UTC)
Yeah, no kidding on those. We've been trying, but anything Mom and Dad liked is suspect. You know, kids. I'd also add the Dorothy Lyons books about a girl and her horses in Michigan back in the 40's. Black Stallion. So many possibilities. Anyone got a good one about manatees? She's currently nuts about manatees and saving them.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )