In this age of denouncing the US public school system as a bloated and inefficient, I would like to take the time and publicly credit my love for reading to the very same U.S. public school system. In the days before PC’s, when cable television was a rare luxury, my third grade teacher Mrs. Puka (pronounced “poo-ka” and that was her real name) would bring a television into class twice a week and we would watch a show called THE BOOK BIRD. (Double-click the link below).
The host and creator, John Robbins, would introduce a book and some of its characters. A narrator would read portions of the book as the viewers gazed at an original illustration. Another portion from the book would be read, but this time someone would draw the scene as we listened to the reading. The narrator would stop at a “cliffhanger” moment and Robbins would encourage the audience to go find the book in the library. It worked on me, twice.
The first time was with A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. Robbins hooked me from the beginning, and when he was done, I stopped at the school library and checked it out. The next week he did THE DARK IS RISING. (I also found it in the school library.) After that, I no longer waited for The Book Bird to offer a title. I looked for books on my own and became addicted to a lifetime of recreational reading. For that I thank John Robbins, Mrs. Puka (yes, that was really her name), and Hawthorne Elementary School in Kennewick Washington. (Thank you Hawthorne Elementary Library too.)
From then on, even High School couldn’t kill my desire for recreational reading. College came close, but today I’m still reading—and yes, even writing my own fiction. One would think that our school system would have learned to nurture an attitude of life long reading all the way through high school. That simply isn’t the case past middle school. Today, High School works pretty hard at killing off the recreational readers. I don’t blame our school teachers for this anymore. I blame the teachers who teach our teachers.
In the modern University, the supposed font of all knowledge in our land, books from 1967 and newer that are marketed to young adults (readers from grades seven through twelve) are often referred to sarcastically as, “kidie lit”. So when a state taps our Universities on the shoulder and asks what books to we “require” our children to read and use as the “official” canon of literature, they offer things like ALL’S QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, CATCHER IN THE RYE, ETHAN FROMME, THE GREAT GATSBY, FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, and ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN. You know, the “IMPORTANT BOOKS”. Of course these books could be argued to have shaped and changed the face of American literature, but how many kids today (or yesteryear) really care, or like reading them? Yes, I’m guilty on both counts. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with these, but so many teachers today will not use current popular fiction to build our students into tackling such books.
Adults like me that turn to University MFA programs to perfect our writing often find very little offered in course work for this audience. In 2009 few places offered MFA’s (Master of Fine Arts) for children’s and young adult literature (YAL). I only found a handful, but things may be different now. So I took the next best thing, education classes that taught teachers how to use books written and marketed for seventh to the twelfth grades.
My instructors never looked down on YA literature as “trashy, second-rate,” titles, though there are titles that certainly fit that category. What my University professors endeavored to pass on to us as students (and those future teachers),”if a student isn’t reading well, they’re not learning.” My instructors pulled out an arsenal of first rate books written for seventh to twelfth graders and made us teach them to each other. They even found titles marketed to adults, but co-opted by kids.
Of course, I don’t wish to denounce classic literature. These are books that have stood the test of time, and for good reasons. Though some of them really could be retired and replaced with others. Wouldn’t it be great if the Ph.d’s that keep telling our state legislators to use tired and irrelevant books would also tell those same legislators to allow equal time for schools to introduce some “new” classics?