As long as kids enjoy reading, does it really matter what they read?

readingGawker ran an interesting article earlier this week that referenced an NPR piece on children and reading. The basic point of both articles was that children are reading at a lower grade level than in previous years, and that classic books have fallen out of favor in preference of books like “The Hunger Games.”

The comments on the NPR article were fascinating. Many people criticized NPR by giving so much attention to Renaissance Learning, an organization that promotes reading and other basic skills. The people commenting pointed out that while Renaissance rates “The Hunger Games” at a fifth-grade level, they give similar ratings to other age-appropriate, thought-provoking books.

Here are some examples of other books they rated, and said were being read in high school classes:

“Night” by Elie Wiesel (4.8)
“The Lord of the Flies” by William Goldman (5.0)
“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee (5.6)
“Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck (4.5)

The point made by many of the commentors was that complicated language didn’t automatically make a book better, and that simpler language didn’t make a book worse. I agree that the four books above, all at a similar grade level to “The Hunger Games,” are books that can lead to thought-provoking class sessions.

I also noticed a number of books on their list that were at a considerably higher reading level. Shakespeare plays tended to be on a tenth-grade level, and “Frankenstein” was the highest rated book I saw, coming in at 12.4.

I think the articles cherry-picked the data they wanted. It’s true, from looking at the list, that Dante, Browning and Dickens seem to have fallen out of favor, and the English major in me cries, but the practical part of me acknowledges that many of the classics have little relevance to the school children of today.

It’s important that children read and learn to enjoy reading, and the articles completely missed that point. My son went through a Dean Koontz phase in middle school and read every Koontz book we owned. Nope, not Dickens. But as a parent, I was delighted that he was reading and enjoying it.

This issue can’t help but remind me of my high school sophomore English teacher, who handed me a copy of “The Ninja” by Eric van Lustbader (my first exposure to explicit sex), and subtly introduced us to Greek comedy by convincing the three ring leaders in class (myself included) to pass around “Lysistrata” (in which a village of women protest their men going to war by withholding sex; hilarity ensues). She got that sometimes you have to get to students from where they are, and not always from where you’d like them to be.

So I say, fine. It’s better that young people read “The Hunger Games” and learn to enjoy reading than read nothing and never learn to love it. After all, there’s plenty of time to read “Bleak House” as an adult.

3 Comments on As long as kids enjoy reading, does it really matter what they read?

  1. I was a decent reader in the fourth grade, but I didn’t read for fun. Then I borrowed a book called THE SECRET HORSE from the library and got snowed in. I read the book and fell in love. From that point, I read every horse book I could find, then all the dog books, then other books from authors like Mark Twain, Ben Bova, and Shakespeare.

    In high school, I took English with the brightest kids in school and blew them away in discussions of books by Hawthorne and Crane and realized I’d found my strength and my future. I got a Bachelors and Masters in literature and teaching then most of a Ph.D. before I ran out of money. I taught on the rare occasions I could find a job.

    I then followed my second dream of being a professional writer.

    None of this has made me financially solvent so the moral of this story is one good book can lead to a love of reading and learning, but, for pity’s sake, don’t become an English major or a professional writer if you want to earn a living.

  2. Just picking a nit, Juli, but I think you’ll find William GoldING wrote Lord of the Flies. William GoldMAN wrote The Princess Bride (among many other novels and screenplays). Though I’m sure Lord of the Flies would be even more of a page turner if Goldman wrote it.

  3. @John, good catch. You’re right. Apologies to everyone for that!

    I like the Goldman version of Lord of the Files, though. It would have been a lot more fun, and I’m sure I would have enjoyed being forced to read it a lot more.

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