Gawker 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.