“At Least They’re Reading” is not good enough
The first time I heard the phrase, “At least they’re reading,” was when Harry Potter first became popular. It was said as a way of applauding the craze, because kids (teens, young adults) were reading again. That was about 15 years ago. What’s sad is that for many, that has been the extent of their reading.
My 22-year-old daughter was talking about her co-workers recently, and what they talk about on break. Since she is an avid reader, I asked her if she talks about reading with her fellow employees. Her response: “The ones who do read just read Harry Potter over and over. That’s about it.”
“At Least They’re Reading” is not good enough
I was comparing this to the time in 2001 when my nephew was in elementary school. He was about 9, I think. The Lord of the Rings had just come out in theaters and he was going to read the book before he saw the movie. He took the book to school and showed his teacher. Her response? “You can’t read that. It’s above your level.” So ended his foray into actual literature. (Don’t even get me started on AR levels.)
Ah, well, at least they’re reading, right?
I’m not knocking Harry Potter. In fact, I’ve never read it, so I can’t speak on it personally. But popularity doesn’t equate to great literature. And reading the same book or series repeatedly doesn’t equate to being well-read.
“We try hard to give our children appetites for fine art, good music, and quality poetry. Our culture tries even harder to give our children appetites for cartoon and pop-culture art, childish and pagan music, and puerile poetry. When they sometimes ask why we don’t read a particular book, listen to certain kinds of music, or watch Saturday morning cartoons, we use the illustrations [of a simple childish drawing of a girl and a beautiful piece of art]. The subject is the same in each, but which is more interesting? Which is more real? Which tells a story? If we say no to some things it is because they are “stick figures.” We believe our children’s minds are made for better appetites. God doesn’t want us only avoiding the ungodly things; he also doesn’t want us to let mediocrity crowd out excellence in our minds. He wants us to train our appetites for beauty and excellence.” -Clay and Sally Clarkson, Educating the Wholehearted Child
It’s no secret that the literacy of Americans has taken a downward spiral in the last 100 years. Just compare the reading material from your own childhood to what’s available today. If you haven’t walked into a bookstore or a library and perused the youth section, you need to. Go ahead: I’ll wait…
A word about beginning readers. We strongly object to Goosebumps and Spinechillers books, as well as to Sweet Valley High and other lightweight romance series directed at young readers. “At least they’re reading,” parents sigh. But these books are the literary equivalent of TV cartoons. Just because your child develops a taste for cartoons doesn’t mean that he’ll then go on to watch National Geographic specials. The cartoons train him to pay attention in five-second bursts and tech him that he doesn’t need to think in a connected series of propositions because bursts of images will work just as well. In the same way, Goosebumps and Sweet Valley High books develop a child’s taste for short sentences, simple sentence structure, easy vocabulary, uncomplicated paragraphs, and shallow, simple plots. This won’t help him make the transition to decent literature; it may teach him to turn away from anything that makes his brain work too hard. A diet of Goosebumps does not promote the patterns of thought that produce intellectual and personal excellence. – Susan Wise Bauer, The Well Trained Mind
There are so many books to choose from today that you can easily walk into a library and grab a huge stack of colorful children’s books for your kids on a weekly basis. They may look enticing, and they may occupy your children happily. But are they beautiful language for the mind?
We’ve had our share of silly books in our house. It’s kind of hard to avoid them! Two of my girls have read through several Barbie easy readers, and after seeing a popular Disney princess movie they want to pick up a picture book with the same characters. But oh, the disappointment after reading really great children’s books! It’s clear that those “movie” books are purely for making money. There is little thought or art involved. The storyline is shallow, the language is utilitarian. Check for yourself; read a children’s book based on a popular cartoon and compare it to The Adventures of Peter Rabbit, Frog and Toad, or The Hobbit.
It’s been my experience that when children are exposed to good books, they quickly get bored by twaddle. My kids have actually asked me if we could just stop reading a book that was boring. It was boring because the story went nowhere. I was so glad they noticed it, too. In fact, it was a great opportunity to compare it to other great books we had read together.
“It is not possible to repeat this too often or too emphatically, for perhaps we err more in this respect than any other in bringing up children. We feed them upon the white ashes out of which the last spark of the fire of original thought has long since died. We give them second-rate story books, with stale phrases, stale situations, shreds of other people’s thoughts, stalest of stale sentiments. They complain that they know how the story will end! But that is not all; they know how every dreary page will unwind itself” – Charlotte Mason, Education
Even Worse Than Twaddle
What Charlotte Mason didn’t even have on her radar is the deliberate swaying of young minds through social justice activism in the form of colorful children’s books. Scholastic, a leader in children’s book sales and publishing, has released their new school year catalog, and … “it’s a huge pile of trash. Cheap ideas, cheap writing, cheap characters, and cheap books. It’s a tragedy this company sells so many garbage books to so many schools and teachers who obviously can’t tell the difference between Geronimo Stilton and genuine children’s literature.” (Joy Pullman, The Federalist)
You know Scholastic: they set up shop every year as a “book fair” at your local public school so children can bring their dollars and shop unsupervised from the collection of identity-politics-literature. Teachers and librarians also select the latest books from Scholastic for use in the classroom. What they serve up is twaddle mixed with critical race theory and intersectionality — otherwise known as victimhood.
Between video games and text messaging, today’s young people—literally and figuratively—don’t get out much. (Intellectual Takeout)
I would venture to say that it’s not just young people anymore; it’s everyone who was raised on this diet of colorful, empty books instead of a love of great literature.
Charlotte Mason writes prolifically about the danger in twaddle, and how it sets a child up to feed on the “scraps” throughout their lives.
“Many who would not read even a brilliant novel of a certain type, sit down to read twaddle without scruple. Nothing is too scrappy, nothing is too weak to ‘pass the time!’ The ‘Scraps’ literature of railway bookstalls is symptomatic. We do not all read scraps, under whatever piquant title, but the locust-swarm of this class of literature points to the small reading power amongst us. The mischief begins in the nursery. No sooner can a child read at all than hosts of friendly people show their interest in him by a present of a ‘pretty book.’ A ‘pretty book’ is not necessarily a picture-book, but one in which the page is nicely broken up in talk or short paragraphs. Pretty books for the schoolroom age follow those for the nursery, and, nursery and schoolroom outgrown, we are ready for ‘Mudie’s’ lightest novels; the succession of ‘pretty books’ never fails us; we have no time for works of any intellectual fibre, and we have no more assimilating power than has the schoolgirl who feeds upon cheese-cakes”
However, growing up on beautiful literature has the opposite effect. When you read aloud to your children or let them read from really good books, they learn to appreciate great writing, they get caught up in wonderful adventures, they learn vocabulary far beyond their grade level, and their intellect grows by leaps and bounds.
Children who read and are read to score higher on vocabulary exams even without using an actual vocabulary curriculum. Ask me how I know.
Children who read and listen to great literature when they are young develop a healthy appetite for ever greater (and more difficult) books when they are grown. Ask me how I know.
It’s no secret that exposure to many good books in childhood gives children a greater advantage than children who do not read or get read to. But don’t just expose your children to any and every book on the library shelf: choose time-tested classics that are well-written. Keep the twaddle to a minimum, and eventually your children will choose the better books for themselves every time.
Don’t misunderstand me: fun, colorful children’s books with Batman or Barbie are not the enemy. I know all children will find themselves drawn to a colorful (and possibly annoying) book from time to time. All of mine have! The key is to treat those books like candy; let them have fun with silly books on occasion, but feed them a steady diet of great literature most of the time. They will quickly grow to appreciate the good stuff.
“A nation becomes what its young people read in their youth. Its ideals are fashioned then, its goals strongly determined.” —James A Michener
So how do you choose? I get this question ALL. THE. TIME. And I won’t leave you in the dark. Start here:
While you’re here, visit my Knowledge Keepers Bookstore! In it you’ll find the books and the stories that have shaped this great country, the books that influenced our founders and our ancestors, the books that Americans have mostly ignored or never heard of, but the good books that we should all read and protect. Join me in saving Western Civilization, one book at a time!
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