Teaspoons of News, January 16th
USM's Children's Book Festival

Dickens, Great Books, and So On

For people who read a lot about children's reading choices, Janine Wood's article "Please, I Want Some Dickens" in the Christian Science Monitor will sound familiar, as will the structure: get an idea in your head, don't tell anyone, and then bop everyone for not agreeing with your unspoken idea.

Influenced by William Bennett, Jr.,'s  guide The Educated Child, Wood wants her preteen son to read some Dickens. But why don't more people read Dickens? She goes to the library and sees mostly titles about "contemporary social issues." Then, it's off to the bookstore, where she finds only Gossip Girls and books about "intergalactic battles," yadda, yadda, yadda.  Wood makes disparaging remarks about a bookseller who mentions romance and chick lit to potential buyers. "I felt as though I were at Wal-Mart instead of the bookstore," she writes. And, of course, the bookstore employees don't measure up because they, too, have not read Dickens lately. I guessed they missed William Bennett's memo.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, say, about an inch, and suggest this: the subtext of this kind of piece is always "I'm smarter than you are." Which is too bad, because toward the end of the  article, Wood makes some good suggestions for creating more interest in the classics. One resource is the Great Books Foundation. That group offers a Junior Great Books series, which I checked out online. I was tickled to see Daniel Pinkwater's Blue Moose included in the second-grade anthology, along with Beatrix Potter's Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, Howard Pyle's Apple of Contentment, Kipling's How the Camel Got His Hump, and a number of folktales and other works. I have not seen or ordered these Junior Great Books, but they sound fun. Fun is good, and so are new places to find good reading.  So, thank you, "Please, I Want Some Dickens," for that.


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I'll admit this pushes my buttons. I think what amuses me the most is the comparison to the apparantly trashy novels of today with their "contemporary social issues such as anorexia, homelessness, divorce, and poverty"...what did she think Dickens was commenting on when his novels were first serialised? Want poverty, homelessness and dysfunctional relationships? Look no further than oliver Twist.

Good point!

Melissa makes exactly the point I was going to make... Honestly, why don't people put their brains in gear before opening their mouth (or putting finger to keyboard) ?!

I adore Dickens. I've been reading him since my early teens, as long as Shakespeare but not quite as long as Austen... No one made me read them though - I just picked their books of the school library's shelves and plunged in... And kept going back for more... Part of the problem now, I think, at least in English schools, is that teachers and children simply don't have enough time to foster/learn (respectively) an enjoyment of great literature. It's all about targets and bureaucracy run mad, here. I'm so glad I got my education 20+ years ago when we had time to spend on reading and enjoying classic literature. I've nothing against modern literature for children and teens (occasionally I envy them the wealth of wonderful books that are available), but I think one can better appreciate much of children's/YA lit. as a result of a grounding in classic literature. How much more sense does King of Shadows make if you know A Midsummer Night's Dream ?

[/rant over]

We use Jr. Great Books in our library program and in some classrooms here. We love them. They really are wonderful collections of short stories and passages from longer works that are fun to read aloud. The whole idea of reading the same piece over and over and digging more out of it each time is terrific. Great for teaching thinking skills as well as enjoying great literature.

Michele, I read Dickens as a teenager, too. "Teaching to the test" is a problem here in the States as well.

Cloudscome, good to know about these Jr. Great Books! I can't wait to check one out. I'm sure a library around here must have one. My parents have the (adult) Great Books set; those leather-bound, no-pictures-on-the-cover volumes struck me as mysterious when I was a kid. Plato? Who's that guy with one name? Funny.

My son read David Copperfield last year in 8th grade and totally hated it, but this year, he's reading Great Expectations in his English class and loving it. The biggest difference that I can see is in the way the books were taught. His teacher this year is having the kids read it in class in serial form, the way it was originally published. They are reading aloud and all are taking turns at it. Last year, the teacher had the kids read silently for part of the class and then also read at home.

The whole classics thing gets me going anyway. The so-called "canon" of classics leans so heavily toward white men of European origin that if we had kids read only those books, they'd have a pretty darn skewed world view of literature. I welcome the freedom we have now to stock our libraries with the best of world literature and not have to devote shelves and shelves to "classics" that are no longer relevant.

Reading the books both in serial form and aloud must make for a more fun experience. When I was fifteen or so, I liked David Copperfield, although my recollection of it is pretty dim at this point in time!

And for the other side of the argument, head over to Shannon Hale's blog. She's constantly campaigning for the re-evaluation of required reading for youth -- that the reason so many teens become non-readers is because the only books they are exposed to in school are by dead white British men.

Go here for more: http://oinks.squeetus.com/2007/01/seuss_for_the_t.html

As for the Junior Great Books -- they've been around for a while; my fourth-grade teacher based her reading curriculum on them back when I was a young'un in the mid-1980's.

I'll have to go see Shannon Hale's blog. Thanks for the tip.

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