Minneapolis high school students with no better than a fourth-grade reading level are clamoring to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich out loud. Their younger brothers and sisters at Sanford Middle School in Minneapolis are using their love of GameBoy to change the nature of how reading is taught. A group of homeless runaways gave one youth arts organizer a long list of books they were interested in reading, but when he went to the local public library, he couldn't find a single one. Meanwhile, he reports that 80 percent of the kids he sees don't care about reading at all.
These are just some of the anecdotes we heard during a recent City Pages roundtable on kids and reading. The image of kids cherishing books has always soothed the American psyche like a fuzzy pair of pajamas. Perhaps that's why the media now routinely show up in force whenever children and their parents camp out in parking lots awaiting the launch of the latest tome in the Harry Potter series. It's certainly why shrewd marketers like the National Basketball Association produce ads showing behemoths such as Shaquille O'Neal and Kevin Garnett reading Dr. Seuss to a ring of enraptured little people. And it's why we measure the civilization of other countries as much by their literacy rate as their quality of health care and unemployment figures.
But at a time when youth culture is increasingly influenced by the Internet and video games, when Eminem is the de facto poet laureate of the land, and when the income gap between the privileged and the poor continues to widen, the parameters of reading and literacy have changed. That's what we heard from more than a dozen roundtable participants--librarians and booksellers, authors and social workers, schoolteachers and administrators, and even a real, live teenager--when they joined us for pizza and conversation in our editorial offices on Sunday, November 10. The discussion was passionate and freewheeling, careening from the voracious reading appetites of punks and skinheads to the need to force-feed children To Kill a Mockingbird "in the name of literacy." Everyone assembled, we discovered, valued "reading"--but not everyone had the same idea of what that word means.
City Pages: Do kids read? Or more to the point: Do we lose kids as readers at a certain age? And if so, should we conclude that it's somehow inherently a bad thing that kids are feeding their imagination from other forms of entertainment and culture?
Will Bellaimey: I think it all starts when kids are younger. I have some friends who didn't read when they were in fourth or fifth grade, and now, of course, it's not getting any better. I also know kids who were total bookworms and now they don't read as much.
Collette Morgan: I know kids who are totally into gaming and spend half their lives on the Internet, and I'm always interested to hear what they have to say about reading. I don't think that the Internet and video games and those other types of entertainment are taking kids away from reading. In fact I think it's making them read even more. If anything it's putting more of a reading load on them, because they read so extensively on the Net. I notice that as the games and the Internet become more complex, what they want to read becomes more complex. You're not seeing 14- or 15-year-olds coming in to buy Bridge to Terabithia. They're buying A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. That's a huge jump in complexity, and whether they understand it on all the levels, their perception is that they do. I think the fact that kids are using e-mail as a communication tool instead of talking on the phone is making them better writers, and if a kid is becoming a better writer that means they're better readers.
Amy Baum: My impression is that kids are reading more stuff than ever, but it may not all be in book form. A lot of times they're reading other stuff that we don't classify as literature or they've moved up to adult reading. And for some kids, the reason that you find that they're backing away from reading, particularly male readers, is that they can't find their area of interest. It still hasn't been defined. And kids have pretty high standards. They don't want to read bad books.
Vicki Palmquist: We introduce so many dull books in the schools, or books that are probably not going to engage them, that I think we lose a lot of readership there. I also don't think things have changed for kids exclusively. We hear that adults are reading a lot less as well.
Reggie Harris: I'm more interested in the question of whether kids are being allowed to follow their heart, or are we stacking books in front of them that are from the canon of literature that we think they need to be productive and useful citizens in our society. In my approach to youth work, I see it two ways: Are you trying to bring youth in to occupy a position in a system that's obviously oppressing them, or are you trying to encourage, motivate, and support these kids who in some cases are simply trying to exist and seek out an alternative to that system. I'm not interested in making this group of youth literate in a sense that they know who Shakespeare is but don't know the history of Shakespeare and the revolutionary potential inherent in Shakespeare's plays.