Read, Dammit!

Everybody believes that teens should be reading. The kids have other ideas.

They're interested in how to create and how to connect with art. Every kid does that in a different way, whether they're playing role-playing games or they're playing music, but reading has to play a part in that, just for the facility with words or language. Obviously it's terrifically hard when it's not your native language. Are those kids allowed to express themselves in their native language? Is there an outlet for their creativity in that way, using those words?

 

CP: Do kids respond to books that accurately represent the world they live in, or are they primarily looking for escape?

 

Bellaimey: I think it's important to let kids choose what they want to read. I think it's really bad to try to force a certain kind of book on kids that adults think is really good for kids to read because it's going to teach them something. It can be a great book, but essentially it's still a book that adults think kids need to read.

 

Liz Wynne: Several times I've heard the phrase "forced reading," and I'm about to have a fit over here. I think the whole approach needs to be cut and paste, and part of that is through variety. But I also think in the name of literacy there has to be some "forced" reading. I think these forced readings--the way we use them is not independent and removed from everything else, but it's all deliberately tied into history, so that when kids are studying history it comes alive and they have a better understanding.

I think there is merit in the fact that, all right, maybe you're not interested in To Kill a Mockingbird, but in the name of literacy I think you should have a clue as to what it's about. And I think for some of these kids who don't have an opportunity to have books in their homes--I think all kids should be exposed to this knowledge, and I don't think economics should dictate it. And I think it's a big part of the responsibility of the school to do just that.

 

CP: On a practical level are books now as relevant to kids' lives as they were before?

 

Baum: Aren't we seeing more books than at any time in history?

 

CP: Yes, but we're seeing more cable television shows as well.

 

Baum: But people are buying books, so they're either using them to prop open their doors, or they're actually reading.

 

Harris: I think it's a given that books are important and there are a lot of books being sold. But there are also a lot more tennis shoes being sold than there were 20 years ago. I see books as a commodity that a lot of time and money are being invested in, but that doesn't take away from their importance. Would Eminem outsell To Kill a Mockingbird? Hell, yes--that's an automatic. Eminem is also on the front page of the New York Times. The kids I'm working with, and maybe it's because of the situation they're in, their experience is more pressing. They're interested in reading, but they're interested in reading about what they're interested in.

We put up a book list, and the kids were writing down all the books and magazines that they wanted us to order, and like maybe 70 out of 100 we'd never heard of before. So I went to the bookstore and the library, and they not only didn't have these books, but they'd never heard of them. So it's not a question of these kids not knowing what they want to read; they know what they want to read. They want something that's going to help them figure some stuff out. I'm not interested in escapism, and most of the kids I work with know there's no such thing as escape; there's no such thing as outside. They're trying to figure out how to navigate this inside. They need books that are relevant.

 

Swanson: There's some literature in the mainstream that's dealing with those issues as well. There are all sorts of really powerful writers, very together people, and very mainstream.

 

Harris: Mainstream is safe. Mainstream is the knowable. We know what's there. The kids that I work with aren't interested in the knowable.

 

Swanson: I don't think any good literature is safe.

 

Harris: What I'm talking about is books that are questioning gender, books that aren't giving them "the black story." They're defining and redefining what black is. They don't want the story about the Indochina kid that's supposed to illustrate that because this sort of thing happens to Indochinese people we can all relate to it.

Swanson: But there are writers who are doing the things you're talking about. There are writers like you who are writing books for these kids.

 

Bellaimey: I think what we're saying is that it's fair to put a book in front of a kid and tell them that they need to read this, but it's not fair to put a book in front of a kid and tell them, "This is what you're going to find out. It's going to tell you that you're going to discover this particular thing." Because 10 people could read the same book and find something else in it.

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