Read, Dammit!

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

By Britt Robson and Brad Zellar

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.

 

Brad Thompson: As a middle-school teacher in the inner city, where we have a large ELL [English language learning] population, my question is not so much "Do they read?" as "Can they read?" I can hand them To Kill a Mockingbird or Grapes of Wrath, and some kids can read it, but they just can't understand it. And then I've got kids who've been in the country for nine months, and they're expected to reach an eighth-grade reading proficiency right now. I'd challenge anyone to go to a country where they don't speak your native language and in nine months' time reach an eighth-grade literacy level.

Kids will seek out things that interest them, but they have to have some basic foundation of ability, and they may not have gotten that in elementary school, because they weren't even in the country for elementary school. But eventually they'll get to the point where they can understand and appreciate that these are skills they need to have.

You'll see kids who'll spend two hours reading Game Pro on how to get to the next step on some video game, and they'll struggle and they'll sweat blood to figure out what's going on. They'll talk to each other, and cooperate and work through those instructions because it means something to them.

 

Sarajo Wentling: So we all agree that kids are reading a lot of different things that are traditionally discounted as reading. The magazines, the Internet, the back of the cereal box, things that some adults may not approve of as quality literature, and therefore we might think that's not really reading sometimes.

Ann Melrose: I also think that teens are burgeoning adults, and we don't make dramatic one-size-fits-all statements about what adults should and shouldn't read.

 

Susan Marie Swanson: It's not the same for everyone, certainly. It really breaks my heart when we look at how many books a child is reading as a barometer for how our kids are doing with reading. It matters a lot more to me if a child wouldn't think of going on a trip without taking something along to read, that they have books that they spill pop on and that are essential to their lives.

 

Michelle Mlsna: In the short experience I've had in teaching in the inner city of Minneapolis, there hasn't been so much the question of "Are they reading?" as "How is that occurring?" I'm figuring out pretty quickly that if you give kids an assignment and tell them, "Here, take this home and read it," you know what? They're so busy with so much stuff that most of us never had to deal with. Most of my 16-year-olds, they've all got jobs, they're helping out their families, they've all got other stuff going on. But they love reading out loud in class, even the kids that I have that are reading at a third- or fourth-grade level are more than willing to stick their neck out on the guillotine and read Solzhenitsyn. They love to do it.

And that's the thing that I've found really exciting. The intrinsic motivation for a lot of them is just not there, and it needs to be constantly refostered. Yet when they realize that what they're reading and how they're reading it is such a vehicle for radical social change, when they realize that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was all about busting out of a system of thought, their acceptance of it is just voracious. I have a lot of Asian and African-American kids, and they loved that book. They didn't give a crap who it was, they were just like, "Wow, that is revolutionary. He was really bucking it. That's cool." And we read that out loud.

 

Thompson: We have a large Somali population, and the storytelling tradition in that culture is phenomenal. You watch some of these kids verbally telling their stories, and you have the most hyperactive kids just hanging on every single word. There's an energy behind it, and that may be the energy that's missing when you ask a kid to read 115 pages and supply that energy. In my class we'll sometimes have them act out a story that they've just read, and that brings it to life for them.

 

CP: Is there something inherently class-stratified in the notion that kids should read in the way that we're talking about it? This "hunger for reading" keeps coming up. Should we be concerned if kids are getting their imaginations fired by other forms of entertainment and culture as opposed to books?

 

Morgan: I think it's all part of the creative process. In the same way that every kid learns differently, every kid responds to words differently. And whether they're reading them, singing them, screaming them, it doesn't matter. In our society you have to have some facility with words in order to make it. A lot of the kids that I see in our field trips to the city schools have never owned a book in their lives, but when we have an author or an illustrator talking to them, the questions that they ask about the creative process are 10 times more important than whether they've read the book or not.

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.

 

CP: We all seem to be in agreement for the most part that kids are still reading, and that publishers and bookstores are making available lots of books that are relevant to kids' lives today. But we still seem to be skirting the issue of kids who continue to be resistant to the whole idea of books and reading. Personal experience and statistics would seem to indicate that there are still a whole lot of kids who aren't reading.

Hans Skott-Myhre: I want to say that I think the fact that we all seem to get so excited at the notion that kids are reading is an indication of a crisis in and of itself. Kids reading should be the norm, not the exception.

 

Palmquist: I should also mention that in my school library classes 25 years ago we were having discussions about how excited we were about the fact that kids were still reading, so this isn't a new phenomenon.

 

Wynne: This is something I wanted to throw out to the group earlier. What I heard is that our kids are reading more. But my question would be, is it just a certain group of kids that is reading more? Because if we take stock in the basic skills test in terms of literacy, those scores would certainly indicate that our kids are not reading more. So I think we need to get real here about what group we are talking about. And if there is this group out there that isn't reading, what can we do to help get them hooked up?

 

Thompson: The one thing they don't teach in the educational institute is that spin doctoring [to] create the interest that needs to be there. If might be as simple as, "This is a banned book; people don't think you should read it." Or, "Yeah, five people died in this book." Really? Then they'll read it from cover to cover looking for that.

 

CP: Will, I'd be interested to know if you run into problems with your friends trying to get them to read books.

 

Bellaimey: We have some neighbors--their whole world was a screen, whether it was the computer, the TV, or whatever game system they have. And they never read a book. But then, this is the interesting phenomenon, they got pulled into the "Oh, I loved the movie. Maybe I'll try the book." And that is not going to work for everyone, but it is something I think we're seeing more of now. With more and more books that are linked to other types of media, like movies and TV shows and whatever, that is a way to get kids to read.

 

Harris: I was happy to see Will here when I came in. I thought, "Oh damn, we got a youth focus group and we actually have a youth here."

 

CP: We made sure it was just a token though.

 

Harris: Will could be a 30-year-old white male and there might be no difference in what he is saying. But if we want to know why kids do or don't read, we should have them here doing these kinds of roundtable discussions and focus groups. And they're all not going to look like Will or talk like Will or come across like Will. But if you really want to know what they're thinking, that's the best way I can think of.

Some kids tell me that they do read, and then I have a great majority, like 80 percent, who are either silent to the question or admit, "I don't read at all. I got a TV, I got video, I got a game, and I'm going to do all of that." I know we implied that people go on the Internet to read. Well, I know people who go online to get sports stats. I know people that go on there to get pictures and download the movie stars and rap artists. But as far as going online to research an idea or concept or document, I don't see that. That would be an interesting conversation to have, about that group of people; not the ones who are reading or not all the ones who look like Will--and, I got love for you, man.

 

CP: Is this something where we just have to throw up our hands or is there a way for people in your fields to reach those people?

 

Wynne: I think that we live in a time where kids really don't read, and we in education have not taught them to be creative--how to read a book. You read a book: You need to visualize, you need to create the story. Everything today is boom boom boom. So it really requires a great deal of effort, and certainly skills and tools, for someone who is reading to visibly understand and create. And that's a lot of work. And I just wonder what that means for the society in which we live, where everything is spelled out; they leave nothing to be created.

 

Harris: You know, Spielberg said, in Time, when they were asking him what makes DreamWorks so different--he said that other people have been making movies inspired by dreams. We're going to produce dreams. That's not just a play on words. If your dreams are produced for you, we're talking about imagineering. We are talking about people taking away your capacity to imagine. So when you don't have that, and you have a bunch of words that look like bugs on a page that you have to make sense of, when you can just press a button and get your visual right now, I don't know what that does. I don't know how you combat that or challenge that.

 

Mlsna: It takes tons of time. We sit in our little groups in our English-department meetings. Someone will say, "Oh, I finished X number of books this semester." And I say, "I got, like, one book done." But [I know] they understood it. We're not pumping it out. Kids need to know that everything they are reading is valid. All the canon, all the hip-hop lyrics, it doesn't matter. It is all valid. And they have to be able to have a process to make it as natural and as supportive as their own spine.

And that is what is missing--from what I am seeing--in education. That they're picking it up on so many levels and they are not incorporating it as a philosophy of their own life. It is too artificial. It might as well be a blue-screen back drop. Because it just ain't part of their lives.

 

Skott-Myhre: I did a set of interviews with skinheads and punks in the last couple of years. Interestingly enough, they were some of the most literate people I have ever run across. Now why is that, but other disenfranchised kids are not? I think that with the skinheads and punks, they have an impetus, they are searching for something to support their position, because it sure as hell ain't out there in the general culture.

To the degree that you can get youth to have an impetus, some sort of a drive, that isn't available to them in the general culture, they are going to find literature useful to them. To the degree that they find everything they need in the general culture, then what the hell do they need to take time and read a book for?

 

Bellaimey: It seems to me that the best teachers are the ones who are a little bit off. You have one teacher who gives their kids Romeo and Juliet and says, [monotone] "This is Romeo and Juliet and it was written by William Shakespeare and blankety blankety blank." Then you have another teacher who sits the kids down in their class and puts in a tape of West Side Story and they go all the way until they get to the fight scene, and then he stands up and stops it, and all the kids go, "What's going on?" Then he hands out the book Romeo and Juliet and says, "Now this is a script to the movie you just saw. The movie is a little bit updated, but if you read it, you'll get to find out what happened." It is teachers like that who find the...

 

Harris: Did this happen?

Bellaimey: I don't think so [laughter]. But what I'm saying is, when you mix all the different levels--not just the reading, but everything else--that's when kids are going to latch on and be more interested.

 

CP: We should probably try to wrap this thing up. Anybody need to say anything they'll be sorry they didn't say when they walk out?

Wynne: I just want to close with the comment that I think it is one thing to be able to read and to choose not to read. I think it is another not to be able to read and you want to read.

CP: How many of those people are out there? How many do you run into?

 

Baum: There are a lot of them. They struggle. They really want to read and, man, it is just not easy for them. And not all of them are ESL kids. They might be really polite kids who have just been promoted and promoted and they don't make trouble, but they still sure can't read.

Wynne: It has been my experience that some of this love of reading that we have been talking about will not come with those kids and those adults. It will not come, and they will never reach those challenges.

Harris: I think about my dad. You know we were talking earlier and someone talked about kids dealing with full-time jobs. I have got a guy who is working two jobs and then trying to go to school. But it's like, if you jump back to my dad's time, he was working two or three jobs and trying to take care of his kids, pay the bills, and all that stuff. If I said, "I just read this book. You should read this." He'd look at me like I was crazy. "What do you mean a book? I've got work to do. I don't have the luxury of reading a book." The kids we work with, the ball got dropped somewhere. They don't have that model, that, "Wait a minute, my dad worked four jobs to get me to do this and do that." And I am just sitting here thinking that my dad and mom had five boys and we all read. To a greater and lesser degree, we were all engaged and in some way creative. But we were afforded that luxury.

Baum: Somebody made it apparent to you that it was a luxury. Your parents worked so that you could have that luxury. The kids that I have worked with, it is not part of their world; if they are going to do something for leisure, a book doesn't even enter into it.

Skott-Myhre: Young people live in a very different world than I do. And in some ways I think they understand a great deal more about it than I do. As a result of that, I think the values they live with are very different than the values I came up with, for better and for worse. Literature has to fight for a different space. It cannot simply hold the old space.

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