It’s a good question to ask your students. If you ask them about “Literature with a capital ‘L'” they won’t know what you’re talking about. Classics? Old books? Books librarians shove in your hand, that have gold seals on them and are not good but good for you? Personally, I cannot bring myself to read “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” because it looked educational and had that seal. When it was made into an after school special, earnest people told me I should watch it. It has the same cover now as it did then, and I have a visceral reaction to what is probably a great read.
Their good books are different than your good books. Fact. As an adult, you’ve seen that face when you put the book in their hands. Blank compliance. A tinge of sad dread? At best, the bookmark barely moves from SSR to SSR. At worst, you find the book abandoned by the end of class. A few might acknowledge that this book or that assigned one was “okay”, but for the most part what they “discover” is much more relevant than what you put in their hands. Are “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “Big Nate” really more compelling stories than “Hatchet” or “Summer I Turned Pretty”? To a kid who hates school, yes.
That’s a good question; one that leads to the reason we read. For distraction? Yes, but…. To give us voice. Sometimes, like Greg Heffley or “Big Nate”, the reader can come up with an anecdote of equal humor and truth (not consistently and with great endurance, though). Sometimes, not. Especially when a feeling or experience is new. Then we seek a voice for that thing we cannot yet name.
Middle school is all about new feelings and experiences. Jeff Kinney is the voice of that. So is Riordan, Rowling, Paulsen, Duncan, Hinton and Pierce.
But why does Suzanne Collins enjoy continued success while other books (better books?) come and go? What happened to “Cat Who Ate My Gymsuit”, “The Pigman” or “How to Sue Your Parents for Malpractice?” Their covers look tired, but they are good stories. Right? While clearing a shelf, I came across the “Zanbanger” series–I loved it, but cannot get a kid to even try it. Since I was a teen I’ve wanted to read “Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich” because it seemed like something I wasn’t supposed to read (too “ethnic” for my preppy town), but my students can’t get past the cover and that they’ve never heard of a “hero” sandwich.
In the wake of the Orlando mass shooting, Maggie Smith‘s poem “Good Bones” went viral. It spoke for many who could not find the words. Sadly, this tragedy will pass and, unfortunately, be replaced by another by the time you read this. Is the poem still relevant? Does it still speak?
Focus on what it means to be a child. Now, what has changed as an adolescent? What are the secrets that parents have kept from you? Keep from you (perhaps they don’t know that you know)? Are there things you know but you know they don’t want you to know about (sex, drugs, dating, the truth about Santa….)? What are you discovering?
Now, look at what you consume. What do you seek out? How does the one question–the secrets before you–line up with that media you seek and enjoy?
How does it speak truth?
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.