The trouble with reading

“I used to read just because I really liked reading, now the thought of opening a book makes me wanna puke.”

I felt incredibly sad when a 13-year-old girl said this to me yesterday.

I was doing an exercise in tense with some twelve and thirteen-year-olds in my teen writers’ groups. I asked them to write a one-paragraph recount of a single event from the school holidays they’d just finished. It was a straightforward activity where they’d write in first-person past tense and then rewrite the same paragraph in first-person present tense. The focus was not on the content of the paragraph, but on the process of identifying and editing consistent tense. I thought it was a simple activity that would ease the kids into another term of writers’ group. I was wrong. It created chaos!

They groaned and complained and tried everything tactic under the sun to avoid doing the exercise. Eventually I conceded.

“Okay, let’s just talk about it then.”

“Nothing to talk about,” they chorused.

“What do you mean nothing to talk about? You just had two weeks holiday, what did you do?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing!”

“You must’ve done something. What did you do after you got out of bed each morning?”

The discussion that followed was certainly NOT what I was expecting.

In my mind, school holidays meant chilling out with friends, maybe catching a movie or going shopping, sometimes a camping trip (even if it was in the 5 acre backyard), or (mostly) just relaxing in the sun by myself with a good book.

Reading  was my bliss. Everything else in my life melted away and I lost myself in another reality—a more exciting, alternate reality that was safer and kinder than the one I was living.  Reading created a space in my life where, for a few hours at a time, I didn’t have to deal with the stress or dysfunction that was my childhood. Reading was my peace. But I digress...

The kids in my writers’ groups are bright, engaged students and keen readers and writers. They hadn’t balked at a writing exercise before and I wanted to understand why. I targeted one of the more vocal/social kids and asked her to give me a blow-by-blow account of her first week of holidays.

“Homework, watch tv, wander around the house, more pretend homework...”

“You too?” one of the others asked.

I stayed silent as the conversation took off and the rest of the group joined in. I listened. And was surprised. And saddened. These kids spent their school holidays counting down the days until term started and they could get back to school. They didn’t have the freedom to just ‘play.’ They couldn’t have friends over or visit others and hang out doing kid stuff. Some didn’t have the freedom to choose what television programs or DVDs  they watched, or even what books they read. One even had the home wireless switched off before her parents left for work to prevent her ‘wasting time’ online.

Mostly, they had to do homework. But being in Year 7 they didn’t have a whole lot of set homework to do, certainly not enough to keep them occupied everyday of the holidays. So they did ‘pretend’ homework to appease their caregivers. They locked themselves in their rooms and spent the time online, or for those without access to internet, they read. Because there was nothing else they could do.

Their lives are about achieving academic success. And it seems that developing social skills and interpersonal communication skills that result from unstructured ‘play’ is not valued for these kids. Hearing them talk about how they feel being restricted to the family home, with or without anyone for company (some were only children with both parents working), was heartbreaking.

But I guess what was even more heartbreaking was witnessing the beginnings of the loss of reading for pleasure. Because, as they told me, there is nothing fun about being forced to read books that were not necessarily of their own choosing, just to pass the time.

Reading was becoming a pressure cooker—a vacuum into which they resisted falling. Resentment of all books was seeping into their consciousness. Some began to forget the pleasure of anticipation when they discovered a book they could really get into. The joy of browsing through a bookshop or library reading blurbs and flicking through the first few pages to find something that appealed was becoming part of a childhood they were being forced to leave behind.

As the pressure to achieve began to weigh heavily on them, reading became just one more thing they ‘had’ to do during an adolescence and young adulthood that spared no time for leisure in the race to university.

Those who managed to continue reading for the sake of reading, or reading for pleasure, did so as a clandestine activity for the more rebellious, as the older they became the more it was perceived as “time wasted” by some of the adults in their lives.

I’m not sure if it’s the nature of the selective school they attend, or if it’s a cultural thing (I suspect the latter), but I found it incredibly saddening. I know that literacy is a vital aspect to improving educational outcomes for all kids. But I’m not alone in the knowledge that literacy development will increase exponentially in kids across the academic spectrum if they can choose to read narrative that is relevant to them, rather than being forced to read for the sake of results.

Reading for pleasure is a joy that ALL kids need an opportunity to experience. And to foster a lifelong love of reading, we need to allow kids access to material of their own choosing, to read at their own pace, in their own time. Whether that is under the covers in bed at night with a torch, or on the lounge at home in the school holidays, please, just let kids read fiction.

 

Hunger Games and Chocolate Wars: suitable reading for kids?

A few weeks ago, an assistant school librarian asked me if I thought The Hunger Games trilogy was suitable reading for a ten-year-old. I couldn’t give her an opinion because at that stage I hadn’t read it. I said I’d get back to her and borrowed the books from the library to read.

I wish I hadn’t.

It’s not because the trilogy wasn’t a good read, it was. It’s an engaging, fast paced, action-packed story with characters that are flawed, and real. Suzanne Collins writes the narrative in the first person from the perspective of key character 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen.

The premise is a post-apocalyptic dystopian society where annually, each of the twelve districts of the country Panem must select two children between the ages of 12 and 18 and put them forward as tributes for reality TV program The Hunger Games. The Capitol celebrates the kids, parades them before the audience, then forces them to kill each other while the whole country watches the ‘show’ live on television.

It is violent, and terrible, and gut wrenching. Watching confused, traumatised children murder each other in a desperate bid to get home to their families is heartbreaking. And experiencing the story from a 16-year-old who volunteers to take her 12-year-old sister’s place as tribute because she thinks she has a better capacity to kill and therefore stay alive a little longer before meeting her inevitable demise, makes it all the more horrific.

My first response was to empathise with the parents’ whose children were stolen from them by the Capitol, the ‘government’ of Panem, knowing that of the 24 children taken, only one would return alive. My second thought was to wonder how young readers deal with the horrendous (though at times stylised) abuses depicted throughout the books.

So I asked them. Adults who had read the books expressed concern about the violence and told me they wouldn’t allow their younger teens to read them. They didn’t want them exposed to concepts and emotions they weren’t ready to deal with. But kids had a different view. I had the first book with me when I visited a primary school. One of the Year 6 kids (11-year-old) asked me what I thought; I told him I thought it was awful. He responded with a shrug and a dismissive “yeah, but people are awful to each other,” and then went on to chat enthusiastically about a particular plot twist in the second book of the trilogy Catching Fire.

I was stunned. The school is in a middle class area in the northern suburbs of Sydney and I pondered on the casual acceptance of violence and abuse in the experience of this little boy. I put it to the kids at the high school I was at the next day. And I was very interested to find a similar analysis of those who had read the books.

These kids were the target demographic of 13+ readers. They acknowledged its violence and the ‘awfulness’ of the plot and confirmed the acceptance of the 11-year-old about people being awful to each other.

“Didn’t you watch Kony?” One kid asked.

I did. And then I realised. In the global technological context of our current society, these kids know that such atrocities actually do occur. In other parts of the world kids their age do get stolen from their families, and are forced to murder other innocents, or be murdered themselves. They’re maligned and abused and have to do terrible things to stay alive. And governments do little to stop it.  And families grieve.

They get it. And I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. I guess kids don’t hold on to innocence as long as they used to.

Years ago at uni, we had a similar discussion about The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. The Chocolate War is still banned from some school libraries in the States because of its explicit and violent content. It is a graphic depiction about bullying in the context of a Catholic Boys School. It too, is real and haunting. It’s about a targeted campaign of bullying against a boy who refuses to take part in the school’s chocolate drive. The characters are flawed and real and there is nothing stylised about the violence and abuse depicted.

The adults are too preoccupied or too focused on personal gain and promotion to challenge the status quo and the victimised boy suffers endlessly and needlessly, powerless to protect himself. The book was first published in 1974 and was a real wake-up call to educators and parents about the nature of bullying. It sparked, and continues to do so, many discussions and debates, not only about the nature of bullying but also about whether or not children should have access to such reading material, particularly at school.

The Hunger Games discussions are reminiscent of these. I think that as adults we underestimate the capacity of children to process what they read. Whether or not we want to accept it, many children are aware—some experience personally—the reality of violence and crime. And stories such as these reflect that awareness and give it a context for which adults can then generate discussion with them about the hows and whys of such things.

So the answer I would give the librarian who asked me? It depends of the maturity of the child reader and the capacity they have to process concepts of which they may or may not have awareness. I would suggest a parent or other adult read the books first so that they might have an understanding of the premise and concepts, and keep the discussion going as the child progresses through the books.

I don’t agree with censorship, I do believe in the value of discussion.