Why Won’t My Kids Read My Favorite Old Books?

July 2nd, 2009

Note: I’ve been bad about posting on this blog and I know it.  It’s just that with various kids home (the camp situation is sporadic), I don’t have a lot of time for writing these days and the little I have goes to the projects that have deadlines.  So forgive me.   No matter how little I actually post here, I am still happy to receive emails through this blog and will always respond to them. 

The following is a post from my other blog, www.bookstorepeople.com.

Right now my 9-year-old is working his way through The Phantom Tollbooth–arguably the most influential book of my childhood–and when I hear him chortling in glee or he comes running in to read me a funny passage, my heart leaps with the pleasure of knowing my child is coming to love a book I too loved when I was his age.

I have to stop to savor the moment because it’s so frigging rare.

I have tried over and over again to interest my children in the books that I loved when I was a kid, and over and over again I’ve found myself defeated, sometimes in the starting stages (“This just doesn’t look good to me”) but more often–because they’re good kids who do want to please me–after a few pages or even a few chapters have been essayed. The two main complaints? “It’s boring” and “It’s too hard.”

I’ve discussed the first issue with a lot of people, including our wonderful lower school librarian, and we all agree that the issue is probably that most books being written for kids today just bristle with action. From Harry Potter to The Lightning Thief to more girly books like Ella Enchanted or even something like The Clique, modern kids’ books start at a frantic pace and don’t let up. They’re plot-driven and full of action and as soon as our heroes get out of one adventure they’re plunked face down in the next. An adventure doesn’t have to be anything mystical or epic, of course–it can be a date or a job or a school test. The point is just that there’s little time for introspection or character development because so damn much is always going on.

I once tried to get Johnny to read the book I thought was the most exciting and action-packed of my childhood: Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. Anyone else read that one? You had two cousins, cut off from their home and inheritance by an evil nanny and her cohorts (the parents had supposedly perished in some distant accident), sent to some horrible workhouse orphanage, their only friend a young boy who helps them escape, and–most exciting of all–one of them has to eat RAW EGGS for sustenance because they’re essentially being starved. My god, what’s more exciting than eating raw eggs? (I still remember the description of how they slipped down her throat, warm and gooey, straight from the chicken and how she had to keep herself from vomiting them back up. That stuff sticks with you when you’re a kid.)

ANYWAY, the point is that I remember that book as being non-stop action, but you know what? Compared to what happens to Harry P. in any single chapter of any one of his books, the girls’ adventure is tame and takes too long (to a modern kid) to unravel. My son didn’t love it. In fact, he didn’t finish it. He didn’t finish a lot of books I wanted him to read. The one exception was Ender’s Game but that came along when I was a young adult, I believe, and is pretty action-packed. And is one of the greatest books ever written. He didn’t really appreciate it until he was a teenager, though.

Meanwhile Annie tried several Louisa May Alcott books and rejected them all as being “too hard” and “a little boring.”

The “hard” thing is interesting. As far as I can tell, my kids find the old classics difficult because a) the authors’ vocabularies are sophisticated and my kids’ vocabularies are not ,and b) not everything is flatly stated and described, but some things are hinted at (like familial relationships) with the assumption you’ll figure it out as you go along. In these days of straight-forward action, there’s no need or room for hinting: you’re told what’s what and then boom you’re off on your adventure.

As far as boring goes, well, my tween daughter has read all of the Twilight books, a lot of Gossip Girls, and tons of other YA books in which the girls’ lives revolve around sex, college admissions, handsome young men, sex, dating, teenage pregnancy, suicide, sex, and even the occasional apocalyptic world disaster. Did I mention sex? No wonder books where girls are worrying about stained white gloves kind of leave her restless and a bit alienated. She also doesn’t like it when books are set in the past, which is kind of hard to avoid when most of the books I loved were written way in the past. She doesn’t find them relevant to her life and they therefore don’t engage her interest (although why she finds books about dating relevant when she’s 11 and still thinks boys are fairly icky is beyond me).

I am by no means criticizing modern children’s books, by the way. I’ve read many of them along with my kids and I love a lot of them. I’m a bit of an action junkie myself–as I’ve mentioned before, I love swords-and-sorcery fantasy novels and as a kid I rejected A Secret Garden, which many of my friends loved, as one big snooze. The clarity of these more recent books can be stunning. I just reread Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer with my daughter and the simplicity of the writing style beautifully presents the non-stop challenges her heroine faces with grit and realistic terror. It’s a great book and very much a modern one.

I just wish my kids could love the books they’re discovering for themselves and still have room for a few of my old favorites–but I’ve been burned enough times to have pretty much given up on trying to get them to read anything from my past.

Still, when 9-year-old Will wanted something new to read the other day, and my eyes fell on my copy of The Phantom Tollbooth (signed by Norton Juster just last year!), I figured it couldn’t hurt to try. The kid has a great sense of humor. And it’s a pretty fast-moving book.

And there he is laughing in the next room over. Score one for the old lady.

  • Jeff says:

    I think that part of the reason may not be the generational gap between you and your children, but also a simple divergence of taste. I, for one, read and re-read a book called “The Wolfling” because I was enthralled with wolves and nature etc. I would be thrilled if my kids read my old tattered copy, but I know that they may just as likely have a thing for trains or witches.

    You do, however, raise an interesting point about the pacing of newer stories vs. older ones and it seems to me a valid one.

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