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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 11/19/2009

In the Age of 'Twilight': About kids who read fantasy... and ‘readicide’

By Valerie Strauss

Does your child read fantasy books, one after the other, whizzing through series after series to the exclusion of any other genre?

You suggest perhaps trying something different and you are met with stiff resistance
There is nothing better, you are told, than series such as "Game of Thrones,” “The Wheel of Time, “The Bartimaeus Trilogy,” “Harry Potter,” and so many others. And then you start to worry that your child is:

A) living in a fantasy world
b) wasting time on silly themes
c) wasting time reading easy books

These were some of the concerns that expert Lucy Calkins heard from parents at a conference she recently held.

Calkins is a professor of curriculum and teaching at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and the founding director of the college’s reading and writing project. She has taught thousands of teachers the best ways to engage students in reading, and recently, she decided to give parents a chance to bring their questions to her and other experts at a conference in New York.

More than 500 showed up, she said, and she was overwhelmed with the number of parents who said their children were reluctant readers and they were desperate for advice on how to engage them in reading.

She also said she had many parents concerned that their child only reads fantasy for the above reasons.

Here’s what she told them:

Don’t worry about fantasy. In fact, you should be pleased they are reading.

“Parents don’t understand that fantasy is not lightweight,” she said. “They think it is lightweight because of the themes, but that is really wrong. Fantasy involves multiple works and there is often a lot of text complexity.”

What’s more, she said, there are different levels of complexity in the fantasy genre with which kids can engage as they grow and develop reading skills--and the good news is that they do not usually involve the themes of teenage sex and drug use in which other works of adolescent literature often do.

“Realistic fiction quickly gets into content that kids are not emotionally ready to handle or that parents don’t want them to read about,” she said. “Fantasy doesn’t.”

Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight Saga” has become so hugely popular that a number of teachers are using it in the classroom to get kids to read and encourage them to write.

One parent to whom I was talking to about this scoffed, saying that the books may be compelling but are not well written and have no place in a classroom. Again, I asked reading acquisition experts, and they disagreed.

Here’s the response from Richard Allington, professor of education at the University of Tennessee, a former president of the International Reading Association as well as the National Reading Conference, and an award-winning researcher on reading and learning disabilities:

“I do think allowing kids to read ‘Twilight’ in school, or as a component of school, is a good idea even if it isn’t so well written. “One of the characteristics of good adult reader is the ability to tell the difference between so-so and terrific novels. Kids never learn that in school.

“A steady diet of those wonderful books like “Silas Marner” and “Moby Dick,” the two most frequently assigned books in American high schools, produces what [educator and literacy expert] Kelly Gallagher has dubbed Readicide (the development of the attitude that I’ll never read anything again”).

“Look at adult best seller lists. Are there many classically good titles that ever are best sellers? Maybe that is because those same adults read too much “Silas Marner” in high school.”

So relax. Let your kids read what they want. Be glad they are reading.

I’ll take up how you can help reluctant readers to dive into a book soon.

What do you kids like to read when you allow them to choose?

By Valerie Strauss  | November 19, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Reading  | Tags:  adolescent literature  
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Comments

When I worked in a bookstore, a grandmother would bring her grandson in every week. After they had browsed through the store, she would buy the New York Times Book Review and some similar magazines, and the grandson would pick out one or two comics and a candy bar. One day she was waiting at the register when he came up to her and handed her a young adult book.

"Grandma, This won't cost any more than two comics and the candy--I'll skip the candy this week if you'll buy it for me. It looks pretty interesting."

She grinned at me and said, "I knew if he was around books long enough he'd open one."

Let them read what they want--just make sure there are plenty of the books you want them to read lying around.

(By the way, 40 years after high school, I am still waiting for someone to explain to me the difference between "Wuthering Heights," "Gone With the Wind," and Harlequin romances.)

Posted by: opinionatedreader | November 19, 2009 11:05 AM | Report abuse

The parents who are worried should read the fantasy books themselves and decide. My children are too young for Twilight, but we have read Harry Potter and Pendragon books together as a family. I skip over strong language in the Pendragon books and we discuss the books together. It is very fun. I think the kids like these books because they have grown up with computers and have a different idea about what a "super" power would be.

Posted by: celestun100 | November 19, 2009 11:51 AM | Report abuse

My 8 year old son has read all the Potter books, all L'Engle, the Eldest series, the Olympians series, the entire Riordan set, DIary of Wimpy Kid, the Golden COmpass books, and anything else laying around. He is just now waffling between my old Calvin and Hobbes comic books, a very old collection of Peanuts comics, and A Brief History of Time by Hawking. Let 'em read what they will read. They have moods too, and will develop better writing skills along the way. Look at the Brontes - they read anything their father read, formed their own opinions and became good writers. If your kids are younger than 14 with no job, chances are you are buying the things they read anyway, so you do have some control.

Posted by: ampavan | November 19, 2009 6:17 PM | Report abuse

Being set loose in the library is one of my fondest memories from when I was a kid. I started reading for fun when my mother left Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight sitting on the coffee table one afternoon, and I picked it up out of curiosity. I was almost 8, and I loved it. While it's a fairly adult book, all the "adult" content went completely over my head until I reread it as a teen. Soon I was reading anything and everything with a dragon on the cover, but while wandering the kids section in search of more fantasy I also picked up Julie of the Wolves, My Side of the Mountain, Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, Nancy Drew (the originals!), everything by E. B. White I could get my hands on, the Giver, Number the Stars, Trumpeter of Krakow, and all the assorted kids and young adult classics that parents and schools want kids to read.

Posted by: theGelf | November 19, 2009 7:43 PM | Report abuse

With the exception of Twilight which is so poorly written as to be laughable, my daughter and i have enjoyed most of the fantasy series other posters have mentioned--the Harry Potters, the Golden Compass books, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, even the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels. None of these books are particularly easy reads in terms of vocabulary, sentence structure, length, character development, and complexity of plot. If anything, a diet of these books is going to produce a motivated and literate reader. Parents who really want their children to read well should appreciate the value of these authors and their works.

Posted by: LurayDemocrat | November 19, 2009 9:48 PM | Report abuse

I would not have made it through high school (I was picked on as the class nerd unmercifully) if it wasn't for the Lord of the Rings and Dune series... If a student wants to read, let them read!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: annwhite1 | November 20, 2009 9:43 AM | Report abuse

I hate to break the news, but "Game of Thrones" does have sex in it. It also includes incest, violence, blood, complex political intrigue, major character deaths, and so on. All the characters are "flawed, ambivalent, and deeply fallible" (no clear-cut heroes and villains), to quote James Poniewozik of TIME, and honorable deeds don't always end well and are shown to not necessarily be the best solution to conflicts -- unlike in children's fantasy stories. It is definitely NOT for children (if I were a parent, I'd not let my children read it until they were mature) and definitely more geared towards adults. It's probably why HBO is adapting it -- it's very much in line with the rest of their shows.

Posted by: sundance_arya | November 20, 2009 9:20 PM | Report abuse

Great topic. I always allow my daughter to choose her books. I haven't always been happy with her choices since they seemed too easy and below her reading level at times so I insisted she choose a combination of both. I think it helps her form her own interests which I don't want to dictate. I want reading to be fun for her not a chore.

Posted by: flabbergast | November 23, 2009 1:56 PM | Report abuse

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