Friday, December 19, 2008

Lessons from the Corner Drug Dealer

By John Gilstrap

Every drug dealer on the planet knows the secret to success: Hook ’em when they’re young, and they’re yours forever. Even the tobacco companies learned the lesson and gave us Joe Camel a few years ago. Rumors continue to circulate among the high school set that smoking keeps you from gaining weight, and that’s like, um, the ga-reatest thing there is. Strategy, baby!

Someone needs to explain to me why, on the cusp of 2009, the publishing industry hasn’t yet caught on to what Bobby Two-fingers and his pals have known for decades. If we want the written word to compete with all the other flashy, passive forms of entertainment that are vying for our children’s attention, we need to make those words really relevant really early. We need to tune them in and turn them on to books when they’re most vulnerable so that we can keep them as customers forever.

In a very real way, then, we authors are desperately dependent upon the choices made by school librarians and curriculum planners. If they make the world of kiddie-lit interesting, there’s hope. If not, then we’re just marking time till we become as anachronistic as the buggy whip: a quaint memory from a simpler time.

On December 16, 2008, Washington Post Staff Writer Valerie Strauss posited that recent Newberry Medal winners—the Academy Award of young people’s literature—might be “so complicated and inaccessible to most children that they are effectively turning kids off reading.” The article goes on to explain that of the 25 winners and runners-up, four deal with death, six with parental abandonment, and another four with mental handicaps. Most, the article says, deal with “tough social issues.” Goodness gracious, I hope no children get trampled in the stampede to pull those stories off the shelves. What fifth-grader won’t walk away from his Wii to immerse himself in death and abandonment?

And what world did the judges grow up in that would make them believe that kids want to read that stuff? It’s literary broccoli with okra pudding on the side. Kids’ll choke it down because a grownup says they have to, but the pain of the experience will linger for years—perhaps for a lifetime.

When my son was in third and fourth grades, he devoured R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series. I’m talking dozens of books; yet one of his teachers made it very clear to him and me both that she did not approve of him reading such trash. I told her that there’s only one important word in the phrase, “reading such trash,” and then I reminded her that she didn’t get a vote in what he could and could not read. Today, my son is 22 years old, and when I had the honor to meet Bob Stein at Thrillerfest last year, I thanked him for the books that inspired my kid to become the voracious reader that he is today.

In Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the preeminent school districts in the country, they have (or at least had, a few years ago) kids reading The Scarlet Letter in 8th grade. No kidding, The Scarlet letter! As if, in the pantheon of modern-day accessible literature, there’s not a book out there that might be of good enough quality to teach the same lessons without the burden of language patterns that haven’t been used in my lifetime times three. It’s infuriating.

Teachers and administrators of the world, please wake up! We change mathematics methodologies to the point where I can no longer teach a fourth-grader to subtract “the right way,” we change history to demonize founders we once thought of as heroes, we change curricula to reflect the political whims of the day. Is it too much to ask to give kids books that will inspire them to read more?

It doesn’t have to be literary chocolate and ice cream, but how about the occasional literary pizza? You could even put some broccoli on it.


  1. I nominate you for "book czar", John. You sure make sense. I'm still amazed that kids who normally would rather set themselves on fire than read stood in line at midnight (in costume) to buy the latest Harry Potter tome. Many could hardly pick it up it was so big, and yet they had read most of it by the time mommy drove them home. Seems to me that someone in "higher education" would have seen a light bulb go off and figured there might be something there. I'm telling you, John, we need you as the czar. You can count on my vote.

  2. John, you should send a link to this post to every school district in the country.

  3. Book czar has a nice ring.
    On a somewhat different note, my husband and I were out last night in Boca Raton's Mizner Park. We have been eagerly awaiting a new independent bookstore that was supposedly set to open its doors in November.When we walked by and saw the space still empty, we approached the owner of a classy new restaurant that just opened nearby. "Oh," he said, "that's been cancelled. The other owners of the retail stores and restaurants here felt a book store would draw the wrong crowd."
    "You mean readers?" we asked. And he said "Too many kids hang out at book stores these days." I honestly wasn't sure what to make of that comment, but if it's true that kids do "hang out" at bookstores, perhaps you as newly appointed czar could target some programs specifically for that crowd.

  4. Hey Deb, what a great problem to have--kids hanging out at bookstores!

  5. As a former teacher, I agree. However we were often told what books we had to teach, and there was no arguing. They had been chosen by a specially designed committee (which is the kiss of death right there) and that's how it was. No argument, just go do what you're told.

    Teachers can get students to be enthusiastic about reading when the teachers are talking about books that they, themselves, love.

    I can get kids to be completely jazzed about Shakespeare because I love his stuff and I can bring my passion to it. But I had a hard time with Steinbeck; his words a beyond beautiful be he depresses the snot out of me, and I had trouble teaching it.

    But getting kids hyped on the prospect of books is key, you are absolutely right!

  6. While I think it's critical for teachers to be part of helping children to read don't under emphasize the role of parents and reading in the home. My husband and I are both continually with our noses in a book. We carry them EVERYWHERE and the kids know it. We encourage our kids to always have a book on hand because who knows when we'll get stuck in the car for a few extra minutes or there will be a line at the movie theater. We hit the library twice a month. If they have a subject they're interested in we work with them on the computer to get a list of books to try. Several articles I've looked at have emphasized how parents that read usually end up with kids who read. We also have a mandatory 'no electronics' period for at least an hour a day. During that time they can't have on computer, video games, TV, anything with a plug. So they read or play creative games. I know we're weirdos among parents in a lot of ways, but it's sure given us kids who even at 11 and 7 adore reading and are constantly looking for more.


  7. John you are so right!! With my boys I want them to read whatever makes them want to read more - I don't want to put them off forever by imposing some kind of crazy 'holy than thou' standard of what they should be reading! I don't want that for myself - sometimes you feel like pizza sometimes you feel like a rich beef stew. That's the power of reading widely and enjoying it!

  8. Mr. Gilstrap, you wrote:
    "Teachers and administrators of the world, please wake up! We change mathematics methodologies to the point where I can no longer teach a fourth-grader to subtract “the right way,” we change history to demonize founders we once thought of as heroes, we change curricula to reflect the political whims of the day."

    So based on all that we are doing in that paragraph, it's still okay to have my students study and understand Orwell's 1984, right?

    In all seriousness, some of the books that "teachers and administrators" are forcing on your kids are required by the city, county, or state board of education, depending on where you live. By the same token, many of my colleagues, especially in the lower grades, are guilty of snobbery to a fault. I guarentee you the awards you're talking about don't CARE if the kids WANT to read it. They only care if it's of high enough literary merit. Oh, and THE SCARLET LETTER is supposed to be read with American Lit in High School (11th grade here, 10th or 12th some other places). 8th grade is absurd.

    The problem as I see it is that not enough of my colleagues mix in some more fun, interesting reads, or reward students for reading something fun--and of the students' choice--on the side. I wish more of them would, but I can only cover what takes place in my classroom.

    That being said, you guys are all welcome to move to Cary and send your high school-aged kids to me their senior year. I'll take good care of 'em.

  9. You know, I've frequently wondered aloud what I would do if elected king, but I've never given much thought to this czar thing. My first thought is that it leads to a lot of bomb throwing and basement executions, and I confess that's a bit off-putting. Could I be Book Poobah instead?

    Fran and Jnantz, I applaud any teacher who can make any fiction come to life. The enthusiasm from the front of any classroom is bound to be reflected by the kids in the back. And please understand that nothing of what I write is intended to be critical of well-meaning teachers. (Those who are cynically taking up space awaiting retirement, however, should feel rightfully attacked.)

    As for specific titles, whether they be THE SCARLET LETTER, 1984, or my own nemesis, MOBY DICK, we all have our favorites and the ones we hate, but that's not the point. The point is to build young people's appreciation of literature. From my view on the sidelines of education, it makes no sense to me that we as a society/community/county/school district/nation continue to hold the hard line on what is and is not quality literature.

    I hated both MOBY DICK and THE SCARLET LETTER. They are what they are, and my opinion doesn't change the absolute value of their quality, but their quality likewise doesn't alter my assessment of their readability. Did I have a bad teacher, or was I just not wired to appreciate the books at the time I read them? We'll never know; but the mission to inspire children remains unchanged, and I guess my point is that kids can't appriciate that which they truly dislike.

    At a minimum, I think every school and every classroom would do well by embracing alternatives.

  10. If you look at the required reading lists of most American schools, the primary goal seems to be to ensure these kids never want to read again. Probably not an invalid book on the list, but the concentrations, and the grade levels presented, can only make the vast majority of students view reading as a chore, and not something they'll want to do throughout life for entertainment of painless illumination.

    As a former teacher myself, I trace the demise of American education to the day when "educators" started making decisions like this, instead of teachers. Anyone making curriculum decisions should spend a certain percentage of every work day actually with students. They're kids; not abstractions, and they're sure as hell not statistics.

  11. I went straight to Cliff Notes for Scarlet Letter, Ivanhoe, Count Off Monte Crisco. But I was reading John D. McDonald, and other authors of his kin at the time and devoured them.