Updated: Oct 12, 2020
Let me begin by saying, I LOVE "the classics." In high school, I made it my personal mission to read them when I realized my teachers weren't going to make me. I read books like Anna Karenina, Les Miserables, and Crime and Punishment, for fun. I majored in English, because I love reading the ideas of writers who lived centuries before I did and still dealt with the same crud as I did in the 21st century. The Classics have value beyond any words I can think of at the moment. They remind us of a time that was simpler — a time untouched by technology and photoshop and artificial flavoring (yes, you wonderful Pumpkin Spice Lattes, I’m talking to you).
Jane Austen is not for everyone. Leo Tolstoy is not for everyone. Fyodor Dostoevsky is definitely not for everyone.
If we — parents, teachers, miscellaneous role models — tell ourselves that the only way our readers will become "good readers" is to read books written in 1863 by dead (and usually white) people (usually men), we will be doing them an incredible disservice.
Every reader goes looking for themselves in the things they read. Have you ever met a reader who will flat out refuse a book because the main character is younger than them? You haven’t? Hi, I Was That Kid, nice to meet you! What readers like me were (and are) looking for was not a character that was just like us. We wanted to be able to relate to the character, yes, but if they were too much like us, it felt like our stories were set. Scripted. Unchangeable. IF, however, the characters were even just a year ahead of where we were, we could see ourselves one year in the future, and we could find hope.
What "kids books" fail to get credit for is that they teach readers to HOPE.
Harry Potter? What kid doesn't end up hoping they could have the strength in them to defend the people they love and defeat the dark lord? Diary of a Wimpy Kid? Who reads those books and doesn't wish they had the guts to stand up to the school bully or their big brother? the Farting Dog? No kid can sit through this story and not end up having a good laugh and a sense of pride in the things that make them different?
The Classics are "classic" for a reason: Over the decades, thousands of readers have walked through stories about pain and love and overcoming incredible loss or celebrating unexpected success. Those are all good things! If you have a kid who really stinking loves Jane Eyre, that's amazing. Please give that child a cookie. And if you have a kid who would rather read Pride, Prejudice and Zombies? Awesome - also give that child a cookie.
If we're going to tell our kids how valuable reading is, we have to allow them to find the stories that have value according to them, not just to us. Does that mean we let 8-year-olds read slasher horror stories because they say they "value" the blood and guts on the cover? Of course not! That's insane.
What it means is that we don't scrunch our noses and screw up our faces when our kids walk up to us with a graphic novel instead of a chapter book, or when they choose Juliet Takes a Breath over Romeo and Juliet. We help our kids by giving them a healthy bit of space to explore the stories available to them. We give them permission to discover what they believe has value.
Spoiler Alert: This isn't just about books.
Did you notice before that I said, "Every reader goes looking for themselves in the things they read?" If you spend much time around teenagers, you know that they take in new content every time they open their phones: Snapchat stories about which half-dressed celebrity did what, Instagram posts of teens that look a lot more like Greek gods than actual people, and songs describing the “perfect” night like it happens every weekend.
It’s not that teens don’t understand that the images in front of them are 100% staged (they do) or that they think the person in their feed with nine hundred “likes” has the perfect life (they don’t). What they do see, is the possibility that somehow, someday their life could be as amazing as the ones projected in front of them. They want to believe that this happy, exciting, and satisfying life is within their reach.
What can we do to show them that their hope is closer than they think?
To start, we can show them the same kindness and respect that we expect them to show us. One of the simplest ways to do this? Ask. Them. Questions. Part of chasing hope is chasing the idea that what we want and what we think will actually matter to someone. By asking the kids in our lives what is important to them and why we show them that their thoughts, their dreams, and their hope matters to us.
And yeah, that means ignoring the fact that you might think Fortnite is the dumbest game in human history and asking your kid what it is that they like so much about it. Yeah, that means keeping your sarcastic comment about the disgusting amount of lipstick that YouTuber is wearing to yourself and asking what the videos are really about.
I guarantee that if you take the time to ask these things, you will be amazed by the amount of thought your kids have put into these things they watch. You might even be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of hope in their eyes as they share those thoughts with you.