Last night we escaped the clutches of giant spiders in Mirkwood. My kids, aged six, five, and three, all began to run around the room shouting about spiders and elves. I shut our copy of The Hobbit and set it back on the shelf for next time.
Since the kids haven’t yet seen any of the animated or live action adaptations of Tolkien, the images in their mind of what’s going on in the book are their own. The imagination is at work as they listen. Sometimes they will sit back during more exciting sequences and direct their unfocused gaze at the ceiling. You can almost hear the gears whirring in their minds as they interpret what’s happening on the page.
This is our second big chapter book we’ve read together. The first was The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, a 1954 work of science fiction for children. The kids were a little disappointed to hear that there wasn’t a movie based on it, but after each night’s reading they would often run off to draw pictures of rocket ships and planets.
…the answer really is that reading is fundamental to developing a full personal and public life in people. As you take it away, it is substituted by passive electronic entertainment, most of which is commercial entertainment. It’s people selling you things, trying to get you to buy the next new thing — a movie, a video game, clothes, etc…
…In the last three years, I’ve taught at University of Southern California. These are superb students — USC is now harder to get into than Berkeley — but what I‘m seeing are kids who dwell almost entirely in the electronic now. There was a study that USC did a few months ago showing that the average American — and the number is slightly higher for teens — now watches 14 hours a day of screens. What I’ve noticed in the young is something that is deeply troubling: most of what they watch is really crap (and they know it’s crap; they’re not dumb). They end up cultivating a kind of cynicism and skepticism to the very media which has addicted them. So we’ve got a generation which is kind of ironic, skeptical, sarcastic, and detached; you have this highly cultivated class of kids sitting there, making comments, and I think there’s a kind of terrible erosion of civic consciousness — of community consciousness — to that. They’re detached rather than being part of it, because the thing about being part of it is that you start to fix it.
It’s a rather harsh assessment, but one that seems somewhat fair to me. Though if you scratch below the surface irony and detachment of many modern TV shows and movies, you’ll find streaks of sincerity. (Comedies such as 30 Rock, Community, and Parks and Recreation are—I think—examples of seating heartfelt sentiments beneath layers of ironic humor.) What’s more troubling to me are the movies and TV shows aimed at kids that cultivate that kind of attitude when the target audience is unable of sorting through what’s sarcastic or ironic and what’s meant to be taken seriously. Pixar seems to have been able to avoid this in their films, but they are the exception.
So, as to reading: where do you start? Back when I was a typesetter at Bethlehem Books, I helped lay out an extensive book list by the Bethlehem editors that can be found in the back of Michael O’Brien’s book on children’s literature A Landscape with Dragons. It’s well worth taking a look at. (I have some differences of opinion with Michael O’Brien’s take on contemporary children’s fantasy literature, but he’s worth listening to all the same even if you disagree with him on that score).
And readers, if you have recommendations for other books (whether about literature or good read-aloud titles): add them in the comments!