It’s Nine O’Clock. Do You Know What Your Children Are Reading?

June 10, 2012 § 3 Comments


Bartimaeus: The Ring of Solomon (Stroud, Jonathan)

We have a new family tradition: every few months, my wife, my older son and I are to recommend one book to each of the other two (our younger son recommends Dr. Seuss to everyone all the time). The three of us are voracious readers with reading preferences that were different to begin with, and which have diverged further over the years; the only time we speak to each other now about books is to deplore the filth that the other two waste their lives reading. So the new tradition is expected to have the benefit that we may soon begin to understand each other again, or at least, to have a grudging tolerance for each other’s reading habits.

I gave my wife the Don Camillo book I just finished, and she gave me Bill Bryson. My son got a history book from me and a science book from his mom. Nice. And then my son gave me Bartimaeus: The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud.

Now Bartimaeus is simply not the kind of book that I read. I can conceive of entire lifetimes – happy, well-spent lifetimes – without my ever coming close to reading this book. But then, that could be said of many of the books that I have read; besides, the whole point of the tradition was to not have a choice in the matter. I suspect that my son wants very badly for me to love it (I deduced this shrewdly from his going, ‘Well? Did you like it?’ fifty times since I started reading). I guess his reasoning goes, if the old man likes Bartimaeus, who knows? Maybe he will become a fantasy junkie himself. Scratch that, too far-fetched, but at least he will get off my case about reading only fantasy books and leave me alone once in a while…

For my part, I want my son to read more books that are wellwritten, that will teach him to write well, that challenge him to think and question many things; books written from different perspectives, different geographies, different times; angry books, wicked books, funny books, unhappy books. I am not yet sure how to convince him of all this but I know that not taking seriously the one book that he has given me to read is not a good place to start.

I really wanted to like Bartimaeus, because it’s nice to make the brat happy once in a while, but at the same time, I didn’t want him to get the wrong message – that there was nothing to change in his reading habits. Finally, I resolved:

  1. To have an open mind about the book, and
  2. To be honest and frank about whatever I thought about it in the end

And then I opened the book.

Not your daddy’s Solomon and Sheba (Yul Brynner and Gina Lollobrigida – maybe they’re seeing a ghost, or Bartimaeus the Djinn, for the first time – courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

What is a children’s book, anyway, and how is it different from a ‘grown-up’ book? The lines are blurring crazily, maybe because children are different, maybe because grown-ups are. In the old days, there was no confusion: Nancy Drew was Children’s Books, Nancy Friday was not. In 1973, the Whitbread Award for Children’s Books went to The Butterfly Ball and The Grasshopper’s Feast – a picture book, with bright colors and big, easy-to-read lettering. In 2010, the Costa Book Award for Best Children’s Book (the successor of the Whitbread awards) went to Jason Wallace’s Out of Shadows, a dark, disturbing novel about a white supremacist schoolboy plotting to kill Robert Mugabe. JK Rowling‘s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (the 1999 awardee) is part of a series whose appeal extends beyond children, and as for Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, it uniquely won both the Best Children’s Book as well as the Best Novel for 2001. Our definition of  a ‘Children’s Book’ is certainly evolving, and in any case, my son says scornfully that he doesn’t read children’s books any more, only young adult fiction.

So who is a young adult, then? I googled. According to Erik Erikson’s stages of human development (the first hit), it is someone between the ages of 20 and 40. Thankfully, the rest of the search results shouted down Erikson, shoved him aside, and cast him into the outer darkness, while offering a more useful answer: a young adult is one who is between 13 and 18 years old. This is a definition I can work with.

I hated being that age. Teenagers (this is what we used to be called back in the day, not fancy little young adults) have numerous problems – with too much independence, and with too little; with peers of their own gender and with those of the opposite sex; with adults; with their own awkward bodies; with encountering a world that is suddenly unfair, heartless and most unreasonably, apparently built for purposes other than for their own comfort. This is when parental guidance is most insistently thrust upon them, and also when it is most resented.

What kind of books are appropriate for this age-group?

Books that prepare them best for adulthood, say the parents, books that will shape their character, and make them more like – well, like ME, for instance -surely you can do worse than that?

Fun stuff, says the young adult, whatever I feel like reading at the time, what the kids that I like hanging out with are reading. And as for becoming like THEM: I have only two words to say: OMFG and ROFL.

That’s nine words, say the parents, and don’t use that kind of language around the house, young man.

And so it goes.

What are the best young adult books out there? I did tons of analysis on the Whitbread and Costa Best Book Awards, (unfortunately, my analysis was restricted, for reasons of easy access to data, to English language books published in the UK and USA, though I would have liked to have taken a more global view) and this is what I found. From Diddakoi in 1972 to Skellig in 1998, the award was won by a book with a realistic setting 67% of the time; only 22% was of the Fantasy or Sci-Fi genres; and only 26% had a theme that an adult would find interesting. Between Harry Potter in 1999 and the Blood Red Road in 2011, a whopping 77% of the Best Children’s Books have involved war, violence, fantasy or science fiction; only 46% of the books have had a realistic setting, and yet, 69% of the books have had themes that would interest an adult.

Finally, awards notwithstanding, which books do cool young adults actually read these days?  I looked up the top ten on the Amazon Best Selling Young Adult Book list. Nine of the top ten concern themselves with demons, magicians, warrior angels, evil queens, vampires, alchemy, people with secret superpowers, even a guidebook to the characters in a game called Diablo – magical characters, of course. The only exception was a little pink book called Pretty Little Liars, which, it could be argued, concerns teenage girl issues.

I am not sure whether to be worried or relieved that my kid has the same problem as the rest of his generation.

♦♦♦

There is just one common thing that links all the books I have spoken about so far: that every one of them features a child (or teen) protagonist. This, finally, was the defining characteristic I was looking for. Not every book with a child protagonist is a Children’s book (The Lord of the Flies comes to shuddering mind) but it seems to be highly  unusual for a Children’s book to not prominently feature children.

Bartimaeous is exactly such an unusual book. It is about a 2000-year old djinn in the Jerusalem of King Solomon. There is much adventure, magic, drama and action, and the eponymous djinn is smart-alecky and sarcastic throughout in a modern, American way (he reminded me of my son – no wonder he loved the book). The djinn himself may have been inspired by the Genie from Aladdin, but the plot is sufficiently original. Characters don’t evolve, but the heroine’s attitude does, and her perception of the characters certainly changes, and none of them lacks flaws.  Thus, Bartimaeous is more interesting than the average novel out there – adult or children’s.

♦♦♦

What did kids read, back when I was a teenager? Did we read lots of different genres and perspectives? Actually, no, we didn’t. We read crime novels, mainly – Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators, Agatha Christie, Perry Mason, Alistair Maclean. Adultish themes: check. Crime and violence: check. But the settings were realistic: not a single evil warrior demon reared his ugly horned head to disturb my teenaged years. Hmmm. But it wasn’t that the books were better written than Bartimaeus is.

♦♦♦

Here’s a compromise, therefore: not everything my son reads has to be an improving book. It can be an entertaining adventure too. OK, it can involve a bit of magic and fantasy if it absolutely must. All I ask is that it be well-written, its characters be well-drawn and consistent, and that it find human conflicts to grip its readers, not just magical or fantastical ones. CGI does not by itself a great movie make, neither does magic and fantasy a good book.

I think the tradition is working already. Don’t you?

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