Written by Bridget, #2
Several months ago, I was sitting in a movie theater with a friend of mine who happens to also be a teacher (Yes, Mom…I do have friends who aren’t teachers). A preview for a movie adapted from a popular middle school book came on, and my friend and I traded exasperated looks. The movie preview featured a family of four on a road trip; the parents made countless stupid mistakes and scratched their heads in confusion, while their two sons went back and forth between being absolute jerks to each other in the back seat and then outsmarting their parents at every turn. At some point, I leaned over and said “And we wonder why our students show such little respect?”
Rewind. About 20 or so years…
When I was growing up, my parents filled our house with books with my Dad reading out loud to us almost every night. I was the bookworm of the family – though Kathleen has most certainly beaten my record – to the point that I had no sense of direction until I got my license because I was forever lost in books while driving with my parents. Books were treasured items in our home and some characters were talked about as if they were friends of the family.
I devoured stories of Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny in the Boxcar Children. Although I loved the mysteries, I realize more that my favorite scenes and the ones I remember the most were those between the four siblings. Henry was the BEST older brother (he was also my first book crush, so that may have influenced my admiration). I saw myself in Jessie because of the way she acted like a mother to the younger ones…and also because of the way she obsessively organized their boxcar home when they were still orphans. Ask anyone in my family, I was Jessie to a T.
When Dad read the Chronicles of Narnia out loud to us, I loved hearing stories of the Pevensie siblings. Ordinary Peter, who slowly started to accept his role as High King and show bravery. Susan who was afraid of the unknown, yet fiercely protective of her siblings. Edmund, who eventually came back from temptation to fight alongside his siblings on the side of love. And Lucy, a model of faith and true belief. These characters were the reason I wanted to find a magical wardrobe to bring me into Narnia. I wanted to have their same bravery and simple faith.
As I got older, I grew to admire other characters. Whether it was Katniss Everdeen and the selflessness she showed when taking her sister’s place in The Hunger Games or Emily, the Yankee girl who had to deal with life on her uncle’s southern slave plantation in Cry of Courage, I learned the importance of standing up for my beliefs.
On a more serious note, I was captivated by the story of Livia Bitton-Jackson as she shared her horrific memories of growing up in the Holocaust in I Have Lived A Thousand Years and fascinated by Sun-Hee telling of life in Japanese-occupied Korea in When My Name Was Keoko. These stories taught me valuable perspective taking skills as I learned about a world far away from Standish, Maine.
Ok, fast-forward again to that Saturday in the movie theater.
I kept thinking about that movie adaptation and realizing that it is this type of story that kids are now largely surrounded by. I have a collection of about 400 books in my classroom. While I try to fill it largely with the type of admirable stories with which I was raised, I rarely say no to free books for my classroom. And so books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Homework Machine, and The Cupcake Diaries have entered my library.
I am not about to tell a child they can’t read a book (unless it has explicit language or inappropriate content) just because it has shallow content, and so I have allowed these books to stay. Besides, I won’t pretend that I didn’t enjoy a book like Back on the Beam or The Princess Tales when I was younger. I would love my students to read more thought-provoking books, but I am not going to take away the other books from them.
But I was disappointed when I took my kids to the Scholastic book fair and most of my girls bypassed all books of substance and debated between different books with sparkly covers, generally about caddy and gossipy middle school girls. Meanwhile my boys grabbed Minecraft posters or just found packs of Pokemon cards to trade. I am still waiting for someone to explain why a BOOK fair has so many gadgets that aren’t books…
Kids do long for characters who inspire and show positive character traits. My favorite part of this last school year was when we read Number the Stars together. I relished the moments when my students ran into my room from afterschool homework club exclaiming, “I can’t believe that Annemarie faced down those Nazi soldiers! This is the best book ever!”
After being told to read Wonder last summer, all my students came into school with the unanimous opinion that it was their new favorite book because Auggie and his classmates learned how to accept differences and be kind to each other. My small group that read Sign of the Beaver with me wrote insightful reflections about how Matt had shown such courage while learning to appreciate another culture while my group that read The Cay engaged in amazing discussions about the way Philip learned about the harm of racial prejudice.
I’ll say it again: Kids long for characters who inspire. They want to experience worlds outside their own.
Adults then have the job to fill their worlds with these opportunities. If we want children to be hard working, courageous, patient, and kind, then we need to provide them with role models. If we want children to respect others and authority, then we need them to be surrounded by characters who show respect or, *gasp* face consequences for disrespect.
I want my students (and future children) to show grit and determination like Brian from Hatchet.
I want them to be okay when they are not getting all the attention like Violet from Wonder.
I want them to be open minded and challenge hatred like Jeffrey in Maniac Magee.
I want them to stand up for what they believe in and be resilient like Hope in Hope was Here.
Books are a powerful way to influence how kids see and interact with the world. Thank you, Mom and Dad, for making sure that my childhood was filled with the good ones.