Friday, December 15, 2006

BOOKS: Is Any Reading Good Reading?

Students attempt to break record reading popular book:
BRIGHTON - At 11 a.m. Wednesday, the usually bustling Brighton North Elementary School was quieter than is typical, as students joined others around the world to read a few passages from a classic children's book - with a world record to break.

The 476 students at Brighton North took a few minutes to read from
Charlotte's Web, the children's story by E.B. White about the friendship between a pig named Wilbur and a spider named Charlotte. As part of its marketing strategy for a new, live-action movie version of the 1952 book, Paramount Pictures and Walden Media, producers of the movie, aimed to familiarize a new generation of children with the book. The film is slated for release Wednesday.
You can read the rest here.

Now, when I first read this article, I was of two minds about it. Allow me to demonstrate using dorky debate-team format.

POINT: Kids are reading!
This is always a good thing and should never, ever, ever, ever-to-the-power-of-infinity be naysayed. Right?

COUNTERPOINT: But dude, it's sponsored by the mainstream film industry!
What have movie folks done for kids' books that we should applaud them for? They've totally FUBAR-ed classics like The Borrowers and Harriet the Spy. And Disney alone is responsible for altering sugar-coating bastardizing ruining pretty much every fairy tale ever written. (Except for Beauty and the Beast. I must admit, in the spirit of full disclosure, that I have an irrational love for that movie that has led me to watch it at least five times in its first theatrical release alone.)

POINT: But kids are reading!
"Sure, the whole thing is a big publicity stunt, but reading chorally helps the students become better readers," says Susan Harris, associate librarian at the school profiled in the article. I didn't know this. Is it true? As a former kid myself, I've always found that a group of children reading in unison sounds like a Gregorian dirge, but perhaps I'm alone in this perception. And if choral reading really does provide children with some extra cognitive development, it's sour grapes to naysay it, right?

COUNTERPOINT: But it's still a shameless shill for a movie!
What have things come to when we let the entertainment industry start affecting the curriculum? Is it just a matter of time before high-school students are performing Saw: The Musical (insert your own pun about musical saws here) in drama festivals? Is this a slippery slope we should fear, or am I just a paranoid hater? (Don't discount the fact that I could be both.)

POINT: It's bringing the young 'uns together in their shared love of a great book!
Apparently, the kids in the article are collaborating on class art projects based on the book. Awww... that's nice. It really is. I feel like making something myself, like maybe a cool wall-size spiderweb made out of twine. I could write "Doppelganger rules" in it!

COUNTERPOINT: Couldn't all this reading and artistic collaboration have been generated independently about any number of great books, and by teachers and librarians, without the impetus of a movie studio?
Would that be so hard? Are kids really so reluctant to read awesome stories that they need the lure of major motion pictures and Guinness records to suck them in? (Teachers and librarians, feel free to school me soundly. I am ignorant in the ways of our school system and today's modern child.)

POINT: But the kids are reading! They really are!
Of the 38 copies of
Charlotte's Web in the school's library, all of them had been checked out at the time this article was written.

Of course, you knew the argument would come down on the side of "any reading is good reading." That's my mantra, and I'll stick by it. But if you hear the sound of muffled retching, that's just me with this story stuck in my craw.


Anonymous said...

How did my voices get in your head? To answer your question, Who knows. Only Who knows. Who is the maker of all things and is the only one to answer questions like this. Similar controversy stirs over whether grocery store pulp writer Steven King is doing any favors for literacy. Who knows.

Anonymous said...

Hey Doppelganger --

Long-time reader, first-time commenter. :) To me, this "is any reading good reading?" question is really the question "what is literary for?" I mean, if literacy is mostly to train people to be good workers then yes any reading is good because it makes it easier to read things you need to read to get through life. I think most of us can agree on that important first step.

The tougher part is for those of us who love to read, because we want to literacy to be for the spread of the activity of reading, a thing we get so much joy from. As a book lover, I want everyone else to be one too, but I also recognize that some people just won't love reading and at least this way they'll get some skills.

-- Lane

Anonymous said...

True, the kids aren't doing this just for the simple joy of loving books (necessarily), but if anyone can turn a child into a book lover, it's E.B. White. I think this story would bother me SO much more if the book in question weren't such a wonderful, wonderful book. I do sort of feel like everyone should read all three of his children's books.

It also suggests that the moviemakers are pretty confident that their movie can at least hold a candle to the book -- and that's an encouraging sign in itself.

Anonymous said...

Now that I think about it, I don't know that I've ever actually read "Charlotte's Web." Which strikes me as weird since I'm the biggest book dork I know (IRL) but oh, I was young and had language issues and didn't really learn to read until 4th grade anyway. I entirely agree about being torn; I don't know that I'm of the "whatever it takes" mind...maybe being a part of something that big will bring some more into the fold of our cult? Or maybe it doesn't even matter what happens to these kids, sooner or later the ones that love to read will find that in themselves, and the ones who don't will...grow up to live wholesome lives nonethless? It's a very confusing issue since I think people take their love of books so personally because for most people (maybe? I shouldn't generalize) they're stigmatized during those already awkward years for liking to read, so...yeah I don't know where I'm going with this. Maybe just that this is a small step in the direction of making it if not cool then acceptable to be into books at a young age.

Anonymous said...

What bugged me most was when the most recent verson of Little Women (the one with Winona Ryder as Jo) came out, the movie company releeased a novelization of the movie. That was (of course) nowhere near as good as the BOOK on which the movie was originally based. As long as the text remains that of E.B. White's, I don't mind so much that Dakota Fanning is on the cover of the copies of Charlotte's Web that these kids are reading.

trophycase said...

Check this out

Anonymous said...

I couldn't read past the bit about Beauty and the Beast (I swear, I'll finish reading as soon as I post this). I am fairly convinced (as is my mother, a wise woman who never uses parenthetical comments) that all the bits of that film which made it special - and different from the standard fairy tale - were stolen from Robin McKinley's Beauty: A Retelling of Beauty and the Beast (1978).

PS - she rewrote the story 20 years later in Rose Daughter. Which is also wonderful.

Anonymous said...

...Not that I don't love Disney's version. It just bothers me that McKinley never gets any props for it.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad kids are reading. That's excellent. The push coming from a film bothers me a bit, but not a lot really.

But I am fast becoming sure that I am the only person in the world who doesn't find the idea of a talking pig and smart spider to be appealing.

Perhaps this due to my farm upbringing, where anthropomorphising animals isn't really high on the list of things to do....pigs get eaten, spiders get killed.

Clearly I have no soul. :)

JRH456 said...

As a bookstore manager I find that I have this same debate all of the time. Especially when it comes to teen reading. It all comes down to the fact that if they are reading (and not playing video games) then that is a good thing. I just wish they could read something of substance and appreciate it.

Baco-Vegetarian said...

...and in case anybody was wondering, here's a partial track-list for the soundtrack for "Saw: The Musical".

"How Much For that Dismembered Doggy in the Window?"

"Shop Class Teacher Was Right (Au Revoir to a Thumb)"

"Ith Hard to Thing a Thong Without Front Teeth"

"Sawdust, Sawdust, Oozing Moistly"

"My Orifices Burn For You"

Anonymous said...

what amazes me is that people all seem to want to read something when it's a movie or is considered generally 'popular'. As an owner of a second hand book shop; the interest in books goes up when movies like Truman Capote, Narnia and now Charlotte's Web became blockbusters. I love books and I love movies - but I don't like trendy reading. I would love it if people discover books that are not generically popular and read them, yes it's good that people are reading and enjoying books that come out in film and have blockbuster takings - but seeing that I read pretty much everything I wish others would do the same! And i am seething because people keep coming in and asking for Charlotte's Web - now impossible to get second hane! Is that a good thing or not?! I am unsure

Anonymous said...

I guess some kids need a "reward" for reading, while some kids consider reading its own reward. I'm glad kids are reading, but it really only helps if they KEEP reading. How will they know if a book is well written or not if they don't have many others to compare it to?

I have my own issues about anthropomorphism in a non-farming culture, but that's for another day.

Unknown said...

I think that this "love of good books" we all hope children will discover is much less likely to happen if reading is a difficult chore. The more a child reads, whatever she reads, the closer she gets to effortless reading; the closer she gets to the day when she opens a book and with no work at all is told a marvelous story that is better than her favorite movie.