This is the story of the reluctant reader and his fed-up mother.
My son was the reluctant reader. I was the fed-up mother.
Oh, he read from time to time. The high point of last year's reading was The Making of Star Trek. Two weeks before junior high began this September he submerged himself in The Amityville Horror.
Dinner-table talk for those weeks centered on bodies bleeding in the dining room and other niceties.
Remembering blissful hours spent when I was young with Jo and the March family in the Little Women series, or yearning with Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, avidly following the adventures of Captain Hornblower or sneaking copies of the scandalous Forever Amber off the library shelves, I decided there must be something better for my son to read. And some way to get him to read it.
Being a persistent sort, I decided to find out the answers to both questions. What I learned was a surprise, a delight and to be honest, a bit of a shock.
I discovered a whole new universe of books for young people that at first glance bears no resemblance to what parents read when they were young. As the mask of gentility has been ripped off our society, the books written for our kids today reflect what's been found underneath. And it isn't always pretty. Happy endings, to put it mildly, are no longer the rule.
"The difference today is that there are no taboos anymore restricting authors," says G. Robert Carlsen, recently retired professor from the University of Iowa and author of Books and the Teenage Reader. He reminded me of how shocking some of the books I read when young (I'm 39) seemed to my parents' generation. Seventeenth Summer, for instance, a great favorite of my age group, included beer and blanket parties which horrified many parents.
Although Carlsen, who has been studying teen reading habits since the 1930s, acknowledges that many modern novels are transient in appeal and quality, "They touch the teen spirit and its concerns."
Carlsen isolates definite stages in reading development, with the teen novel filling the vacuum between childhood books and the adult novel. Readiness for the classics, he maintains, comes at the later end of the spectrum.
"It is a mistake," he claims, "to push classics on junior-high kids. Most are not ready for them yet. These books bridge the gap."
I was intrigued to learn from Carlsen that junior high is the period when the young person, if encouraged, may devote more time to books than at any other period of life. "There has to be parental involvement," adds Betsy Hearne, author and children's book editor for Booklist, the national review journal of the American Library Association.
Boys and girls, says Carlsen, tend to have markedly different book preferences as teen-agers. The girls generally want female protagonists and are often attracted to internal mind settings. "They want to know how characters think and feel." Boys want male heroes, preferring adventure and suspense, realism rather than romanticism.
One of the few modern novels that attracts both sexes, says Carlsen, is Paul Zindel's The Pigman, about a boy and girl who contribute inadvertently to the death of an elderly man they befriend.
As I've said, today's teen books are not apt to be pretty. With virtually no subject off limits anymore, they deal not only with death, but with drugs, masturbation, overweight, pregnancy, race relations, divorce, etc. Says Carlsen, "These books deal with kids' real fears, problems and doubts."
Also in defense of the modern teen novel, Hearne says, "The world should not be boiled down to a broth of concepts for children."
But as surprised as I was to find out what is in these books I was also impressed with the sensitive handling of the material. None of the several dozen books I read--with direction from the Young Adult Division of the American Library Association, among others -- came anywhere near the blatant exploitation of controversial themes that kids watch nightly on television.
Interestingly enough, many of the books, though explicit, are moralistic in the end. Typical is I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan, about four teen-agers who don't report their role in the hit-and-run death of a young boy. By the end of the book, each participant has suffered consequences, with the driver of the car becoming paralyzed.
Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War is a beautifully written look at what happens to a boy when he resists corrupt authority in a parochial school. The book offers no solutions. Neither does Alice Childress' sad A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, about 13-year-old Benjie, a drug addict who can't face his problem nor accept the fact that others might care about him.
One of the most popular books is The Outsiders, to be made into a movie, along with author S.E. Hinton's perhaps best-known work, Tex. Written when Hinton was just 17 (she did not use her first name Susan because she did not want to turn boy readers off), Outsiders is a powerful, shocking, yet sympathetic story about two boys from a gang who hide out when a boy from the opposing gang is murdered.
The Language of Goldfish by Zibby Oneal is a well-told story about a homely teen-ager who fears she is going crazy in a family where no one will listen. In Mom, the Wolfman and Me by Norma Klein, a young teen lives with her mother who refused to marry her father after becoming pregnant. John Donovan's I'll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip is about a lonely boy who loses the grandmother who raised him and has to go and live with his alcoholic mother in another city.
The list goes on, but unlike many books today, this story has a happy ending.
I had learned from teen book expert Carlsen -- somewhat to my relief -- that mystery, horror and outer space are typically of great interest to seventh-grade boys, not just to mine. They like being scared. Weird is good.
Knowing that in addition to the weird and extra-terrestrial, my son loves humor, I bought a stack of paperbacks in those areas. They included Daniel Pinkwater's wacky Alan Mendelson, Boy From Mars and The Last Guru; mysteries such as The House With the Clock in Its Walls (John Bellairs) with a creepy ghost on the cover; The Outsiders; Madeleine L'Engle's The Arm of the Starfish, and Cormier's moving I Am the Cheese.
As a lure, I put a very simple book on the top of the pile: The Fallen Spaceman by Lee Harding. The cover pictures a boy exploring a wreck from outer space, and the book begins, "The alien starship circled Earth many times before the spaceman fell." I knew that would grab him.
It did. He picked up the space book and read it straight through, not even coming down for lunch. He then started the Pinkwater books ("They're great, Mom") and couldn't put them down. He has since read everything by that author. He went on to the mysteries and then to S.E. Hinton. He read seven books in the first week.
He is still reading, often keeping two or three books going at once in different parts of the house.
In short: he's hooked. On books.
Myra Patner is a Washington free-lance writer specializing in family and education topics. graphics: Illustration by Edward Koren, 1981, from the book, "Teenage Romance" "Junior high is the period when the young person, if encouraged, may devote more time to books than at any other period of life."