September 19, 2011

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU HATE A CLASSIC

This has been some 1 Year Blogiversary Bash so far!! I might be dreaming up this next post... I can't even believe it is real. Somebody pinch me! Today's post is a tag team piece written by Tom Angleberger and Jonathan Auxier. It's like having Captain Kirk AND Han Solo piloting the same intergalactic spacecraft. Seriously! Do you see how a blog can create new connections?  
In January, I awarded Tom's book The Strange Case of Origami Yoda with the prestigious Bizzaro Newbery Award. Tom took the time to contact me to thank me for the award. I think I actually squealed when I opened THAT email! Betsy Bird picked up my post on her amazing blog Fuse8.  I think my blog got over 500 hits in a 3 hour period! Tom and I share links and ideas (but mostly funny Star Wars pictures) on Twitter and last Spring he even Skyped with my kids! (I just counted and there are 18 posts on this blog tagged with Tom Angleberger... stalker?)  
This summer I read Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier. In 80 years, that will be hailed as a classic, I guarantee you that!  Anyway, I follow John on Twitter and he has been kind enough to follow me and visit my blog... even leaving comments! I have upped my status as a Rock Star Librarian because of these two guys- and my blog has been better for it. I write posts to leave an impression and get them to keep coming back. I am so completely blown away to have these 2 chaps blogging together today.  

Howdy, Lemme Leopards!  Tom Angleberger and Jonathan Auxier here to talk about books! Specifically, what to do when you read a “beloved classic” that you can’t stand!  The good news is that you’re not alone -- even book-addicted authors like us have classics that we hated ...

JONATHAN:  This is something I have felt a lot in my life, especially when I was younger.  My favorite metaphor for this feeling has to be "The Emperor's New Clothes."  Sometimes I read a classic book and feel like the kid from that story -- looking around the adoring crowd of adults and saying, “Seriously? Am I the only one that sees that this guy is naked?!

TOM:  I would never, never publicly say that I hate a book by a living author.  But the authors of yore are fair game …

JONATHAN:  Agreed!  Nor am I actually looking to mindlessly tear down beloved classics.  But I think there's a conversation to be had about how some people will disagree about classic ... and that's okay.  For me, the books that did more damage than good were The Yearling, Romeo & Juliet, and A Tale of Two Cities.  I hated these (assigned) books with a passion, and that frustration was part of what turned me off of reading for many years.  I remember thinking: “If these are what ‘good’ books look like, count me out!

TOM:  That's why I can quite openly say that Peter Pan is one of the worst pieces of dreck I've ever read.  That condescending Barrie wrung any and all possible fun out of the pirates and fairies and he left his only interesting and/or fantastic character (Nana the sentient dog) behind.

JONATHAN:  That doesn't cut it for me.  Hate on Barrie all you want, but I need a few in-text examples of what you mean by condescending. And condescending to whom?  The characters?  The reader?  Children in general?  (To me, Peter Pan seems much more guilty of sentimentalism, which is sort of the opposite of condescension ... but that's a different conversation for a different day!)
TOM:  You want an example?  “If you could keep awake (but of course you can't) you would see …”

JONATHAN:  We might have to agree to disagree on this one!  But this is actually one of the main things I would love for people to take away from this conversation:  It's okay to hate a beloved classic ... so long as you make an effort to explain why you didn't like it.  Knowing why is what marks the difference between a humbug and a critic.

TOM:  Which leads to this question:  Why would something so bad become a “classic”?  Is it because there was so little to choose from back then?  Did people read it and say, “If you liked Pilgrim's Progress, you'll love Peter Pan!”?  If that's the case, do we need to re-evaluate all the classics?

JONATHAN:  I would argue that we are constantly re-evaluating the canon; some of the most popular books of the past are now forgotten.  Frances Hodgson Burnett's biggest work was (by far) Little Lord Fauntleroy ... which pretty much nobody today has read.  Or consider Davy & the Goblin, which was hailed by many to be the American Alice in Wonderland -- this hugely successful book is completely forgotten today. 

TOM:  Does Five Children and It really need to be held up as a classic when there are 50 much more fantastic fantasies published every day?

JONATHAN:  Now I'm just starting to think you hate the Edwardians!

TOM:  Must we really force kids to read Tom Sawyer Abroad -- yes, I was forced to read it in the 7th grade -- when just about any random book from the contemporary bookshelf would be better?
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JONATHAN:  I'll be honest and say I'd never even heard of Tom Sawyer Abroad … just because a book came from a famous author does not mean it’s a “classic”.  But I agree with your general point.  Maybe it's worth nailing down what we mean by “better”?  Because it changes depending on whether we're talking about personal reading or school reading.  I firmly believe that enjoyment isn't the sole purpose of reading in a school setting.  As a kid, I read stuff I enjoyed on my own without the help of teachers (mostly sci-fi & comic books).  Classroom curriculum, however, should be pushing readers outside of their comfort zone -- exposing them to challenging material that they wouldn't ordinarily open.  That said, I REALLY hated The Yearling!
TOM:  What do we mean by better?  Well, a book that makes a kid love reading is better than a book that makes a kid hate reading!  And now let's end on a happy note, by mentioning a classic that made me love reading: The Secret Garden.  Free of condescension -- if not completely free of lessons -- this book is my idea of a true kids' classic.  Little Lord Fauntleroy, by the same author, isn't really for kids.  It's a mom's story.  Secret Garden is a kids’ story and it remains one of the best kids' stories ever written!

JONATHAN:  Now there’s a classic book we can both agree on!

Tom Angleberger is author of the bestselling Origami Yoda books, which you can learn all about by visiting his awesome website.  Jonathan Auxier is author of Peter Nimble & His Fantastic Eyes -- he also runs www.TheScop.com, a website devoted to exploring the connections between children’s books old and new. 

12 comments:

  1. Ok Jonathan, what was it about the three classics you mentioned that made you hate reading? I'm a school librarian and I don't see many kids reading for enjoyment anymore! I see them being forced to read books chosen for their lesson plan value and being turned off to books in general! I think schools DO have an obligation to foster a love of reading which can and should include challenging classic and contemporary material! I think teachers can make the difference between classics being seen as dreadful books you only read in school.

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  2. As someone who uses mostly current works (with a light sprinkling of classics that connect to them) with the 7th graders I teach, I really enjoyed this conversation.

    But...might I add something? So often, the reception of a classic has to do with how it's shared with kids and whether it's shared at a time that's developmentally appropriate. Two of your "books that did the most damage" titles were two of my favorites - but I'd bet dimes to donuts they wouldn't have been if they'd been sent home with me to read independently, filling out worksheets as I went.

    Let's start with Romeo and Juliet (which was never even written to be read silently by teenagers, for starters...I always imagine Will Shakespeare rolling over in his grave). But when it's shared with kids in class with some lively dramatic performances, supplemental videos & music, and a good dose of humor & conversation, too, I think it can really make that connection that some feelings are truly universal and span the ages.

    As for TALE OF TWO CITIES, it was read aloud to us, by a passionate male 8th grade English teacher who choked up on the last line. I never forgot that book (or got over the crush I developed on Mr. Caisse that day.)

    My personal philosophy leans heavily toward student choices - right-book, right-time - but I hate to see classics dismissed just because they're classics, too. I think we need to be more thoughtful about how we share them with kids.

    Great conversation - thanks for sharing it! (And thanks for bringing it to my attention, Kelly!)

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  3. In fourth grade, a teacher recommended Ester Forbes' Johnny Tremain to my daughter and kind of twisted her arm to get her to read it. She HATED that book, just hated it, and I think it put her off reading for a while. I never read that one, but I did suffer through Mutiny on the Bounty.

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  4. KB and Kate,
    I think you're completely right that the presentation was part of the problem. In the case of R&J, the problem (and this happens *all the time* in pop culture) is that the play was peddled as a love story when it's actually a cautionary tale. Even as a young adolescent, I could tell that whatever Romeo and Juliet had going on between them was not real love -- certainly not an ideal to aspire to. And yet the story was presented as some kind of timeless love story. I remember reading the play and thinking, "If this is Shakespeare's idea of true love, then he doesn't really know much about the world."

    Similarly, the problem with TALE OF TWO CITIES was that I had been given a strong enough sense of history to understand the book's layers. To enjoy that book even a little bit, you need to understand what was happening in Victorian England, and why people in Dicken's time would be interested in what transpired half a century earlier in France. Maybe not the fault of the novel, but certainly a terrible introduction to an otherwise delightful author!

    My wife and I were discussing this topic yesterday, and I asked her what the solution might be. She said the best thing for her in high school was that her (wonderful) English teacher alternated: students read one difficult book as a class, and then they read one book of their choosing. Seems like a nice carrot-and-stick compromise!

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  5. nothing could ever put me off reading, but WOW, some of the classics have been brutal. Even now, as a PhD student in literature, I struggled through Wuthering Heights. I really don't get why that one is so beloved and praised; everyone in it is just insufferable.

    I never read The Secret Garden as a kid, but it has always felt ... kid-unfriendly to me. Is it the accents? The moralizing? Something about it has always felt a little off-putting (though I read, and loved, A Little Princess when I was younger).

    I LOVE, absolutely LOVE, E. Nesbit, so I can't go with Tom's assessment of 5 Children & It. I *will* say it's probably not the first book I'd give to a kid to introduce them to fantasy, but once I had a kid who'd read some Harry Potter or Percy Jackson or Peter Nimble, I might suggest Nesbit.

    GREAT topic, great post!

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  6. I can hardly conceive of not loving E. Nesbit. The classics I loathed in school were THE PEARL and THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA. Clearly chosen for their page count rather than their merit or appeal to kids.

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  7. Awesome post and awesome comments.

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  8. Thank you for the fascinating discussion on classics and the power of choice. I also want to thank Tom and Peter for their fantastic books. Thanks to Kelly for Book Talk Tuesday and an enjoyable blog.

    I loathed Romeo and Juliet in high school. My teacher tried to liven it up by having us read some of the scenes aloud and I still remember I got to die (which I had to announce when people didn't get it).

    Secret Garden used to be one of my comfort reads and a book to enjoy on a rainy day. I loved the idea of a secret place. (A number of years later I was horrified by a sequel of it I discovered written many years later by another author. Stay far far away from that book. I don't know if I've been able to read the original since).

    I found classics more bearable when discussion was more encouraged than getting the facts down. I was very thankful to one senior English teacher for that.

    I remember also thinking that if a book was taught whole class in my schools, it must be a classic. Thus I thought the Giver was a classic when it was less than five years old!

    A teacher's introduction can really make or a break a book to students. I remember loving Where the Red Fern Grows because my teacher read it aloud to us in fifth grade (and left kids in tears with said reading) and gobbling up Sid Fleischman books for the same reason (This teacher really was the best reading aloud teacher I ever had).

    Sometimes even a recommendation from a friend won't get me past my road block when it comes to classics. Sometimes I even have to be 'tricked' into reading a classic. A friend had to give me Pride & Prejudice and then haul me to the movie before I would read a line of the book (which I then thoroughly enjoyed).

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  9. There would have been serious trouble had either gentleman dissed Mrs. Wiggs and the Cabbage Patch. . .

    Great food for thought! But it bring to mind Nancy Pearl's wise words: "There are fifty books everyone should read; but it's not the same fifty books for everyone."

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  10. I can imagine that in their time, these books were loved by children. When I think about my children- what will they consider classics then they are my age? In the year 2042, my youngest will be 33 (oh dear). Italo Calvino said “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say. Your classic author helps you define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him."
    To me, a classic is a book that I give my child, my grandchildren and great grandchildren... So what will Leah's classic be in 30 years? Tale of Desperaux for sure... Bridge to Terabithia... Holes... (By the way, I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Moby Dick, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Romeo & Juliet, Dante's Inferno and I HATED all Hemingway. No offense.)

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  11. great post, guys - agree with you on The Secret Garden, too! One of the all time best books ever.

    Can't stand that Holden Caulfield though.

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  12. I still make faces when I see copies of The Yearling. That and The Red Badge of Courage were the banes of my public school education.

    Such an interesting conversation, thanks for sharing it with us!

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