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A Debt of Gratitude

Posted: 2010-03-22

People pushing the Common Core Standards need to read this piece, which appeared in the March 15, 2010 American Way. Three cheers for American Airlines--even if the author does set up librarians as straw men. The librarians I know would never pooh pooh books children like. That said, when the Standardisto mentality hits a school hell bent on the Common Core, bad things will happen. Bad things like Little Women for 8th graders and As I Lay Dying for 11th graders.

Little Women was the second-favorite book as a primary grade reader, but ohmygoodness, is it a "lack of standards" that would prevent me from offering this to Grades 6-8? As Jo said, often enough, "Fiddlesticks!"

Here'a passage, chosen at random, from Chapter 7:

"That boy is a perfect cyclops, isn't he?" said Amy one day,
as Laurie clattered by on horseback, with a flourish of his whip
as he passed.

"How dare you say so, when he's got both his eyes? And
very handsome ones they are, too," cried Jo, who resented any
slighting remarks about her friend.

"I didn't day anything about his eyes, and I don't see why
you need fire up when I admire his riding."

"Oh, my goodness! That little goose means a centaur, and she
called him a Cyclops," exclaimed Jo, with a burst of laughter.
"You needn't be so rude, it's only a `lapse of lingy', as Mr.
Davis says," retorted Amy, finishing Jo with her Latin. "I just
wish I had a little of the money Laurie spends on that horse," she
added, as if to herself, yet hoping her sisters would hear. . . .
A distinguished personage happened to visit the school that
morning, and Amy's beautifully drawn maps received praise, which
honor to her foe rankled in the soul of Miss Snow, and caused Miss
March to assume the airs of a studious young peacock. But, alas,
alas! Pride goes before a fall, and the revengeful Snow turned the
tables with disastrous success. No sooner had the guest paid the
usual stale compliments and bowed himself out, than Jenny, under
pretense of asking an important question, informed Mr. Davis, the
teacher, that Amy March had pickled limes in her desk.

Now Mr. Davis had declared limes a contraband article, and
solemnly vowed to publicly ferrule the first person who was found
breaking the law. This much-enduring man had succeeded in banishing
chewing gum after a long and stormy war, had made a bonfire of the
confiscated novels and newspapers, had suppressed a private post
office, had forbidden distortions of the face, nicknames, and
caricatures, and done all that one man could do to keep half a hundred
rebellious girls in order. Boys are trying enough to human patience,
goodness knows, but girls are infinitely more so, especially to
nervous gentlemen with tyrannical tempers and no more talent for
teaching than Dr. Blimber. Mr. Davis knew any quantity of Greek,
Latin, algebra, and ologies of all sorts so he was called a fine
teacher, and manners, morals, feelings, and examples were not
considered of any particular importance. It was a most unfortunate
moment for denouncing Amy, and Jenny knew it. Mr. Davis had
evidently taken his coffee too strong that morning, there was an
east wind, which always affected his neuralgia, and his pupils had
not done him the credit which he felt he deserved. Therefore, to
use the expressive, if not elegant, language of a schoolgirl, "He
was as nervous as a witch and as cross as a bear". The word `limes'
was like fire to powder, his yellow face flushed, and he rapped on
his desk with an energy which made Jenny skip to her seat with
unusual rapidity.

by Carlton Stowers

SOME YEARS AGO, before I learned the hard lessons of public speaking, I was invited to address a convention of librarians. I told them a harmless joke or two, praised the gallant work they performed and fondly recalled my book-hungry visits to the libraries of my youth.

The audience was eating out of my hand. That is, until I shared my newfound delight in the fact that my 12-going-on-13 son, who was once not interested in so much as reading the back of a cereal box, had finally discovered the pleasure of books.

One of the librarians immediately asked me what he was reading, and my innocent reply was that he had begun to devour the young-adult novels written by an Oklahoma woman named S.E. Hinton. Suddenly the question evolved into a full-frontal interrogation. Peering at me over her glasses, my host suggested that if I had any idea of the subject matter of Hinton's novels, I'd best perform my parental duty by returning home as quickly as possible and tossing them in the trash. A ceremonial burning might be even better.

Explaining that I had, in fact, read the parables of good and evil attached to life in a teenage gang, I admitted that they weren't exactly my cup of tea. On the other hand, they were well written, ultimately claimed high moral ground, had won numerous awards, sold like hula hoops and, most important, were interesting enough to lure my son away from cartoon television.

I'd have been OK had I stopped there. Instead, I suggested that if hers was the attitude of all literary gatekeepers, our next generation might well be on its way to absolute, dumbfounding illiteracy.

Things sorta went downhill from there. Trust me when I say you should never argue with the folks serving the rubber chicken.

Now, come forward with me to modern day. That kid who started his reading journey with Hinton characters like Tex and Ponyboy is now 42, a constant reader of both quality fiction and enlightening nonfiction.

And when his 9-year-old son isn't doing homework or at soccer practice, he's lost in the magical Hogwarts School adventures of Harry Potter. His 12-year-old cousin, meanwhile, can quote entire passages from Stephenie Meyer̢۪s blockbuster Twilight series.

Yet when ol' granddad brags, he still gets grief: They're wasting their time on that fantasy, magic and chaste romance-vampire tale. And don't even get me started on the scary preteen Goosebumps stuff authored by R.L. Stine.

See where I'm going with this?

It is my firm and unfaltering belief that the valuable habit of reading doesn̢۪t begin with the Great Works. Remember back when you couldn't get enough of Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, and when the name Tom Sawyer was more familiar than that of Tom Wolfe? What I'm saying is we̢۪ve all got to start somewhere.

And, trust me, things are just beginning to get interesting. I'm already putting together a reading list that is going to knock the kids' socks off this summer. There's Holes, a National Book Award winner for Young People's Literature, by Louis Sachar, and its charming follow-up, Small Steps. They're going to love the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by mystery writer Rick Riordan and a slew of sports-related novels aimed toward kids and authored by famed New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica.

If these don't suit, they're welcome to make their own choices.

Duncan McDougall, executive director of the Vermont-based Children's Literary Foundation, agrees that any and all reading is a good idea. "Parents concerned that their child is reading a book that is not of 'high quality' should remember that as long as children are reading, they are expanding their language skills, vocabulary and imagination. Honing their reading skills increases the chances they will succeed in school and become better prepared to read the next book and the next."

His 12-year-old foundation, which focuses on the needs of low-income, at-risk and rural readers and writers throughout New Hampshire and Vermont, can break your heart with the statistics it has compiled, like the fact that more than 60 percent of low-income families have not a single book at home for their children to read.

Perhaps somebody needs to better explain that if you can't afford a Barnes & Noble gift card, you might want to run down and check on a free-for-nothing deal at the public library.

That said, I hereby offer heartfelt thanks to J.K. Rowling, pleased as can be that she and her imaginary pal Harry Potter have earned so much money they're now listed in Guinness World Records. My hat's off to Stephenie Meyer for storming the best-seller lists and luring millions of young readers with her Twilight series. Way to go, R.L. Stine; keep cranking them out. And bless you, Susan Eloise Hinton. I shall continue to defend you wherever rubber chicken is served.

One and all, you are pointing youngsters in the right direction.

Recently, Carlton Stowers was pleased to learn that one of his books, Death in a Texas Desert: And Other True Crime Stories from the Dallas Observer, was included on the required summer reading list of the East Ramapo Central School District in Spring Valley, N.Y. Also on the list was the enduring S.E. Hinton.

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