My almost-11-year-old son has always been an avid reader. When he was younger, the kid would read just about anything he could get his mitts on. Case in point: when I was pregnant with his little sister I took him to the doctor’s office and he sat there, five years old, reading the side of the sonogram machine. In the last couple of years, he’s blown through the Harry Potter series, Percy Jackson, every Wimpy Kid, the Fablehaven books, Goosebumps and a gazillion others.
Then, something happened.
He was assigned Treasure Island this year as summer reading.
At first, he was excited. An adventure book! About buccaneers! And buried gold! He couldn’t wait! Until…
He started reading. And not more than two chapters in, his eyes glazed over and he looked at me and moaned, “Mom, this is sooooooo boring!” (This, from a kid who read a sonogram machine. On purpose.)
Now, I don’t want to sound like I’m bashing Treasure Island. Because I’m not. Clearly, it’s just not my son’s cup of tea.
But the fact that my son actually put down a book — on purpose — well, that makes me a little sad. Because I was just like my son as a kid. Always had a book in my hand. Read anything put in front of me. Could likely have told you how many grams of sugar, protein and polyunsaturated fat were in a box of Cheerios.
Then, something happened.
Right around the end of middle school, I discovered to my horror that reading could be… drudgery. All of a sudden, books had to be dissected like lab frogs to uncover hidden meanings. Symbolism abounded. Every novel seemed to feature a “Christ figure.” A story could no longer just be a story. It had to have a moral. A theme. A lot of convoluted English that no one had spoken for centuries.
And I hated it.
So much so that once, for a book report assignment in my Honors English class sophomore year, I did mine on a Danielle Steele novel. (Hey, there was no Twilight back then and I was a lovesick 15-year-old). My report was incredibly detailed — filled with morals, symbolism and overriding themes. I covered the whole checklist — and then some. My teacher reluctantly gave me a decent grade — but not without a big note across the top pointing out that Danielle Steele’s work was NOT “literature.”
And, that I should take my assignments more seriously.
Okay, so maybe she was technically right. But I do recall being somewhat annoyed at the time that just because the book wasn’t a “classic” (ie. written by a dead guy who had an unhealthy obsession with giant fish), that it wasn’t worthy of reading. Or discussing. Now, that’s not to say I think reading shouldn’t challenge one intellectually, emotionally and morally. It should. One of the greatest things about books is how they help us see things from another viewpoint and challenge our assumptions.
But it’s a fine line between learning how to critically analyze a work and just plug plot points into some pre-determined formula. Look! The main character’s initials are JC! He must be the Christ figure!
So, I get what it’s like to suddenly find reading to be (sadly) a chore. For me, it probably wasn’t until later in high school and college (when I discovered Hemingway, Dickens and Edith Wharton) that reading for “homework” became engaging again. Maybe I was just more mature at that point. Maybe I had more dynamic instructors. Maybe the curriculum was better. I don’t have the answer. And I don’t have the answer now. When my son looks at me and asks if he can read something else this summer, please, do I tell him to buck it up… we all went through the same thing in school? Or is there a way to keep him engaged, especially as the reading gets more complicated… and, dare I say, “boring”?
I’d love to hear your thoughts, Mixed-Up Community… And I promise, there won’t be a test at the end!
Jan Gangsei writes stories that she hopes will keep young readers engaged. If not, there’s always symbolism.