With all the national statistics out there about teens not reading, it’s hard to believe that a class full of boys who’ve had more than a few problems with school make it astounding clear that reading really matters. And some of these same boys talk, when asked, about reading books and discussing them with their grandparents—of all people! Hard to believe, but it’s true. Let’s take a look inside.
There’s a special program in Michigan called Project 2000 that’s taught by Allen Einstein, who doubles as the major photographer for the Pistons. Project 2000 (www.project2000.org) began as a three-year pilot program for eighth grade students in the Birmingham, Michigan school district.
These students were not doing well in the regular classroom environment, so they live and breathe with Allen in a space that looks more like a glorified family room. There are currently fourteen students enrolled in the ninth year of this program and they recently spoke to me, via email, about reading and about their relationships with their grandparents and books.
I began each interview with a quote attributed to C.S. Lewis, “We read so we’re not alone,” and asked the boys if they ever felt this way. What I got wasa virtual book flood, with the boys adroitly explaining why or how specific books hooked them. Here are just a few titles, with a bit of explanation:
The Outsiders and Small Steps, because the boys could relate to the main character’s problems and they felt the authors did a great job describing the main characters. Here’s a telling excerpt from The Outsiders, a book about the bonds and boundaries of friendship with a backdrop of fighting gangs, the Socs and the Greasers:
I knew it wasn’t any use though—the fast walking, I mean—even before the Corvair pulled up beside me and five Socs got out. I got pretty scared—I’m kind of small for fourteen even though I have a good build, and those guys are bigger than me. I automatically hitched my thumbs in my jeans and slouched, wondering if I could get away if I made a break for it. I remembered Johnny—his face all cut up and bruised, and I remembered how he had cried when we found him, half-conscious, in the corner lot. Johnny had it awful rough at home—it took a lot to make him cry (page 5).
The boys also mentioned Crank and The Supernaturalism because they’re both interesting and easy to read;When Zachary Beaver Came to Town because of the swearing and the interesting storyline; Skellig, because the chapters are short and keep your interest; Eragon andEldest because they’re descriptive and well written. Some of the boys love series books, like His Dark Materials,The Golden CompassSeries (The Dark Materials), and Ranger’s Apprentice, because they all take you on adventures.(To read small excerpts from all these books, go to www.grandmagazine.com/[LN1]).
Wow! Teens read to get away from life’s restrictions, to relate, to “get real,” to see how book characters solve problems.Sound a bit like why we all like to read? But there’s another reason, too, that the boys probably felt they couldn’t discuss, at least not with me.
I know about this reason because of my own childhood with parents who, while not calling themselves alcoholics, certainly drank far more than my friends’ parents. I call it the Save-My-Life reason. Nancy Pearl, the author of Book Crush: For Kids and Teens, has her own save-my-life story:
My Happiest memories of a childhood that was otherwise scarred by an anxious and raging father and a depressed and angry mother were of escaping into books (p. v).
When I read these words and reflected upon their immediate effect on me, I thought of that C. S. Lewis quote. Suddenly I didn’t feel alone. In Pearl’s words I knew I had found a phrase that partially defined an aspect of my own childhood: Many of my happiest memories were of escaping into books.
As we move on to think together about our grandchildren and their reading habits, it’s useful to remember that authors for our teens today, as when we were young, write not for English class, but “to convey something they figured out during a life of sacrifice, error, love, delight, boredom, frustration, horror.” Given this truth, there’s a place, I think, for suggesting to our grandchildren that we might read a book together and talk about it.
Discussing Books with Grandparents?
When I suggested the idea to the boys, however, they overwhelmingly said that it would be strange and most hadn’t ever done it. But when I asked, “Have you ever considered reading a book with your grandparent and discussing it, Roger (a pseudonym) said that he would ask them to read a book with him because he doesn’t like them that much.
Interesting, yes? He probably knows he doesn’t know them well,if at all, and that maybe he’d learn more about them by talking about book situations that live outside their lives. Another boy said that he’d read a book with his grandparent because “they’d probably get more out of it.” (I laughed softly to myself.)
The more telling question I, I learned quickly, was this: “If you could read a book with your grandparent, what book would it be?” Here are a few answers:
- I would read books about wars with them because they have been through hard times and I want to know about their experiences.
- It would be the Golden Compass because it’s a book an adult would read.
- I would read books about fishing because they love to go fishing.
- I would pick 28 Days Later for reading with my grandpa because it’s about war and violence. My grandpa was in the Korean War.
- I would read a book that has to do with teenagers because my grandmother does not know about teenagers’ issues.
- I would read The Outsiders because the book takes place when they were younger and they could help me understand what happened then.
- If my grandpa were alive, I would read a gun book with him because he was really into guns.
What touched my heart so was that these boys really want to relate to us, their grandparents, as much as we want to relate to them! And some teens want to help us understand their points-of-view on life: Books, they said, would have a way of helping us see teens’ issues.
What’s more—these boys, at least—see our value in helping them live their lives by giving them a deeper understanding of the histories we’veendured, from the reality of the 1960s in the Outsiders to the environment of a war-torn country during World War II, the Korean War, Viet Nam.
When asked if there were books they’d like to read with their grandparents and not their parents, this answer is telling: “Some books that I would not like to talk about with my parents are normally school-assigned books, so if I don’t understand the book, they can help me get it.” And, we “get it,” too: Gone are any sarcastic remarks, “You don’t know that?” Or, “I can’t believe we disagree about this!”
Though some of the boys said a grandparent partner might be fun and an experience, I learned a bit about what they wouldn’t like to do with us. For example, forget text-messaging. One student said he’d not like to text-message about books with his grandparents because he pays the phone bills and “it would be a waste”: while another said, “It would just be too weird.”
Grandparents/Teen Connections Through Books: A Few Good Ideas
As summer continues, think about reading a book with your freshman or sophomore high school teen, like Summerland, already becoming a favorite, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon. Summerland is the story about Ethen Feld, the book’s hero, who saves the ferishers (beings on the island who ensure perfect weather) from extinction. It’s a romp through the defeat of giants, bat-winged goblins, and one of the toughest ball clubs in the realms of magic, to save all the Sumerlands, and ultimately the world.
For middle school teens, Holes, by Louis Sachar, would be perfect summer read. Holes, recently rated as one of the top five books chosed by teens in every grade from 5th through 8th, is about Stanley Yelnats, a kid under a curse that began with his great-great-grandfather. Unjustly, Stanley is sent to Camp Green Lake, where boys are to build character.
You might get ahold of the two terrific book lists I mentioned, both in paperback, and mine them with your teen for titles they’ll love to read on their own, or with you: Great Books for High School Kids edited by Rick Ayers and Amy Crawford, and Nancy Pearl’s Book Crush. I also valueValerie & Walter’s Best Books for Children: A Lively, Opinionated Guide by Valerie Lewis and Walter Mayers and Anita Silvey’s500 Great Books for Teens.
Since most teens are tethered to technology, a good way to approach your grandchild, or any teen that loves you and could use a grandparent, would be to ask for technology help. My grand-nephew, Michael, and I just did this reading The Golden Compass. And, we found ourselves googling terms, like “oblation board,” often.
Explain that you want to learn everything you can about ways to communicate over the Internet and ask if could you do this through an on-line book discussion of some sort. Let them come up with all the ideas: email, a blog, Facebook. (But, maybe no text-messaging!)
Lastly, if your teen is in middle school, consider purchasing a subscription to Teen Magazine. I’ve read the magazine with teens for years, and they love it.
There are short excerpts from books that many teens go on to read; play adaptations your teens can take to school, like Warriors Don’t Cry—the story of the Little Rock Arkansas Central High School debacle; short stories, for example, “Kim Chee and Yellow Peril,” about a young woman who ponders her hyphenated identity; and there’s always a terrific writing assignment that leads to possible publication in READ. (To download a full issue, just go to the Read blog,www.readingandwriting.com. To subscribe, I prefer calling: 1-800- 446-3355.
Gook luck! And, remember, we DO read so we’re not alone, and our grandchildren are no exception. You know, reading with our grandTeens might be like devouring a hot fudge Sunday: Combining age and youth might be the next best thing to that hot and cold delight.What a concept.
References (Books and Articles)
Ayers, R. and Crawford, A. (Eds.) (2004). Great books for high school kids: A teachers’ guide to books that can change teens’ lives. Boston: Beacon Press.
Hinton, S. E. (1967) The Outsiders. New York: Penguin.
Lewis, C. S. Shadowlands, a DVD. https://prayerfoundation.org/movies/movie_review_shadowlands_anthony_hopkins.htm
Lewis, V. & Mayers, W. (2004). Valerie & Walter’s best books for children: A lively, opinionated guide for listeners and readers from birth to age 12 (2nd edition). New York: HarperCollins.
Pearl, N. (2007). Book crush. For kids and teens, recommended reading fo every mood, moment, and interest. Seattle, WA: Sasquatch Books.
Silvey, Anita. (2006). 500 Great books for teens. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Magazines for Teens Mentioned in Ruth’s Article
Read. Published by Weekly Reader
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For subription services, ca;; 1-800-446-3355