It's happened again. The otherwise terrific school where my son Sam attends 7th grade has assigned yet another dark, depressing book for required reading.
In fairness to them, I appreciate what the school is trying to do. The "spiral curriculum" takes the kids up through history, and integrates their learning in all areas with the time period they are currently studying - so it stands to reason that this term's reading should include something about the Mayan culture. But why must these books always be so relentlessly dark?
The day Sam began the book, he woefully announced, "Well, I'm on page 7 and already there have been five deaths - woops, make that six. Oh, now the parents have died. We're up to eight." At least he has a sense of humor about it.
But for me, being hell bent on trying to reinforce the connection between reading and pleasure so that my kids will continue to love reading, and seek it out as a preferred activity, this is something akin to sabotage.
In "Raising Bookworms" I talked about going through this same experience with him in fifth grade. One book after another featuring war, death, destruction and children in peril. The year culminated with a book titled "My Brother Sam is Dead" - a worthy book, but the title alone was enough to send my Sam, older brother that he is, straight back to the TV.
I also wrote about being inspired by Barbara Feinberg's book, "Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories and the Mystery of Making Things Up," in which she wrestles with the same issue with her kids. She writes: “I have realized what is missing in those books: Open destiny.
It’s from a line in a Grace Paley story. She describes how she hates stories that move from point a to point b, toward an ending that’s fixed before starting out. You know, contrived. She says she hates that absolute line between two points…not for literary reasons, she says, but because it takes all hope away. ‘Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.’”
God knows I am not advocating censorship. I do believe these assigned books are important reading, and I know many kids who find it reassuring to read about people whose lives are harder than their own. I also know they provide important lessons, not only in history but in awareness, compassion, perspective. But with only so many hours in the day, and most of them allocated to school work - classes from 8 - 3:30, an hour or more of homework, often a music lesson or a vision therapy appointment afterwards - there is precious little time left in a day for elective reading of the kind he loves, the kind that feeds his spirit and makes him want to read more, let alone for time to just noodle and be a kid. And I worry that for a sensitive young man like Sam, this relentless darkness will only serve to push him away from books altogether.
So I will reach out once again. To the school, to the teachers, to Sam especially - to keep the dialogue open, and I will continue to surround Sam with the books he loves: the comedies, the fantasies, the biographies. In this way, perhaps I can keep his destiny open.. as a reader, if nothing else.