Thursday, July 31, 2008

What the Kids Are Reading Now

This past weekend, the New York Times touched on a subject that I've thought about frequently: what and how are people reading in the 21st century. Like any informed American, I spend a lot of time on the Internet, reading and researching things for work and for my personal hobbies (such as reading and writing) and for topics related to family life in general. So I'm certainly not averse to people reading online.

Indeed, I applaud it; at least people are reading. And I believe that people are not afraid of writing for themselves. The explosion of blogs and social networking sites and twittering tidbits of foolishness at all hours of the day are strong anecdotal evidence that people are writing more now than they ever have.

I also know from experience that some kids are more likely than others to read books. Back when I was driving kids from schools to a YMCA for an afterschool program, there was one kid in particular (I think he was in first grade when I met him) who'd graduated from picture books to those in which only an occasional sketch was included (think Charlotte's Web or the original Winnie the Pooh books). He even remarked to a friend about how adults read books without pictures as though the concept was incredible.

Still, I can't help but see a healthy dose of pomposity in the views of those in the article who believe children can't learn without reading great books. Of course, they need first to be literate; it's a crucial life skill on par with the ability to communicate (note, I didn't say speak. Moreover, even the most affected by autism are able to communicate as long as we are willing and able to learn how to do so with them.)

I read often — great books, mediocre books, magazine articles, Web sites, academic studies — so I realize I'm not quite the average reader. But there are things I've not even thought of as readable areas that the kids described in this article devour.

Fanfiction.net, for example, is a site I've heard of but that's about it. It doesn't look familiar, so I'm not sure I've ever examined it before. But the girl in the article reads reams of Web pages there, eschewing television. Say what you will about the value of "great books," but I believe a kid who is that devoted to reading now is more likely to both read and possibly write as an adult. Good for Nadia!

Deeper in the article, there's a reference to a 2006 study that found, among other things, that the only kind of reading that related to higher academic performance was frequent novel reading, which is directly related to higher grades — especially in English. The key value of reading book-novels, academics argue, is that it allows readers to mentally chew over the ideas proffered in the works. Indeed that's true, and when people have read books in common, this spurs conversation and further reflection, which embeds the ideas deeper into a child's or adult's brain. This is where the Web is perfect!

So, if I can suggest anything in this post, it would be to encourage everyone to read — novels and short stories, works of nonfiction, newspapers, Web sites, the NYT article from which this post is inspired — and then talk about these things with other people. Reading fosters intelligent discussion. Conversation builds community. Strong community bonds can instill more democratic governance. There's a slogan in the waiting: Literacy Builds Democracy. I think both Republicans and Democrats can support that.

2 comments:

Feliza said...

What kids are reading now? Interesting title. Grabbed my attention straightaway.

Do people find some issue with children spending their time reading online? Seems to me that anything that a kid does besides go out and get in trouble would make parents and teachers thrilled to pieces.

I've discovered in my teenage years that the best way to get a kid or teenager to read is through fan fiction. I myself didn't really get into writing or see myself as a writer until I saw the cartoon show Teen Titans and discovered the fan fiction for it.

(I've always been a... rabid reader of all things fictional and non, so maybe that's not exactly the best example.)

Online reading, especially on Fanfiction.net, is also a really good way for some children or teens that are lonely to find others interested in the same things they are. Humans are complex beings, and everything weaves in and out of everything else. Unlike with plain old novel-reading, which is a good thing in and of itself, online reading isn't a lonely sport. Online communities can help children and teens develop a sense of others as well as a sense of themselves.

(Hmm, wonder if you could possibly have discovered something that both Republicans AND Democrats can stand behind. If you have, excellent job!)

Feliza C.
xxfourthelement-writing@yahoo.com

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks Feliza,

Though I didn't read much fan fiction growing up (some, but not much), I think you're right that it can be a great way for kids and teens to develop a love of reading and writing.

As I said in my post, I'm pleased to see anything that gets people of any age into the habit of reading. Regardless of what they read, I'm a firm believer that it helps them to expand their imagination and experience.