Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
Books Your Kid Should Read
Ah, summertime. Ah, summer reading time! But what books should your kids bury their noses into this vacation? Enter super librarian Nancy Pearl. A veteran bookophile, commentator on NPR, and the model for a Librarian Action Figure doll (really), Nancy has introduced thousands of kids to great reads. She's the author of the popular Book Lust and Book Crush, which recommends books for elementary to high school students. We talked to Nancy about this summer's reading:
VT: What's your approach to finding great books for kids?
Nancy: My niche is to go beyond the best sellers and beyond that front sales table at the big chain bookstores. There are so many books out there and it's very hard to pick and choose among them. What I've tried to do is suggest books that children and teens have really loved and that I've loved as well. I want to help parents and teachers find their way through the maze of the thousands of books that are published each year.
VT: Can you give us examples of great books that may be a little obscure or buried in the back of the library?
Nancy: One of my favorite writers for middle grade to early teen readers is a woman named Polly Horvath. The comparison to adult books would be the Anne Tyler-sort of quirky, very character driven novels. Polly Horvath's books, as with all children's books, have a much faster moving plot than you will ever find in an Anne Tyler book, but still, the characters really shine.
There are also so many fantasy novels being written now because of the popularity of Harry Potter. Finding a really good fantasy novel is a great gift you can give a child who is eagerly waiting to see what's going to happen in the next Harry Potter book.
There's a novel by Suzanne Collins called Gregor The Overlander, which I thought was absolutely wonderful. I thought it was a little bit of a shame they turned it into a series, although clearly that's how it was set up to be. I didn't think that the following ones were quite as good as the first one.
VT: Interesting what you say about the faster moving plot. Sounds like it would be a lot more appealing to a teenager than say, "War and Peace."
Nancy: My theory of reading is that people enter books through different "doorways." But there are some books in which 99% of the people who liked it entered it through the same doorway. A book like "The DaVinci Code" is a good example. The people who love that book all entered it through the doorway of "story." That's what they talk when they describe their experience of reading that book, the experience of turning the pages, wanting to find out what happens next.
That story doorway is the major doorway for children's books and for most teen novels, certainly the very popular teen novels, because kids don't have a lot of patience for character exploration or, you know, evocation of setting. Kids read the "Harry Potter" books I think far differently than adults.
Nancy: In library circles we talk about "appeal characteristics" and for a long time I thought about books in terms of the four major appeal characteristics: story, character, language and setting. Then I thought a better metaphor is "doorways" because you enter the world of the book. People talk about reading as a solitary activity but for me it's always been a very interactive activity because, you know, I'm creating that book with the author. The two of us are making it what it is for me.
VT: How do you get this idea of interactivity across to a kid? We typically think of it belonging to the domain of video games and the like.
Nancy: I believe is there is a book out there that will turn a child, if not into a reader, then into someone who can appreciate that books are as valid any extracurricular activity. What you would do with reluctant readers is find a book that will just hook them through their own particular interests.
People always talk about computers and how they're taking kids away from reading -- and they are. But for kids who love computers who are age nine to twelve, for example, there's a wonderful series by a man named Terry Pratchett. The first book is called Only You Can Save Mankind and it's about a kid who's playing a computer game and then words come across the screen that say, "only you can save mankind" and they're not kidding. Terry Pratchett's a wonderful, wonderful writer and his book is the kind computer-playing kids would really get into. And don't forget, there's also wonderful non-fiction available on almost any topic that you could come up with.
VT: That's right, it doesn't have to be a novel.
Nancy: No, it doesn't. We tend to forget that people -- adult readers as well as children and teens -- read non-fiction the same way they read novels. They read it for that sense of enjoyment and that sense of learning about something they might not know about. But remember, for children and teens you've got to have a plot that pulls you along.