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Juvenile Justice

Read What Teens Read Before Judging What Is and Isn’t Acceptable

Emily Flake

By Michael Corbin | Posted 2/22/2006

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” So says Holden Caulfield, high-school dropout, in The Catcher in the Rye. Lugging his books around with his barbs at the adult world, Caulfield would be at home in our increasingly illiterate times. In our morally self-righteous age every self-respecting adult has become a proponent of reading and everyone bemoans the sad state of literacy in our culture—particularly that of the young. But we have done our best to make reading the equivalent of taking our castor oil and eating our vegetables: testing for literacy ad nauseam just to see how dumb we really are. But it is with the Holden Caulfields and the turmoil of adolescence where both the promise and pleasure of reading remain. If you are a reader you undoubtedly have had the experience in middle school or high school of a book that blew your mind, perhaps changed your life, where you just needed to pick up the phone and call the author.

When Superintendent Charles Ecker decided to ban Carolyn Mackler’s The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things from Carroll County public schools it seemed just another round in the perennial struggle of the adult world attempting to protect the presumptive innocence of the adolescent. The story took off on its clichéd narrative trajectory with the bumbling septuagenarian superintendent cast as an apparatchik from Fahrenheit 451 who didn’t understand the food-disordered, self-mutilating, sexually precocious world of the contemporary teen female reader. The National Coalition Against Censorship weighed in with press releases, students took up a petition drive to have the book restored, the author intoned solemnly about the importance of her work.

Similarly, when word got out recently that Baltimore City middle-school students, as part of a new literacy initiative, were reading realistic novels in classroom libraries about adolescent life and magazines like CosmoGirl with articles about the nuances of flirting and making out, the adult outrage erupted from all quarters. Conservatives and liberals found the predictable common ground in bemoaning the ostensible dumbing down of the curriculum. The middle-school initiative had the added narrative benefit of being labeled racist for not giving the students of the apartheid school system in Baltimore the benefit of the white county school kids who were all ostensibly diagramming sentences and dutifully reading the classics.

What was lost in all this sound and fury about the explicitness of the content of what kids were reading in school was what these and similar controversies across the country reveal about the place of reading in our lives in general. Most Americans have simply begun to give up on reading novels and “literature,” and literary reading has become a kind of quaint leisure activity of those with too much time on their hands and too much disposable income. To read a novel, a play, or a poem on your own time has become similar to, say, scrap-booking, refinishing old furniture, or looking for the best single-malt scotch—a refined, bourgeois hobby. Fiction and literature no longer matter much anymore in our culture, pop- or otherwise.

This, of course, wasn’t always the case: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is said by some to have started the Civil War. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was called “trash suitable only for the slums” when it was banned in 1885. In 1922, 500 copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses were burned by the U.S. Department of the Post Office. People used to get worked up about the printed thoughts of writers. Books, novels, literature mattered. They had power. People read them. They were part of our moral public discourse, part of our consciousness. Today, besides debating what goes in a middle-school library, it is almost laughable to imagine that anyone would even care about the content of a literary novel, poem, or play anymore.

In 2004 the National Endowment for the Arts released its report Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America. The percentage of adult Americans reading literature has dropped dramatically over the past 20 years. The report found a 10 percent overall drop in literary reading—from 56.9 percent to 46.7 percent of Americans—since 1982. What that means is that fewer than half of Americans had read a novel, short story, play, or poem in the preceding year. The report goes on to observe that the rate of decline in literary reading is accelerating and the decline in literary reading parallels a decline in total book reading. Literary reading is declining among all education levels, the report dissects, and the steepest decline in literary reading is in the youngest age groups.

In December of last year, the National Center of Education Statistics released its National Assessment of Adult Literacy report. What it found was that while more and more adults get a college education fewer of them have very good reading skills. The study found that only 41 percent of graduate students tested in 2003 could be classified as “proficient” in prose—reading and understanding information in short texts—down 10 percentage points since 1992. Of college graduates, only 31 percent were classified as proficient, compared with 40 percent in 1992.

The National Center of Education Statistics also has reported that many fewer kids even begin reading for pleasure. The number of 17-year-olds who reported never or hardly ever reading for fun rose from 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004. At the same time, the percentage of 17-year-olds who read daily dropped from 31 to 22. “We’re seeing substantial declines in reading for pleasure, and it’s showing up in our literacy levels,” Grover Whitehurst, a Department of Education official, noted in the Dec. 16 New York Times about this new data.

There is, however, a place in our culture where books still powerfully matter and where reading for pleasure is still serious business. Since the 1990s there has been an explosion of books for teens, and it is here where reading and literature hold a place unique in our culture. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter has almost single-handedly changed the calculus about book publishing in America. Adult critics and journalists have concomitantly produced a whole subgenre trying to answer why the kids are wanting to read these hefty tomes. With realistic fiction for teens, adults seem flummoxed by the intense engagement some young readers bring to books—such as Mackler’s or Ann Brashares’ Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. Five years ago most bookstores had never even heard of shojo manga, the Japanese teenage girls’ comics; now chain stores can’t stock enough of it.

Moreover, as in Mackler’s work, the difficult social issues that teens face actually get the nuanced moral examination that only literary forms allow. This is clearly distinct from the impoverished, formulaic public discourse about things such as gender, education, success, sex, drugs, abortion, relationships, and race that adolescents (and everyone else) are treated to in the larger culture. A few recent examples of important critical lens of teen books would include Walter Dean Myers in The Autobiography of My Dead Brother, which provides a subtle view into the attraction of gang life for young black kids. Dana Davidson wrote her teen novels Jason and Kyra and Played because no one was telling the story of love and romance among high-achieving African-American students. And as novels have always done, the new teen-fiction voice explores the very things we don’t want to talk about. Gigi Amateau’s Claiming Georgia Tate is a fine, recent treatment that looks unflinchingly at incest and child abuse. Despite the blubber from the usual places, Paul Ruditis’ The Rainbow Party—which could have been read with benefit by a certain former president—attempts to deal with oral sex in teens’ lives. And in Mariah Fredericks’ recent Crunch Time we get to look at why someone would want to cheat on a standardized test in a culture obsessed with sorting the successful and unsuccessful by such tests.

These are just a few recent examples—-books that help us think about our lives, help us create stories about our place in the world. This is the unique service that literature provides. It’s not clear that the adults know what these kids lugging their books around are all about. It’s also not clear that the adults have any coherent stories to tell about the world. Perhaps, if we listen to the kids, literature, reading, and the power of new stories might still find a place in our culture.

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