some people want to fill the world with silly love songs.
in this week’s new yorker, rebecca mead is wringing her hands over what she calls the percy jackson problem. for those of you who don’t have kids in the house, here’s some 411: percy jackson is the wacky protagonist of a series of books by (beloved-in-my-house) rick riordan. percy is a kid who has ADHD and behavioral problems in school — you know, that PITA kid whom every teacher wants to dropkick out the nearest window? percy, we also find out early in the series, is a greek demigod (which is part of the reason he struggles so.) through his adventures, kids (and the adults who read to them) often get their appetite whetted for the magical world of mythology.
so what’s so bad about percy? to paraphrase mead’s argument, between the use of slangy-current pop language and milieus and the less-than-deep storylines, folks in this camp are terrified that books like those in the percy jackson series are a gateway drug to a lifelong obsession with literary dross. they believe that consuming these sorts of works results in less critical readers. in other words, popular fiction is dumbing down the world for kids.
(for those of you keeping score, this is #25,689 in the ways in which you are screwing up as a parent.)
when i was growing up, my mother took me to the library two and three times a week. no exaggeration here. the librarians knew us at both the ocean county library and the now-defunct bishop memorial library. if there were a 12-step program for bookaholics, my mother would be the queen and reigning champ. any time she has had a spare minute, her nose is in a book. if i woke up at ungodly o’clock a.m. as a kid, i’d usually find my mom, black coffee and a romance or a mystery in hand. she has always been, and always will be, a book pusher. (ask my kids.) mom always had one rule at the library: take out whatever you want, but you need to actually read it.
now i still recall the day that dennis, the long-haired librarian at the ocean county library, stopped my nine-year-old self trying to take out romeo and juliet, god bless you mr. rosewater, and war and peace. he looked at me squirrelly, then asked my mom whether she had actually seen what i was taking out of the library. (please don’t ask me why i had made those selections. it seemed like a good idea at the time.)
are you sure you want wreke taking out these books? he asked my mom.
she looked at me with the seriousness of an executioner. are you going to read them, wreke? she asked. i nodded that i would, in fact, tackle all three within the three allotted weeks i would be granted. she then looked at dennis. let’s take them out, then.
(the only one of the three i finished was romeo and juliet. in high school. kicking and screaming by then.)
yep, mom always let me read anything i wanted to read. there was the phase when i exclusively read partridge family and archie comic books. there was my sue barton, student nurse phase. there was every single book about the beatles phase. (that one is still in progress.) and of course, there was the time in seventh grade where i chose soul on ice for a book report. (i still wonder if my english teacher ever recovered from that one.)
in short, there have been plenty of generations of people reading all sorts of things — and somehow, we still continue to get great literature, great music, and great works of art. we all develop in weird and wonderful ways; and part of that is because we each receive such weird and wonderful input from all directions — from our families, from our friends, from our worlds — and of course, from our books. i know there are plenty of baby boomers who grew up reading all kinds of crap under the covers, and yet here we are. so please, get the hell off the backs of the younger generations. with all the other temptations out there, electronic and otherwise, it is difficult enough to get them to read. there will be plenty of time to refine things once they have caught the bug.
in the meantime (and with sincerest apologies to malcolm x), we need to get kids reading by any means necessary. i am not above enticing my kids’ interest in books however i can do it. i have read any number of silly things to them when they were little — i wanted them to just hear the words and love the sounds. over time, i would read chapter books that i thought sounded fun until they were old enough to make their own choices. i admit, though, that when they are a captive audience in the car with me driving four hours to see family, i break out books on CD that i get from my local library. and they listen.
meanwhile, back in percy land… while waiting for percy jackson’s book five to come out, jools was jonesing for some riordan to read. we made a trek to central library, where we discovered that riordan has also written books… for GROWNUPS. the boy borrowed mission road, a novel about a private eye trying to solve a murder. sure, it wasn’t his usual fare. but for a boy who loathes reading, he actually read it. granted, he was especially thrilled because there were CURSE WORDS! and INAPPROPRIATE THINGS! in the book. but you know what? he was reading.
what’s wrong with that? i’d like to know.