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The Classics Conundrum

May 9th, 2012 at Wed, 9th, 2012 at 2:56 pm by Darcy

    Summer vacation is quickly approaching and it’s a great time to encourage your teen to read. If  you are hoping to give your teen a classic I’m here to talk you out of it. Yes, you read that correctly. Forcing a reluctant reader to slog through Jane Austen does nobody any favors. My biggest fear as a librarian is that my kids (and yours!) will grow up to hate reading so I will do anything to be sure they love the feel of a book, digital or print,  in their hands.

    To be honest, the literature major in me is howling, but when it comes to connecting kids with books, my teen librarian side takes over. Many classics won’t seem relevant and mean nothing to a thirteen- year- old boy in this digital age. Jane Austen knew nothing of text messaging and J.D. Salinger would never have liked social networking. Some themes in classics remain relevant and universal to the human condition, but you will also find those same themes in well-written modern teen literature.

    There is a scene that plays out in the library many times every summer when well-meaning parents try to make their kids read. Here is a variation on that conversation:

    A parent drags in a sullen teen.

    “She needs to read a classic,” the mother demands, and shoots a warning look at the teen. The girl sighs, rolls her eyes or tries to melt into the carpet in embarrassment.   

    “Is this for an assignment?” I ask tentatively, hoping there is a good reason for a force fed classic, such as summer school or Proven Above Average Intelligence.

    “No!” the parent answers, looking at me like my final brain cell flopped onto the carpet.

    “What kinds of books do you like to read?” I ask the teen, hoping to start a dialogue to recommend appropriate books. On a good day, the kid will perk up and try to answer.

    “Adventure!” she will say.

    Or romance.

    Or, heaven forbid, graphic novels.

     In that hopeful, suspended moment the teen and I make eye contact and I begin a mental list of books that would be a good fit. Not one of them is a dusty classic. Well-written, yes, but not a classic by definition. This is the point at which a parent interrupts.

    “I’m tired of you reading that garbage. You need to read something good. A classic.”

    That tiny glimmer of hope left in the teen dries up and joins my last brain cell on the carpet in front of the reference desk.

    I can tell you what the mom is holding, without even looking. As she strong-arms her child to read a classic, she’s clutching a tall stack of romance novels or cooking magazines. I have nothing against romance novels. Sometimes it’s magazines, sci-fi or tole painting books. The point is, while she’s stacking dusty tomes in front of her children, Mom gets to read for pleasure. Any kid will immediately pick up on the unfairness of the situation.

    When a well-meaning father tries desperately to convince his son that he must read Melville over the summer I have one question.


    Is it important for his well-being, alongside food, shelter and love? Or is it more important to be able to say he is reading Melville? Is it a milestone to growing up? Classics shouldn’t be forced like daily castor oil doses. Either one is likely to leave a bad taste in a teen’s mouth. 

    Parents want the best best for their children. I understand that. Parents may not want them reading reading books filled with bathroom humor. I get that too. But sometimes a well-placed fart joke keeps them reading.

    Librarians want to connect a teen to a book that will reach them. Plenty of modern teen literature is filled with quality writing and universal themes like those found in classics. There are many great places to look.

    Award lists give us a good start. The Printz Award, sponsored by the American Library Association, is given to a teen novel based on literary merit. The YALSA division of ALA also has a variety of other lists and awards for youth. Even the National Book Award has a prize specific to young people’s literature.

    Book awards promise quality writing, but kids love to read books recommended by their peers. There are two Pacific Northwest book awards that are chosen by students. The Evergreen Young Adult Book Award, sponsored by the Washington Young Adult Review Group, allows voters in grades 7-12. The Young Readers Choice Award is sponsored by the Pacific Northwest Library Association and not only allows students to vote, it encourages them to nominate titles they have enjoyed. Tapping in to that enthusiasm will encourage more reading.

    Finally, if your shy teen refuses to open up to a librarian, there are technical approaches to finding a good book. The King County Library System offers a database called NoveList. Using your library card number you may log in, limit to a teen audience and search for read alikes, genres, plot points and settings.

    Some teens do want to spend their summer reading Kafka. That’s wonderful. If they still lean toward books with bathroom humor, rejoice, they are reading. This summer when parents and teens come in I hope to see them leave with plenty of books everyone will enjoy. Who knows? The toilet-themed book in that stack may stick around long to enough to become a classic.


Here are some of my current favorite titles:

  • Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet (Star crossed lovers meet the Cuban Missile Crisis)
  • Dark River by Mary Jane Beaufrand, formerly titled The River ( “I suppose there are worse things than being soggy and dateless and shoving bunny carcasses into a garbage bin on Valentine’s Day, but if there are, I can’t think of any.”)
  • Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt (Baseball meets John Audubon)
  • An Abundance Of Katherines by John Green (Girls and math. Really!)
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (I’ll never look at Yew trees the same again.)
  • Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin (What really happens when we die?)
  • Between Shades of Grey by Ruth Sepetys (Lithuanian work camps in 1940 Siberia)
  • The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff (Ever feel like you don’t quite fit in with your family?)
  • Impossible by Nancy Werlin (Are you going to Scarborough Fair?)
  • Daughter of Smoke and Bone by  Laini Taylor (Chimera, the new vampires)

See you in the stacks!

Darcy is the teen services librarian at the Bellevue Library. She wants all readers to know that it is just fine to love teen fiction, regardless of their age.

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