This post may qualify as the first bonafide rant on my blog. While I don’t plan to do this on a regular basis, I feel inspired today by an assignment my incipient middle-schooler son Joe must complete before the beginning of the school year. Ah yes, the proverbial “read two books over the summer from the approved list” assignment.
Let me say first that Joe likes to read. Maybe not as much as designing houses on the computer or going to the pool, but he does like to read. Right now, his taste tends to run toward the funny but heartwarming books by Beverly Cleary and the slightly nastier but funny books by Roald Dahl.
So, when we went to examine the list of books selected by students for their peers to read, we went through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, despair, and acceptance. Ironically, all but a few of the books on the list seem to focus on those same stages. While Joe’s response was mostly, “no, I don’t think so,” the response of my wife and me was more like, “are you kidding me?”
In an attempt at fairness, I reprint the list below, with the descriptions provided. Take a glance and then ask yourself what dominant impression remains.
2011 6-8 Master List
All The Broken Pieces/By Ann E. Burg.
Scholastic Press, 2009.
Two years after being airlifted out of Vietnam in 1975, Matt Pin is haunted by the terrible secret he left behind. Now in a loving adoptive home in the United States, a series of profound events forces him to confront his past.
Bystander/By James Preller.
Feiwel and Friends, 2009.
Thirteen-year-old Eric discovers there are consequences to not standing by and watching as the bully at his new school hurts people. Although school officials are aware of the problem, Eric may be the one with a solution.
Faith, Hope, And Ivy June/By Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.
During a student exchange program, seventh-graders Ivy June and Catherine share their lives, home, and communities. Surprisingly, both girls find that although their lifestyles are total opposites, they have a lot in common.
Flawed Dogs: The Shocking Raid On Westminster /By Berkeley Breathed.
Philomel Books, 2009.
After being framed by a jealous poodle, a dachshund is left for dead, but comes back with a group of mutts from the National Last Ditch Dog Depository to disrupt the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show and exact revenge on Cassius the poodle.
Jane In Bloom/By Deborah Lytton.
Dutton Children’s Books, 2009.
Devastated when her beautiful, older sister dies from anorexia, twelve-year-old Jane recovers slowly from the tragedy with help from unexpected sources.
Leviathan/By Scott Westerfeld.
Simon Pulse, 2009.
In an alternate 1914 Europe, fifteen-year-old Austrian Prince Alek is on the run from the Clanker Powers who are attempting to take over the globe using mechanical machinery. Alek soon forms an uneasy alliance with Deryn, a girl secretly disguised as a boy so she can serve in the British Air Service, who is learning to fly genetically-engineered beasts.
Million-Dollar Throw/By Mike Lupica.
Philomel Books, 2009.
Eighth-grade star quarterback Nate Brodie’s family is feeling the stress of the troubled economy, plus his best friend Abby is going blind. When he gets a chance to win a million dollars by completing a pass during halftime of a New England Patriot’s game, he is nearly overwhelmed by the pressure to succeed.
Slob By Ellen Potter.
Philomel Books, 2009.
Picked on, overweight genius Owen tries to invent a television that can see the past to find out what happened the day his parents were killed.
The Storm In The Barn/By Matt Phelan.
Eleven-year-old Jack Clark struggles with everyday obstacles while his family and community contend with the challenges brought on by the Dust Bowl in 1937 Kansas.
Woods Runner/By Gary Paulsen.
Wendy Lamb Books, 2010.
From his 1776 Pennsylvania homestead, thirteen-year-old Samuel sets out toward New York to rescue his parents from the band of British soldiers and Native Americans who kidnapped them after slaughtering most of their community. Includes historical notes.
Gee, would I rather curl up with the book about slaughtered colonials or the dead anorexic girl? The kid airlifted from Viet Nam or Jack Clark and the Dust Bowl?
Don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to books with serious subject matter. According to my students, I am unaware of any book in which someone is not trying to kill themselves, others, or otherwise engage in self-destructive behavior. That’s what we call the great canon of English Literature. Nor am I one of those parents overly concerned with sheltering my children from the harsh realities of life.
But I also like to read for pleasure, and I am concerned that my kids learn to love books by reading stories that appeal to them. On our recent vacation, we listened to an incredibly good recording of Lynn Redgrave reading Roald Dahl’s The Witches, twice (it was that much fun). Joe is now reading if for himself, eager to reproduce that same enjoyment in the solitary pleasure of the text.
I’d hate to dismiss eight out of ten books without reading them, so I’ll just have to say that, if it was me, I’d pick Flawed Dogs by Berke Breathed, since I was a big “Bloom County” fan back in the day. As for Joe? He’s going with Slob. Sure, it has dead parents (like most Disney films), but it also has a magic, time-traveling TV, so who knows, maybe it’s a feel-good book after all.