It’s interesting to think about the steady decline in expectations for our kids when it comes to reading. Sure, we want them to be able to read earlier than ever, but what about what they read?
Not long ago, kids were taught Latin and Greek so they could read the classics…in their original languages. Think of Aesop’s Fables. Think of children being read Plutarch’s Lives by their parents. This is heavy stuff. And purposefully so. Because when you read old school books, what you’re really doing is acquainting yourself with the obscure yet illustrative figures from the ancient world while also displaying a willingness to wrestle with timeless and morally complex topics.
There is a quote from George Orwell, which dates to the early 20th century, that illustrates how much things have changed. “Modern books for children are rather horrible things,” he said, “especially when you see them in the mass. Personally I would sooner give a child a copy of Petronius Arbiter than Peter Pan, but even Barrie seems manly and wholesome compared with some of his later imitators.”
How many adults even know who Petronius is? (He was a writer who lived in the court of Nero). And how many adults today probably winced at the idea that a book should teach kids how to be manly? Even the idea of wholesomeness is controversial! Wholesome according to whom? The white male patriarchy? The west? The Judeo-Christian tradition?
This is how the discussion devolves these days. Is it any surprise then that the children and young adult sections of today’s bookstores are filled with so much infantilizing escapism, fantastical melodrama, ie just plain absurd nonsense? The curmudgeons among us want to blame millennials and Gen Z for this. Their laziness and faltering tastes are why we’re awash in this stuff.
But do you really believe our kids are dumber than the kids of Orwell’s time? Or back before that? Of course not!
We are the problem. Parents. Adults. Educators. Publishers. As a collective, we’ve stopped believing our kids are capable of reading challenging books. So we provide them with “kids editions” and give them silly picture books, instead of helping them build their reading muscles, and then we wonder why they can’t handle heavy stuff.
Well stop it. Push them. Push yourself. They aren’t babies. Or at least they shouldn’t be after they’ve learned to read for themselves.