It’s interesting to think about the steady decline in expectations for kids when it comes to reading. Not long ago, kids were taught Latin and Greek and they were taught Latin and Greek so they could read the classics…in the original language. Think of Aesop’s Fables. Think of children being read Plutarch’s Lives by their parents. This is heavy stuff. When you read old school books, you’re struck by a few things. Sure, there is the racism and the historical inaccuracies, but there is also an assumed familiarity with obscure figures from the ancient world and a willingness to wrestle with morally complex topics.
There is a quote from George Orwell, which dates to the early 20th century, that accidentally 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 “wholesome” is controversial!
It shouldn’t surprise us that the children and young adult sections of bookstores these days are filled with so much infantilizing or absurd nonsense. Is that because kids are dumber than they were in Orwell’s time? Or back before that? No. It’s that we’ve stopped believing they are capable of reading challenging books. So we provide “kids editions” and give them silly picture books. We haven’t built their muscles and then we wonder why they can’t handle heavy stuff.
Well stop it. Push them. Push yourself. They aren’t babies.