Literary Call to Arms
- Tuesday, February 19, 2008
The Appeal of Literature
There is a wealth of good literature, so it should not be difficult to find works that are appealing to your child’s natural curiosity. If your child tends to be drawn to certain types of people or characters, let that guide reading selections. If your child is particularly interested in exotic locales or fantastically imaginative places, help select works with settings that capture their attention.
You might also encourage your child to think about other genres. If he or she complains that novels are too long and boring, try a short story or a one-act play. If he has a love of language, encourage him to see what poetry has to offer. There are unconventional sub-genres, such as flash fiction (or microfiction) and historical fiction, that might be appealing to the right student. By showing your child how interesting and relevant literature can be, you will get him or her off to a good start with a lifelong love of reading.
Literary Content as Guide
The self-directed approach to learning can be very successful with literature because it so readily leads the student deeper into literature and into other areas of study. How can the parent guide the student from one work of literature to another? There are two basic approaches: content and form. The content-based approach applies the cross-curricular idea in which you use the work as a launch pad for related studies. For example, reading Theodore Dreiser’s classic Sister Carrie leads to studying capitalism (economics or philosophy), the Industrial Revolution (history), early American theater (drama), and the changing opportunities afforded women in America (social studies). And like most great literature, there is plenty of material to discuss human interaction, decision-making, and morality. Perhaps the study of the Industrial Revolution leads to reading a Charles Dickens novel to see how British and American experiences in this area are similar and different.
Remember, literature is written within the author’s context and the story’s context, so there is plenty of material your student can pursue according to his or her own interests. It may be helpful to utilize prepackaged study units or mini courses that explain the historical and literary contexts of a work, along with author information, further reading, and suggested activities or assignments. Students across the board remember more of what they learn when they learn it in a way that makes sense to their learning styles. The more unusual activities are almost always their favorites! Many study units offer ideas such as writing journal entries from the perspective of a character, creating a new ending, finding artwork or music that captures a scene of the story, or staging a debate or courtroom case. Visits to local museums or other educational destinations are often ideal learning experiences, and many of them today offer hands-on activities. Anything that makes literature more real to students creates lasting learning.
Let’s look at one more example of how the content of a single work of literature is rich with self-directed learning opportunities. Suppose you want to explore William Faulkner’s works with your child. Faulkner is a wonderful study because he is considered one of America’s greatest literary talents, and his work as a whole depicts a fictional Southern history of his own creation. It is rich and complex, complete with characters, families, locations, buildings, and “historic” events of the county. Consequently, Faulkner’s works can be read individually or collectively, depending on the scope of the story your child wants to pursue. Faulkner’s approach is a good one because it mirrors life; just as each person or event can be seen as an individual story, there is always a larger story into which it fits. As a parent and teacher, you can certainly appreciate how this perspective is consistent with your approach to education!
Many of Faulkner’s short stories are actually excerpts from novels, which makes the short stories a good introduction for many students, as a Faulkner novel can be quite a challenge for many at first. Then, if the student enjoys Faulkner’s writing, the full-length novels are a logical next step. Studying Faulkner is studying characterization, so be prepared for lively discussion about what motivates the characters and why they interact as they do. Faulkner’s works could lead to studies of the American South (especially in the aftermath of the Civil War), race and class issues of the era, and the importance of community and family. Learning about Faulkner himself often encourages students because Faulkner’s path to greatness was anything but direct.
Literary Form as Guide
If your child has difficulty adapting to one author’s writing style, encourage her to sample other forms. Here are just a few:
The epistolary novel is written in the form of letters or journal entries. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela is among the best known, but other notable examples are Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon and the nonfiction Diary of Anne Frank.
Historical novels are set against a realistic historical background, such as Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.
The picaresque novel is especially appealing to many young readers, as it tells the adventures and misadventures of a scoundrel. Examples include Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, and Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum.
In satire, the author ridicules the subject matter as a way of criticizing or commenting on it. It is a sophisticated kind of humor, and one that many teenagers enjoy. Examples can be found in the ancient Greek plays of Aristophanes, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and most of Mark Twain’s writings.
Flash fiction is a type of short-short story that requires the author to be very deliberate in word choice and content. Like poetry, flash fiction is created within a more limited scope than longer fiction. Because there are similarities between the two forms, it is easy to lead from one to the other.
Encouraging Love of Literature
If you have a reluctant reader on your hands, there are still ways to encourage love of literature. As we have seen, literature really lends itself to cross-curricular study, so be sensitive to opportunities to incorporate an appropriate amount of reading into a study on another topic. You may do better if you begin with nonfiction just to establish good reading habits. Another idea is to put your child in the driver’s seat by allowing him or her to interview you about literature: Why do you think it is important? What are your favorite books? Did you like to read as a child? And so on.
As with anything else, you are not likely to talk your child into falling in love with something, so avoid high-pressure logical debates on the subject. You may even want to turn the tables a bit and take your turn as the curious one. Tell your child that because you love reading, it is hard to understand how anyone could not love it! Ask your child to read something and present to you his or her case for why it is boring, irrelevant, or whatever the complaint is. When he or she presents the case against the book, listen intently and ask leading—not argumentative—questions about the book, such as, “You say that So- and-So is not a realistic character. What about when he stands up for what is right? [or] Do you think that maybe he is supposed to represent something else?” At the very least, you will have gotten your child to read a book critically!
Whether your child is an eager or a reluctant reader, it is important that you set the right example. Let your child see you reading and enjoying a variety of books, talk about what you read in your everyday conversations, bring up characters and stories from books you have read together when you can tie them into present-day life, and show an interest in what your kids are reading. If you read a book you did not enjoy at all, be open about that, too. Knowing that it is okay to like some books but not others is an important realization for kids who think loving to read is an all-or-nothing proposition.
If your kids are reading books you have not read, you may want to read them. This accomplishes three things: It shows that you are genuinely interested in their interests; it enables you to refer to the characters and stories in daily life (i.e., “This reminds me of when Savannah completely misjudged Jordan in that book you just finished. Remember what ended up happening?”); and you can be sure that they are reading material that is mom- and dad-approved. Similarly, be familiar with the books you assign for study to be sure there is nothing objectionable to you. Many books that are considered classics contain racy material, references you prefer to avoid, or language you may deem unacceptable.
Never Too Late for Your Child
It would be wonderful if, ten years from now, a new survey was released citing the amazing upturn in literary reading among young Americans. Fortunately for you, you have control over major influences in your child’s life and education. The statistics are certainly cause for concern, and the current sad state of literary reading is very real. Although the numbers reflect general trends, you do not have to allow your child to be included in the numbers. His or her future peers, fellow students, and coworkers may not have the advantage of a solid base in reading and literature, but your child can. The effort is worth the results, and with a little planning and awareness, you can make a major difference in how your child feels about literature and reading.
To read Reading at Risk, the results of the Census Bureau’s findings concerning reading, go to www.arts.gov/pub/ReadingAtRisk.pdf.
Jennifer Bussey is a full-time mom and a professional writer and copyeditor for several educational publishers. She is also the author of Hexco Academic’s LitCriticals and Expository Writing mini-courses for homeschoolers. Her work has appeared in such series as Contemporary Authors, Novels for Students, Poetry for Students, Short Stories for Students, and Nonfiction Classics for Students. Bussey believes in the importance of teaching the relevance of literature to students in today’s world by making it engaging and personal. Bussey and her family reside in Texas.
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