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Literary Call to Arms

  • Jennifer Bussey The Old Schoolhouse Magazine
  • 2008 20 Feb
Literary Call to Arms

Between TV shows, video games, magazines, and instant messaging, there’s just not much encouragement in our culture for sitting down with a good book. And while many kids with hands-on parents are guided toward developing a love of reading, it is hard to ignore rising illiteracy rates and the struggles many college freshmen are having in adapting to the rigors of college academics. The decline in reading has become so pronounced that the National Endowment for the Arts asked the Census Bureau to collect data on the subject. The results, although not particularly surprising, are disappointing.

In Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, the findings of that survey point to significant declines in literary reading. For the purposes of the study, literary reading was defined as “the reading of novels, short stories, poetry, or drama in any print format, including the Internet.” Any type was admitted, from romance novels to classical poetry. A broad definition, to be sure, yet the trends should be taken by all educators as a call to arms. Although the publication describes ten major findings, there are a few that are of particular interest to homeschooling parents committed to the intellectual development of their children. Consider the following:

The rate of decline is rapidly accelerating.

The decline affects all ethnic backgrounds, education levels, and age groups.

The decline parallels a decline in community and cultural activities.

Perhaps the most compelling of all is this—the sharpest decline is among young adults. Twenty years ago, young adults were the most likely to read literature, and now they are the least likely.

These are numbers and trends that fly in the face of what dedicated educators work so hard to accomplish in their life’s work. And the numbers point to disturbing overall trends and future implications. So, what does this mean for you, the homeschooling parent? You can bring a new perspective and enthusiasm into your own children’s learning experiences. It means that it is time to take action, one home classroom at a time.

Why Read Literature?
The rich tradition of literature does not have to be at risk in your home. The benefits of a solid foundation of literature in education are numerous. Being “wellread” is a hallmark of an educated person. It enables him or her to understand insightful references and to establish his or her credibility as an intelligent and educated person. In college, a student with a good start in literary education is at a definite advantage. Regardless of the major the student chooses, he or she will do better in language arts courses, have the discipline to read a lengthy work, and have well developed critical thinking skills. To become a skilled reader, a student must learn to enjoy reading and being taken on a journey by the author, while also learning to pay attention for literary devices, characterization, and thematic development and consistency. A proficient reader can both enjoy the book as the author’s “guest” and pay close attention to see what the author is doing throughout the book. These are highly developed thinking skills that apply to many disciplines and courses, not to mention that they benefit the student throughout life.

Although fiction is wholly created by the author, there are definitely life lessons to be gained in reading literature. The best literature makes it easy to give the author what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “suspension of disbelief.” For example, characters that are realistic have believable strengths and weaknesses, and they make decisions and interact with others in believable ways. Consequently, whatever they learn, the reader learns. But the reader gets to learn the lessons from the safety and comfort of a cozy reading chair. The setting an author chooses is another means of teaching. The setting could be one to which your child is drawn, such as outer space or a foreign land, but the lessons are the same. This teaches about the universality of human nature. Reading Greek drama and Shakespeare’s plays demonstrates that people long ago were subject to the same vulnerabilities— pride, ambition, cruelty, and unrequited love—as people are today. 

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

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.

Reading at Risk Key Findings

Reading at Risk describes ten “key findings” about the state of literary reading in the United States. These ten findings are the following:

  1. Literary reading among American adults has declined sharply over the last twenty years.
  2. The decline in literary reading reflects a total decline in reading of all kinds.
  3. Literary reading is declining at an accelerated pace.
  4. Although women tend to read more literary works than men do, both groups show decline in their reading habits.
  5. The decline in literary reading is significant among Caucasian, African American, and Hispanic populations.
  6. The decline in literary reading is present across educational levels.
  7. The decline in literary reading is present across age levels.
  8. The sharpest decline in literary reading is among the youngest age groups surveyed.
  9. As literary reading drops, participation in community and cultural activities is also expected to drop.
  10. The decline in literary reading correlates with the increased use of electronic media (Internet, video games, etc.).

Suggested Reading for the College-Bound Student


College admissions professionals like to see well-read young people join the ranks of their students. Here are many of the fiction titles that appear consistently on suggested reading lists for college-bound students. These include titles from both American and world literature.  
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  • The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
  • Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
  • The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest Gaines
  • The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
  • Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • The Call of the Wild by Jack London
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  • A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
  • All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • The Grapes of Wrath and The Pearl by John Steinbeck
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Night by Elie Weisel
  • The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

Copyright 2006. Originally appeared in Fall 2006. Used with permission.

The Old Schoolhouse Magazine.