Sunday, August 5, 2012

In Defense of Hard Books

I decided to follow Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  I had read the book twice before, and I expected it to be challenging, although in all honesty, I had forgotten just how dense and layered it is.  No question:  This book was over my children’s heads.  It was too hard, if perfect understanding were our goal.  So why did I bother muddling through it?  In fact, why bother with the hard books in elementary school?  Don’t we want to foster a love of reading in kids by allowing them to dive in and out of easy books like slick seals in a climate-controlled, predator-free tank at the zoo? You know—get them hooked.  Reading is fun!  Kind of like a little TV in your mind! Why not save the dry stuff for high school? 

I could be wrong, but here is why I approach reading the way I do.  Well, the actual reason is because I am the kind of homeschooler who does what she feels like doing and then scrambles to find reasons to support it.  I’m a big reader, and I always knew I’d have a bibliophilistic homeschool and that—let’s be frank—we’d read books Mommy likes. And Mommy likes the hard stuff.  (Read into that what you will).  But I have scraped together another reason for giving hard books a chance.
Without further ado.
A few months ago, I was sitting in an Aveda salon getting my hair returned to its (as far as you know) natural  dark chestnut color.  The woman working on my hair was a glossy Latina with large, almond eyes.  She was beautiful in a Disney princess way with waist-length hair and a dewy coffee complexion. I started talking to her about her life, and in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, we were BFFs.  In response to my assault of personal questions, she told me the story of how she came to learn English after moving to the USA from a tiny, poor town in rural Mexico. 

She described giving cheap haircuts at The Hair Cuttery in north Richmond and listening to the incomprehensible chatter of English around her.  She said she understood one or two words at first, mostly English vocabulary words she’d learned in school.  As weeks passed, she learned more words pertaining to her trade because these words were important to her, words like keratin, cuticle, and protein.  Before long, she could understand the gist of most conversations she overheard, although she still lacked the ability to create the sentences herself. At home, when no one was watching, she would say phrases and sentences to herself in the mirror, practicing until she matched the speed and inflection she heard around her.  At the time of our conversation, she was five years into her journey to English fluency, and I felt no barrier to communication at all.  She even laughed at all my jokes, which were intended, as usual, to amuse only those with keen, nuanced wits and the most highly-developed vocabularies (just go with it).  
My point:  My Aveda girl is fluent, and she got that way by listening in on other people’s conversations while she trimmed bangs and waxed eyebrows.  She wanted to participate in the story around her, so she paid attention and learned to imitate the words and patterns.  No question:  Initially, the conversations were over her head.  They were too hard, if perfect understanding were her goal.  (Don’t you love my poignant parallelism?  I am like a black preacher, minus the stirring content).  Aveda girl let herself marinate in the language, grabbing what she could, feeling her understanding expand. 

I believe that children become fluent in the language of English literature in the same way that people pick up foreign languages—by listening, fighting for snippets of understanding, getting the gist of paragraphs even if the vocabulary is a bit over their heads.  Because I want my children to be fluent in the language of John Milton, William Shakespeare, and T.S. Eliot, I insist that they “overhear” the great conversations of classic literature.  I read over their heads on purpose.  I do it all the livelong day. (Anything to avoid getting off the couch).  In fact, I rarely ever read a book to them that they would choose to read on their own at their current ages.  It's a mean little rule I have.

Upon the first reading of Frankenstein, my eight year old son was able to ferret out the plot, even though I am certain many of the individual sentences were almost exclusively comprised of words he couldn’t define.  His ear adapted to the cadences of nineteenth century writing, just as my Aveda girl’s ear adapted to southern American English, with all its colloquialisms, diphthongs, and obscurities.  The truth is, it is not difficult to sift through dense language and extract the plot of a story.  We all have an ear for stories.  Stories follow patterns, and children are particularly adept at sniffing out what’s going on.  Ever had one of your children listen in on your side of a phone conversation that was intended for your older sister’s ears only just to have him give you a devastatingly accurate play-by-play of the conversation later on?  Yeah, me neither. But it has happened to a friend, which is how I know.

Of course, understanding the plot of a great story is only the beginning of unpacking its value, but it is a good first goal.  When we read Frankenstein, or Treasure Island, or Tom Sawyer, or even Anne of Green Gables or The Hobbit, we are seeking to answer the question “And then what happened...?”  We may define some words, explore some themes, but we’re in it for the story for now.  There will be time to analyze, dissect, and criticize the great stories later.  In the meantime, I want my kids to be fluent in the language so that, someday, they can join the conversation.
Review of Frankenstein up next.  For real this time.


  1. Very insightful. I'd like to read more posts like this!

  2. very interesting read I enjoy reading your thoughts about books .. Blogging Profits Unleashed