We all know about the "big name" fiction books that our children are reading these days: the Harry Potter volumes, the Twilight series and the Hunger Games to name a few. I'm struck by the fantasy element that these titles share. There's a fascinating contrast between TV shows' obsession with 'reality' and kids' current reading preferences, which seem to be dominated by 'unreality'. Are kids simply looking to escape from real-world topics like teen pregnancy and terrorism or are they devouring tales of vampires and wizards as a safer way to dip their toes into adult topics?
Now, as a lifelong lover of books, I'm not knocking fiction. In fact, I was a voracious reader of Edgar Allan Poe mysteries and the Nancy Drew series growing up. But when I think about the books that I really identified with in my youth, the ones that resonated were not the classics, but the biographies.
One '70s summer in particular influenced my reading habits. I was probably 11 or 12 when my local library sponsored a summer reading contest for kids. Every time a child returned a book s/he had to write up a one page report about it. In return, the librarian would peel and stick a star onto a construction-paper balloon, marked with each child's name. You really can't get any more low-tech than that, but it was a thrill to look at the wall of the junior room and see my balloon becoming more star-filled as the weeks went by.
That was the summer I discovered the biography section and zoomed in like a laser to the tales of famous women. I spent hours in stifling heat reading all about the life and mysterious disappearance of Amelia Earhart. I wondered what it was like to be a science pioneer like Marie Curie or a nurse on the front lines of a war, like Florence Nightingale. My imagination soared as I read how these seemingly ordinary girl-lives had transformed into the women of history. It was a thrilling summer of late night chapters as, with the help of a flashlight, I turned page after page under the covers.
That summer, I pondered what my potential might be. The final night of the reading contest, the children all dressed up as our favorite characters and received our diplomas. Amongst the frilly Mary Poppinses and demure Dorothys, my costume stood out. I had dressed in my brother's baseball uniform (this was pre-Title IX) as famed athlete Babe Didrikson. These women's stories had challenged to me to think my life might not be limited by traditional "girl" boundaries and I was there to represent!
Eventually, I exhausted the (sadly, compact) section of female biographies in my local branch and shifted back to novels once again. And while many authors have since swept me away with their fictional narratives, the power of real-life stories still draw me in. Don't get me wrong, JK Rowling can weave a great tale. But Maya Angelou's or Jane Goodall's autobiographies truly capture this reader's heart.
In this age of Wikipedia, do kids still enjoy non-fiction? Does your child read only fantasy books?
Boston Irish is actually Dr. Maureen O'Brien, a Shine Parenting Guru, mom of twins, psychologist and the founder of www.destinationparenting.com. She is passionate about all things parenting, and her latest book is Advantage Mom: 20 Lessons from a Parenting Pro.