This review is for all you young readers who hate being told what to read by well-meaning grown-ups who want you to have something "meaningful".
Fie on those grown-ups
My mother despaired of me ever being a reader. Don't get me wrong--I was a very functional reader (little bit of bragging here), I was always 3-4 or more levels above my grade in reading and comprehension. But I did not pick up a book to read for fun. It wasn't until around 6th-7th grade that I discovered Harlequin romances that I started voluntarily reading for entertainment (and, yes, I've been assured that there isn't much distinction between romance and fantasy--but I'm still a hopeless romantic).
But even then, I resisted pretty much every book that teachers, my own mother and librarians recommended. Why? Because I knew something bad was going to happen!
The main character would struggle. Maybe their parents died (according to my kids this is a classic Disney move--kill the parents) or a sibling. The child was living in poverty, got in an accident or... their dog died!!!
Yeah. Old Yeller anyone?
I remember my 5th grade teacher (Mr. Kelly, he was awesome by the way and he did pave the way for me to be a reader by reading aloud to us in class every day after lunch--I still love Hank the Cowdog) reading Where the Red Fern Grows and the entire class sobbing. Yes, that's powerful literature but I hate to cry! As a shared experience it was better but there's no way I wanted to voluntarily put myself through that much emotional turmoil. I adamantly stand by my philosophy that I read fiction so I can always have a happy ending.
Now, I am not discounting the power of good literature. Many moving stories will cause your heartstrings to thrum in a sympathetic rhythm and that's a good thing. Discussing things in a group and having that shared experience can really make a difference in responding to difficult problems in stories. What I am cautioning all you well-meaning adults about, is pressuring reluctant readers into only reading things that are "worthwhile".
Forget trying to evoke emotions--appeal to their sense of humor, their sense of fantasy and adventure, their sense of the absurd. There are so many wonderful books out there that won't make you sob by the end that can prepare readers for approaching more difficult texts down the road.
A prime example of this is Gordon Korman's No More Dead Dogs. In it he states a fact that all young readers know and many adults don't want to admit, right on page 5!
"Exactly!" Fogelman [the teacher] pounced on the comment. "It was sad. What a heartbreaking surprise ending!"
"I wasn't surprised," I said. "I knew Old Shep was going to die before I started page one."
"Don't be ridiculous," the teacher snapped. "How?"
I shrugged. "Because the dog always dies. Go to the library and pick out a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover. Trust me, that dog is going down."
"Not true!" stormed Mr. Fogelman.
"Well," I challenged, "what happened to Old Yeller?"
"Oh, all right," the teacher admitted. "So Old Yeller died."
"What about Sounder?" piped up Joe Quick.
"And Bristle Face," added Mike "Feather" Wrigley, one of my football teammates.
"Don't forget Where the Red Fern Grows," I put in. "The double whammy--two dogs die in that one."
"You've made your point," growled Mr. Fogelman.
And that's my point! Award winners may be well-written and valuable but they won't do any good for students who are forced to read them (or lie about it). No More Dead Dogs is an excellent read, has a point and several larger meanings if you care to be entertained and amused along the way. Definitely a good anecdote to all the books we've been forced to read where the dog dies.
Help a reluctant reader, read and recommend a non-award book! Here are some of my favorites:
Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson (how can you resist a book about evil librarians?)
Bunnicula by James Howe
Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling
The Ranger's Apprentice by John Flanagan
TumTum and Nutmeg by Emily Bearn
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Start by having fun and you'll be amazed at how much you can get done!