Walk into any bookstore or library, and you'll find shelves and shelves of hugely popular novels and book series for kids. But research shows that as young readers get older, they are not moving to more complex books. High-schoolers are reading books written for younger kids, and teachers aren't assigning difficult classics as much as they once did.
At Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C., the 11th-grade honors English students are reading The Kite Runner. And students like Megan Bell are reading some heavy-duty books in their spare time. "I like a lot of like old-fashioned historical dramas," Bell says. "Like I just read Anna Karenina ... I plowed through it, and it was a really good book."
But most teens are not forging their way through Russian literature, says Walter Dean Myers, who is currently serving as National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. A popular author of young-adult novels that are often set in the inner city, Myers wants his readers to see themselves in his books. But sometimes, he's surprised by his own fan mail.
"I'm glad they wrote," he says, "but it is not very heartening to see what they are reading as juniors and seniors." Asked what exactly is discouraging, Myers says that these juniors and seniors are reading books that he wrote with fifth- and sixth-graders in mind.
And a lot of the kids who like to read in their spare time are more likely to be reading the latest vampire novel than the classics, says Anita Silvey, author of 500 Great Books for Teens. Silvey teaches graduate students in a children's literature program, and at the beginning of the class, she asked her students — who grew up in the age of Harry Potter — about the books they like.
"Every single person in the class said, 'I don't like realism, I don't like historical fiction. What I like is fantasy, science fiction, horror and fairy tales.' "
Those anecdotal observations are reflected in a study of kids' reading habits by Renaissance Learning. For the fifth year in a row, the educational company used its Accelerated Reader program to track what kids are reading in grades one through 12.
"Last year, we had more than 8.6 million students from across the country who read a total of 283 million books," says Eric Stickney, the educational research director for Renaissance Learning. Students participate in the Accelerated Reader program through their schools. When they read a book, they take a brief comprehension quiz, and the book is then recorded in the system. The books are assigned a grade level based on vocabulary and sentence complexity.
And Stickney says that after the late part of middle school, students generally don't continue to increase the difficulty levels of the books they read.
Last year, almost all of the top 40 books read in grades nine through 12 were well below grade level. The most popular books, the three books in The Hunger Games series, were assessed to be at the fifth-grade level.
Last year, for the first time, Renaissance did a separate study to find out what books were being assigned to high school students. "The complexity of texts students are being assigned to read," Stickney says, "has declined by about three grade levels over the past 100 years. A century ago, students were being assigned books with the complexity of around the ninth- or 10th-grade level. But in 2012, the average was around the sixth-grade level."
Most of the assigned books are novels, like To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men or Animal Farm. Students even read recent works like The Help and The Notebook. But in 1989, high school students were being assigned works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Emily Bronte and Edith Wharton.
Now, with the exception of Shakespeare, most classics have dropped off the list.
Back at Woodrow Wilson High School, at a 10th-grade English class — regular, not honors — students say they don't read much outside of school. But Tyler Jefferson and Adriel Miller are eager to talk. Adriel likes books about sports; Tyler likes history. Both say their teachers have assigned books they would not have chosen on their own. "I read The Odyssey, Tyler says. "I read Romeo and Juliet. I didn't read Hamlet. Asked what he thought of the books, Tyler acknowledges some challenges. "It was very different, because how the language was back then, the dialogue that they had.
Adriel agrees that books like that are tougher to read. "That's why we have great teachers that actually make us understand," he says. "It's a harder challenge of our brain, you know; it's a challenge."
But a challenge with its rewards, as Tyler says. "It gives us a new view on things."
Sandra Stotsky would be heartened to hear that. Professor emerita of education at the University of Arkansas, Stotsky firmly believes that high school students should be reading challenging fiction to get ready for the reading they'll do in college. "You wouldn't find words like 'malevolent,' 'malicious' or 'incorrigible' in science or history materials," she says, stressing the importance of literature. Stotsky says in the '60s and '70s, schools began introducing more accessible books in order to motivate kids to read. That trend has continued, and the result is that kids get stuck at a low level of reading.
"Kids were never pulled out of that particular mode in order to realize that in order to read more difficult works, you really have to work at it a little bit more," she says. "You've got to broaden your vocabulary. You may have to use a dictionary occasionally. You've got to do a lot more reading altogether."
"There's something wonderful about the language, the thinking, the intelligence of the classics," says Anita Silvey. She acknowledges that schools and parents may need to work a little harder to get kids to read the classics these days, but that doesn't mean kids shouldn't continue to read the popular contemporary novels they love. Both have value: "There's an emotional, psychological attraction to books for readers. And I think some of, particularly, these dark, dystopic novels that predict a future where in fact the teenager is going to have to find the answers, I think these are very compelling reads for these young people right now."
Reading leads to reading, says Silvey. It's when kids stop reading, or never get started in the first place, that there's no chance of ever getting them hooked on more complex books.
I'm surrounded here at NPR Books by people with sophisticated, grown-up tastes — happy to dive into the latest Claire Messud or Daniel Alarcon or James Salter. Meanwhile, give me — any day — a book about teenagers (and preferably dragons). A good YA novel is a polished gem of solid storytelling, but more than that, it draws us back in time to the teenagers we once were — or never were, or wanted desperately to be. Here are five (well, really six) books that capture the roller coaster of adolescent experience: that delicate thump in the gut when you realize that suddenly a friendship is more than a friendship. Or the rock-solid conviction that YOU are the chosen one, the heroine of your own drama (whether or not you want to be). Or just that all-over twitchy feeling, lying on the living-room couch and staring out the window, of longing for your real life to begin.
And one last little treat: I sang the praises of Jasper Fforde's YA debut, The Last Dragonslayer, when it came out last fall, but it's worth revisiting the saga of reluctant slayer Jennifer Strange and her sidekick, the Quarkbeast. The magic is draining out of Strange's world, causing no end of trouble for the ragtag band of wizards and witches she handles at Kazam Mystical Arts Management. Fforde brings the mundane and the absurd in equal measure as Jennifer battles greedy land speculators and a vapid king in order to carry out the wishes of Maltcassion, the last remaining dragon, and return magic to the land.
My summer reading preferences are so particular they have, at times, stopped me from reading at all. I need a romance for a train trip — for obvious reasons. When it's hot, I prefer something with no climate congruence at all; I've never enjoyed Anna Karenina so much as I did on the beach (that romance is a train exception — er ... for obvious reasons). When I'm on a plane trip, I like a passel of good young-adult novels, filled with cliffhangers, reversals and quick emotion. It's a mood makeover in flight. At home in D.C., with its climate that goes beyond mere heat and closer to inferno (Sure! you can read that, too!), I've discovered that the only way to take me out of one sense is to focus on another, so here in the nation's capital, there's a lot of food in my summer reading — cookbooks! food memoirs! Little House on the Prairie re-reads! Michael Pollan! And in the dog days, when there's no vacation in sight, I need a great piece of historical fiction, just for perspective. (You think you got it bad 'cause the air conditioning's broken? At least the Luftwaffe isn't coming to get you.)
Here's a preview of a few upcoming books. It's wide enough to satisfy almost any nitpicky summer requirement I might have: There's a YA novel set in World War II; a rousing historical ode to abolitionist John Brown with a great twist; two wonderful food memoirs — one about an infamous piece of cheese (not kidding!), and one small, devastating piece of fiction for nights when you can sleep with the windows open.
How do I like my summer noir? Hard-boiled, with brooding investigators, sharp wits, danger, crazy fights, bullets, chases and loves lost, unrequited, or dripping with passion. Or perhaps tempered by darkness in a cold, post-revolutionary world filled with intrigue, conspiracy and a resistance hanging in the balance. Even better, it should be part of a series, making it both binge-worthy and binge-able. And if it turns out it's a graphic novel featuring anthropomorphic characters? Best of all.
Anthropomorphism: We've practically been weaned on it — from The Little Caterpillar, Mother Goose and Charlotte's Web, to the army of Disney characters guarding the passage to adulthood like the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. As teens, we're turned on to the political satires like Animal Farm, with its pigs and dogs playing out tableaus of politics and human cruelty far more expressively than actual humans.
Reams have been written on our psychic response to stories told by animals, and the way animals can provide a voice to the oppressed under the mask of cute and cuddly. Plutarch wrote essays about it ("On the Use of Reason by 'Irrational' Animals" — definitely not beach reading, by the way). But that aside, most of us simply crave a good yarn well told.
Fortunately, graphic storytellers Bryan Talbot, S.M. Vidaurri and duo Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guardido all deliver with their anthropomorphic creations, wowing us with their words and art, and this very important message: Don't make the kitty angry, trust toads or give bunnies explosives.
Jody Arlington is a communications and policy strategist for the independent film and documentary community, and the owner of a truly astounding number of graphic novels. She also has a thing for creepy bunnies.
Three Books... is produced and edited by the team at NPR Books.
President Obama says he's not Big Brother. The author who created the concept might disagree.
Addressing the controversy over widespread government surveillance of telephone records and Internet traffic Friday, Obama said, "In the abstract, you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, then I think we've struck the right balance."
But for many commentators, revelations this week that the federal government is sweeping up records of communications and transactions between millions of Americans sounds uncomfortably like the vision of the British novelist and journalist George Orwell.
His novel Nineteen Eighty-Four portrayed a society in which the state constantly tracks the movements and thoughts of individuals. Its slogan is "Big Brother Is Watching You."
"Throwing out such a broad net of surveillance is exactly the kind of threat Orwell feared," says Michael Shelden, author of Orwell: The Authorized Biography.
The phrases "Big Brother" and "Orwellian" have been commonplace in news coverage and social media this past week. Orwell's novel, a bestseller upon publication in the 1940s, has remained a classic because it seems to crystallize what life under totalitarian regimes looks like.
Obama — and many others — insist that the U.S. is not living under such a regime. The government is not listening to everyone's telephone calls, Obama said on Friday, nor is it using the information to spy on innocent Americans.
And, even in the tradition of prophetic literature that warns of the dangers of bureaucratic power run amok, there is an awareness that the protection of the state, while intrusive, is necessary.
Based On Experience
Although set in the future, Nineteen Eighty-Four was based on Orwell's observations of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, as well as his own experiences as a broadcaster and colonial officer in the British Empire.
"He was so good at picking up on trends that he picked up our whole future," says Shelden, who teaches English at Indiana State University.
In particular, Shelden says, Orwell's time as a policeman serving in Burma showed him how governments seek to keep track of people and what they're up to — the more complete the file, the better.
"What he saw was that over time, surveillance would become pervasive," Shelden says. "He just took that idea and expanded it in Nineteen Eighty-Four to basically a police state."
Although Orwell's ideas struck some as paranoid, the British government in 2007 opened up its file on the author. It turned out the spy agency MI5 had tracked him from 1929 until his death in 1950.
Big Data = Big Brother?
Orwell certainly would have understood that officials would point to the unending threat of something like terrorism as a justification for ongoing, widespread surveillance.
"He could see that war and defeating an enemy could be used as a reason for increasing political surveillance," Shelden says. "You were fighting a never-ending war that gave you a never-ending excuse for looking into people's lives."
What would have surprised Orwell, he says, was not that governments are collecting huge amounts of data about individuals, but that private actors are as well.
Even if it didn't turn out that the federal government has a direct pipeline into Verizon, Google, Yahoo and other such companies, those companies would control huge amounts of information about Americans on their own.
It's not just the corporations performing surveillance. What Orwell calls the "proles" in his novel — the average citizens who help the state keep an eye on everybody — are also tracking and documenting each other's movements in real life these days.
With the advent of smartphones and widespread surveillance cameras, no conversation or movement in the public sphere can be considered private.
On Wednesday, a woman posted a picture of a man she said she'd sat near on a train, who'd been bragging with friends about affairs they'd had without their wives catching on. By Saturday morning, the image had been shared more than 170,000 times.
"We have the capacity now to be a huge nation of informers," Shelden says.
Kafka's Binocular Vision
Image collection by everybody can have its uses. The sharing of images of the Boston Marathon helped law enforcement quickly home in on the alleged perpetrators.
The mixed feelings people have about the balance between privacy and security would have been familiar to Franz Kafka, the famed 20th century author of novels and stories about bureaucracies that are out of touch and out of control.
There are many elements of the current situation that are Kafkaesque, says Stanley Corngold, an emeritus professor of German and comparative literature at Princeton University. Kafka raises questions not only about governments collecting massive amounts of information "like a giant vacuum cleaner," Corngold says, but what they do with it.
In Kafka's novel The Castle, the authorities can't find the document that would determine whether the person who's been brought in is wanted, or not.
"They have piles and piles and piles of documents, but they don't do anything with them," says Corngold, a Kafka translator and scholar.
But though Kafka is remembered for creating situations in which characters helplessly seek to appeal judgments when they're not even sure what the charges are, he also recognized that the people are often, in fact, guilty.
"Kafka has the uncanny ability to see the point of view of both parties," Corngold says.
In stories such as "The Great Wall of China," Kafka recognized that people look to the state to protect them from "barbarians," recognizing that they're not capable of fending off outside threats on their own.
"At times, he mocks the illusion of an effective, centralized authority," Corngold says. "At other times, he suggests that without its aid, we cannot cope with the 'barbarians.'"