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01/08/2011

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Sherwood

Great job as usual, Mike, but this "comment" is going to be more of a selfish question than a compliment.

You ask, "Why not have the kids read something (A) that they have a chance of understanding (B) that was written in their own language and (C) that is presented as the author intended?"

I have a granddaughter (and a bunch of other relatives of her generation) who are on the doorstep of reading books that don't have cardboard structures popping up out of the pages. Given your background in this area, I would very, very much like to know what some books are that meet your troika of characteristics for pre-teens.

That's probably not a topic for this venue, but I think it would make a great topic for one of your or my other blogs.

Mike Peterson

Yes, a good topic for nellieblogs.blogspot.com, but it requires some reflection. Meanwhile, the quick answer:

One issue with middle-school kids is that their reading skills are ahead of their abstract reasoning skills. So they could read a dumbed-down version of Les Mis, but, while they would understand that Jean Valjean stole food because he was hungry, they would never understand what motivates Javert beyond "he's a police officer."

Some quick recommendations of books that are worth giving -- For a younger one, the Little House Books, which progress in complexity as Laura gets older, so that "Little House in the Big Woods" is written at about a fourth grade level, while "Our Happy Golden Years" is more of a jr. high book. The Narnia Chronicles aren't quite that accessible, but the first three or four books are quite good (then it peters out). I dislike Roald Dahl's work, but I'm obviously in a minority on that and the books are engaging for youngsters.

Once they get into their teens, you can step it up a bit. I've turned young readers on to "Great Expectations" and Turgenev's "Home of the Gentry."

Others will occur to me later, and someone else may have additional suggestions, but those are the quick answers.

f

And while you're at it, how about books suitable for an 11-year-old girl? For Christmas, I gave her (well, will give her, since we haven't gotten together yet) a stash of chocolate and real dollar coins, after conferring with her mother who will act as Enforcer to make sure the dollars are spent only on books or camping equipment. I'm hoping to use a little more imagination next time.

But back to the topic at hand: I read Huck Finn years before I was required to (in my high school AP English class c. 1978), and loved it. Well, except for the last couple of chapters, which seem to have been stuck in because Twain wanted to show how Huck had grown whereas Tom hadn't, or because Twain couldn't think of how to end it, and the well at the back of the house was already full from Pudd'nhead Wilson. However, although I think it's a book everyone should read, as it deals with an important part of our history (I disagree with your point about ending slavery--slavery had ended, certainly, but the aftermath lingered, and lingers, on.), I don't know how you'd teach it these days. I think the US is a lot more polarized than back in the 1970s, and it wasn't the easiest of books to cover even then. That's one reason I didn't go into teaching.

Incidentally, if you want to read another great book that touches on race relations a few generations after Huck Finn, read Run with the Horsemen, by Ferrol Sams. It's set in Georgia in the 1920s/1930s. As Sams put it, "I saw that there were more Yankees around here than came through with Sherman, and since it wasn't legal to shoot them any more, I decided to write about how things used to be." It's semi-autobiographical, and very, very funny.

A disclaimer of sorts: I grew up in the South in the 1960s, went to a lot of civil rights gatherings when I was a small child, ended up as a librarian, and have sometimes described my political views as slightly to the right of Abbie Hoffman. Sorry about the rambling, and I hope I haven't started a flame war.

Mike Peterson

And a quick after-thought. There are books kids will read and enjoy that I wouldn't give them, in part because I like to keep an aura that Grandpa's gifts are above the norm and in part because some are the sort kids learn about from each other. The Harry Potter books are a good read and I would give them except the kids will find them on their own. The Twilight and Percy Jackson books are really junk and, while they won't hurt the kids, aren't something I'd want to be on record as recommending. And the Hunger Game series is really engaging, but it's awfully rough stuff and, again, not something I'd want to be on record as recommending, mostly because their parents might object!

f

> mostly because their parents might object

Isn't that the point of being a grandparent? And I'm actually semi-serious about that--to be a bad influence, but in a good way.

Mike Peterson

Actually, I did give my copy of the first volume of "The Hunger Games" to my 14-year-old granddaughter, but, I gotta tell you, that book makes "1984" look like "Anne of Green Gables." I wouldn't have sent it to her if she were halfway across the country and I didn't know her pretty well. It is some grim, violent stuff, and, while it's quite well-written, it really doesn't have any underlying message. If I were going to be subversive, I'd make it "Fahrenheit 451" or "Brave New World."

ronnie

"The first is, why bother?"

The project may have been bone-headed, but the motives behind it were sincere. The man who is behind the expurgated version is a respected Twain scholar who was becoming increasingly more frustrated that the book was being dropped from school, college and university reading lists because everybody was frankly too cowardly to have the "n-word" discussion that would inevitably result. He eventually came to the conclusion that publishing an expurgated version might save the book from disappearing from the literary curriculum of future generations of readers. So that was the "why bother". I think he was wrong, but I sympathize with his motives.

That being said, we all know what the road to hell is paved with.

Meanwhile, the lambasting and mocking this new version is getting means that nobody will teach it, either. Nor, I suspect, will the controversy inspire any school boards or department heads to bravely go back to actively teaching a book that raises hard questions about America's history. So nobody wins.

Mike Peterson

If you check that link for Thomas Bowdler, it seems his intentions were equally good -- to produce a version of Shakespeare that families could read together, in an age when that was a common family activity. And it was probably just fine -- Does Hamlet have to talk to Ophelia about lying in her lap, in order for the readers to appreciate his dilemma?

And yet it isn't Shakespeare.

In this case, I'm not, as I said, convinced that "Huck Finn" raises questions for high school students that can't be covered elsewhere and in a form that they can more readily understand.

In eighth grade, we read an abridged version of "Great Expectations," and, even if it had been the full text, I don't think any of us would have grasped the theme of Pip's snobbery and ingratitude. We might better have read an intact Sherlock Holmes story, or a few more short stories by O. Henry or Guy de Maupassant to pick up the concept of the ironic twist.

Let the kids read about the jumping frog, and perhaps the chapter from Tom Sawyer where he paints the fence, and teach them that there is a wonderful book called "Adventures of Huck Finn" that they can read when they're older.

And wiser.

Than their parents and their school board.

ronniecat

This thoughtful author and father agrees with you:

http://huff.to/g223mx

Ted Kerin

Mike, Mike, Mike...are you just trying to be outrageous? If so, well good for you. But I have to disagree here.

I read all of Twain's works when I was in high school, and more recently re-read "Huck" after getting a Kindle on the basis that stuff like MT would then be FREE (a lie, incidentally -- it cost me about a dollar, with original illustrations).

Over the years I have assailed as ignorami, all those who call Twain a racist, or who would censor his books -- not to mention the total imbeciles who have defaced his statues, etc. I thought that anybody who considered "Huck" a racist book should try reading it -- or, as more likely needed, have somebody read it *to* them.

Well, upon reading it again I find it to be more shocking and disturbing than I ever would have recalled. In a good way. I realized anew why Twain gets people so worked-up. He's that good.

After that, I moved on to his first real book, "The Innocents Abroad", which takes political incorrectness to about 27 new levels. (Twain himself was unhappy with the book in his later years, but it's still a fresh insight to his sense of mischief.)

The man is a national treasure, and not least because he makes people angry. I am truly disappointed that he merely bores you. :^(

Mike Peterson

Ah, Ted, you know what snobs General Program majors can be ... but it's not the only "Great Book" that's left me cold -- I didn't like the Brothers K (loved "The Possessed" and have reread it many times), and I didn't like Don Quixote or Moby Dick, either. It ain't length -- I just named my new puppy after a character in "War and Peace." Just didn't scratch the itch.

I'm not saying it's a bad book. Just that I'm not a huge fan. The relevant point, though, is that I don't think it's a kids' book and I don't think it's a book that should be assigned in high school, except maybe in an accelerated class, at which point you shouldn't need to censor it. If "that word" is the reason not to have someone read it, they weren't ready for the concepts, either.

Right?

Ted Kerin

Right on all points, Mike -- "Huck" is most certainly is not a "kids' book" now, and it never really was. And I take your point that anybody who finds a *word* fatal, is not receptive to anything as dangerous as actual ideas.

And I respect your right to personal taste -- Twain just happens to tickle me, for reasons that probably had more to do (initially) with Hal Holbrook, catching me at just the right age and mindset, than with ol' Sam himself -- although my appreciation of Twain certainly deepened with reading his later, more evil works.

Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful reflections on this troublesome and recurring issue.

And best wishes on the new puppy -- the introduction of a new dog into one's life, is truly a sort of rebirth, the start of a new chapter which I hope will be a great one for you.

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