East Amherst, N.Y. — Youngsters are reading again. They're reading classics by Harold Courlander, Feodor Dostoyevsky, and Robert Browning. And they're reading good contemporary fiction by John Updike, Langston Hughes, and Ray Bradbury.
They're getting the material from the Junior Great Books Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago, which offers a series of books for each level, Grades 2-9. The foundation, which also sponsors the Adult Great Books series, gives a basic leader training course for group leaders and teachers. Over 30,000 elementary and high school students have enrolled in the program nationwide.
These young people read, enjoy, and discuss good literature in a discussion group. As they talk about the books with discussion leaders and other students, they learn to be critical readers. They also learn more about themselves and their relationships with others.
Student participants usually meet once a week for 12 sessions - in a library, at an after-school club, or in a classroom. Each member reads the same assigned selection before he comes to the meeting. Sessions are 30 to 90 minutes long, depending on the age of the participants, and attendance is voluntary.
Leaders are encouraged to ask only questions for which there is more than one answer.
''I might ask why Jack climbed the beanstalk for the third time,'' explains Nancy Wells, a discussion leader. ''Peter might answer that Jack was greedy. Lisa might say that Jack was unselfish, and that he was only trying to take care of his mother.
''Then I suggest that we see what we can find in the story that says that Jack was greedy or that he was a caring son.''
Mrs. Wells says that in reviewing the material to defend their answers, the children are learning to read carefully. They are also learning how to make critical judgments and how to back them up.
''Peter might say that he knew that Jack was greedy because the story says that Jack stole a bag of gold on the first trip up. Lisa might say that Jack was a good son because early in the story Jack had told his mother not to worry about money.
''As the children listen to each other, they're expanding their understanding of human nature.''
All leaders who use the books with young people must take a two-day leadership training course given by the foundation. This course is given, on request, at the site of the proposed class. Leaders learn how to ask questions that will lead children to appreciate the selections.
All over the country, teachers, librarians, and other leaders are helping youngsters to enjoy the classics.
And the kids love it.