Why aren't children forging stronger connections with literature, despite a national emphasis on reading?
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"We're too focused on recurring themes like suicide, murder, dysfunctional families," says Becky Anderson, owner of Anderson's Book Shops, three Chicago-area stores primarily for young readers. "We need more fun, helpful, uplifting books."Skip to next paragraph
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Teens also crave stories that explore positive themes like friendship and adventure, she says, but she's not finding enough of those to stock her shelves.
"It's a reflection of our society and our culture, but [in books for teens] there's sex and abuse, and everything is just much more explicit," says Beth Puffer, manager of the Bank Street Book Store in New York.
Ms. Puffer also questions the motives behind this trend: "I'm not sure if publishers are doing this because they think it's good for kids or because they think it will sell, but the problem books are coming in younger and younger."
Yet not everyone agrees. "That's been the cry since the 1950s, when children's lit started trying to be more relevant," says Carol Otis Hurst, a columnist and children's literature consultant in Westfield, Mass.
But she sees the change as positive. "Before, it was all happy endings, more fantasy. The best of fiction gives you road maps for grief, for joy, for love, for things in life that matter. It's not preposterous that children's books should follow."
Concerns about dark and disturbing books for teens are based largely on a handful of high-profile titles, suggests Michael Cader, creator of publisherslunch.com. Most books are within the range of the norm, he says, and simply "reflect the grittier reality and complexity of our times."
People who work regularly with children's literature say these titles spark some of the best responses from kids:
Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares
Angus Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison
Alex Ryder mystery series by Anthony Horowitz (especially good for boys)
Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian (about the Armenian holocaust)
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
Hush by Jacqueline Woodson (about an African-American girl whose policeman father testifies against white officers after witnessing a murder)
The Magic Treehouse series by Mary Pope Osborne (adventure tales)
Alida's Song by Gary Paulsen (a boy leaves his harsh city life for a farm in Minnesota)
The Everworld series by K.A. Applegate
Sit on a Potato Pan, Otis by Jon Agee (a collection of palindromes)
Mick Harte Was Here by Barbara Park (can help kids understand the experience of losing a loved one)
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
Diana Wynne Jones
Junie B. Jones series by Barbara Park
Parts (and the sequel, More Parts) by Tedd Arnold
Tacky the Penguin series by Helen Luster
Starscape: The Silver Bullet by Brad Aiken
Eyewitness: World War II by Simon Adams III
How to Talk to Your Cat by Jean Craighead George
The Chimpanzees I Love by Jane Goodall
The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley
George Washington and the Founding of a Nation by Albert Marrin
Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges