Why aren't children forging stronger connections with literature, despite a national emphasis on reading?
| NEW YORK
You'd expect to see children's books flying off the shelf.
Reading is being emphasized in this country as never before. The Bush administration is rolling out its $5 billion Reading First initiative. The president and the first lady are both making young readers a personal cause and a top national priority.
But the flurry of excitement over "Harry Potter" seems to have been the exception. There's an abundance of good books out there, experts say, but children just don't seem to be connecting with them enough.
Parents who don't read themselves, teachers who are too busy to learn about the wealth of literature that's available, and school budgets that don't permit informed teachers the luxury of purchasing such books anyway these are among the explanations for the gap between kids and literature.
After all, say many of the experts, with the enormously expanded entertainment possibilities available to today's children, unless the adults around them really work to get the right books into their hands, the reading habit has little hope of grabbing hold.
A new report from the Matawan, N.J.-based Book Industry Study Group, sales of children's books are down by 7 percent from $1,954.2 million in 2000 to $1,816.2 million in 2001. While the report depicts stagnation throughout much of the industry, the drop-off in young readership seems particularly alarming.
The irony, say some observers, is that the downturn comes when there is a richer field of reading material for children than ever before.
The industry churns out about 5,000 new children's titles a year, at least a few hundred of which are widely acclaimed as excellent. While many of these titles are fiction, there are also a large number of quality nonfiction works biographies, books on outer space or historical subjects that would seem ideal both for classroom use and independent reading.
Some blame the grown-ups. "It only reflects what's happening in the adult population," says Michael Cader, creator of publisherslunch.com. "We're reading less, we're less compelled by reading."
But there's also a failure to channel relevant information to the people parents and teachers who need it most, says Leonard Marcus, a children's book author and critic based in New York.
"There's a disconnect between all the talk about literacy and the lack of resources for people to find out about the books that already exist," he says.
He points to the disappearance of children's bookstores. At their peak, in the 1980s, there were about 800 in the United States, many of them staffed by people who had worked in libraries. Today due to the rise of large chain bookstores there are only about 200.
Becky Anderson, owner of Anderson's Book Shops in Chicago, does about half her business in children's books. But Ms. Anderson is not encouraged by the consumer response she sees.
"It's incredible what's available today," she says. "We're being offered translations of so much literature from other countries. Old favorites are coming back into print." And yet, she finds, most teachers and parents are too busy to investigate the possibilities for their children. "People aren't looking hard enough. Kids need to read more, to be exposed to better literature." As a nation, she feels, "we're missing the boat on this."
And of course, it's not just children's bookstores that are disappearing. Budget cuts are also thinning the ranks of school librarians, the professionals perhaps best placed to funnel the right books to the right children.
"Librarians are already on the lookout for new books," says Theresa Borzumato, executive director of school and library marketing for Random House Children's Books in New York. With the many demands teachers have on their time, "we have to be very selective and find creative ways to let them know about our new books."
But there are some who believe that shortages of time, funds, and school librarians are not the only threat. They worry that the current preoccupation with the teaching of reading may actually make it harder for kids to discover the the pleasure of reading.
There has been a long-running battle in the US between those who stress the mechanics of reading the use of phonics to recognize sounds and to "decode" words and those who prefer to entice kids to want to read by offering them books they will enjoy.
At the moment, phonics advocates are strongly in the lead, with the White House firmly endorsing the "science" of reading throughout its Reading First initiative.
But that's a focus that has some worried about the future of reading as an art.
"With these methods that teach kids to decode, you get kids who can read, but won't," says Carol Otis Hurst, a columnist and consultant on children's literature from Westfield, Mass. "There's no goal of teaching kids to become real lovers of reading."
Decoding is a very important skill, insists Susan Bogdan-Ritty, who has taught first grade in southern Albany County, N.Y., for 28 years. But "once the child grasps those skills, you need to move them beyond that and that's where the joy comes in," she says. "I've seen lots of children who can decode a tremendous amount of material but they don't understand what they're reading."
If kids are "reading" but not understanding, she points out, "We're not really teaching them to read."
While funding to help stock classroom libraries is a perpetual concern, there is optimism about the quality of teaching.
"I have a great deal of faith in how smart and caring classroom teachers are," says Paula Quint, president of the Children's Book Council in New York.
Pat Shea-Bischoff, a seventh-grade teacher and an assistant professor of children's literature at New York's Fordham University, says the teachers she's seeing today are better informed about children's books than ever.
They're also working hard at introducing innovations classroom book clubs, reader-response journals, more student participation in choosing books, a wider variety offered that are paying off big time when it comes to creating a love of reading.
"The publications are fabulous, the quality is there I think kids are reading more than ever," says Dr. Shea-Bischoff.
Maybe in some classrooms, say others but certainly not everywhere.
"I could tell you about classroom libraries with 1,000 books, many of them purchased by the teacher out of his or her own pocket," says Jean Getzel, a children's literature consultant in Minneapolis. "But others when I go to give a classroom presentation, the teachers don't have a clue [about books]."
And yet, say many of those who work in the field of children's books, it is important to maintain a certain perspective. Trends and industry figures rise and fall, but the magic of watching a child discover a book remains constant.
"We still see those kids, who, when you've introduced them to the right book, finally hook into something they love, and then they can spread their wings and move on to other things," says Anderson, the Chicago bookseller. "And we hear about teachers doing this, too. That's the most exciting thing."
The adventure-oriented Harry Potter books did not cast their spell solely on younger children. There were many teenagers picking up and enjoying the stories as well.
But some who follow trends in young-adult literature worry that the Harry Potter tales were the exception rather than the rule. In recent years, they say, books for teens have become dark, heavy with problems, and surprisingly graphic.
"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."
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