Thursday, November 29, 2012

Mother-Daughter Book Club

No, this is not a post on how to structure a successful mother-daughter book club.

But it is a post about getting girls to read, and read for life.

More girls read than boys, generally speaking, but I still hear about girls who don't like to read. There are plenty of them out there.

My daughter Lucy is a I-will-read-anything-you-give-me-happily kind of girl.
Mary is a I-won't-read-what-you-want-me-to-read-if-the-cover-looks-the-least-bit-boring kind of girl.

There's a great debate—thank you common core—about whether or not what you read matters. I can't stand Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and I won't buy it for my kids, but I wouldn't try to stop them from reading it at school or bringing it home from the library. (Actually, I don't know about that. No one has tried so far.) I won't buy Ninjago comic books or Sponge Bob anything. And I abhor the Disney princesses. But all of this is less about philosophy and more about my personal tastes. If I cannot bear them myself, I won't buy them.

But what about Mary? If she won't read what I want her to read, what is she reading?

She's reading this, and she's reading it over and over again:

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Wish You Were Eyre by Heather Vogel Frederick, Book Six in the Mother-Daughter Book Club series. There's nothing wrong with this series. Nothing at all. It's pretty cute, and I read the first three happily. They are about a group of girls and their mothers who start a book club together. They read fabulous books like Pride and Prejudice and Anne of Green Gables and Jane Eyre and the author then manages to tie what happens in the books to what is happening in their personal lives. They are probably intended, not just to entertain, but to expose tween girls to the classics.

But I have never once seen Mary pick up one of these classics after reading a Mother-Daughter Book Club book and begin to read. Never. Not-a-once.

These books have worn out their welcome for me. I'm tired of them and can't read them anymore. But somehow, Mary can. Not only can she read them, she can memorize them, apparently.

I have the advantage of homeschooling her right now, so for her school reading I can foist upon her great books like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and The Secret Garden.

But when she's in school, I have to deal with the terrible selections they choose in Language Arts (both the small number of books they read and the books they choose), and the fact that at home she reads nothing but this:
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And is reading this:
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helping Mary intellectually, spiritually, emotionally? Is it making her a better reader? Is it making her a lifelong reader?

Does rereading the same series of books again and again turn kids into readers?

I think the answer is (drumroll....) it depends. I think it depends on the series.

There was a study done in 2008 on the effects of Harry Potter on kids. Here are some of the results:

  • Three out of four kids said reading Harry Potter, or having someone read Harry Potter to them, made them interested in reading other books.
  • Two-third of kids say they do better in school since reading Harry Potter — and their parents agree.
  • Seventy-eight percent of parents who have read Harry Potter said they “really enjoy sharing Harry Potter books” with their child.
  • Nearly seven in ten children who have read the entire Harry Potter series said they are “very” interested in re-reading the books.
  • Seventy-seven percent of parents think the Harry Potter series will end up being read by future generations.

There have been other similar studies, all basically showing that Harry Potter may have turned an entire generation of children into readers. 

I recently heard a study on NPR that I shouldn't quote because I can't find it online, but the study said that teens were NOT reading other types of books as a result of reading the Twilight series. They were rereading Twilight again and again and then branching off into other books similar to Twilight, though those books haven't done as well. And there are many who feel the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey comes from Twilight fans searching for the next best (and more graphic) thing. 

I know Shannon Hale is engaging in an ongoing discussion on her blog about Twilight (debating the pros and cons of the series), and that is not what I'm intending here. 

I'm asking the question, how do we turn our girls into readers? Does it matter what they read to get them to that place?

I think what matters is empathy. Do the books your daughter is rereading over and over again contain some measure of empathy? Empathy is lacking in so much of today's entertainment. The other day, one of Mary's friends came over to watch a movie. I very excitedly pulled out Return to Me, one of my favorite movies, and a movie that always makes me feel deeply about love and life (as cheesy as it may be). Mary hadn't seen it before and neither had her friend. The movie begins with a young woman in the hospital, waiting to have a heart transplant. (This is a comedy, by the way. Not a drama. It is very funny along with the seriousness.)

To my surprise—to my shock—Mary and her friend were barely paying attention, the friend in particular, and when she did pay attention to it, she was laughing at the movie, not with it. Laughing at these very poignant scenes. I was very, very concerned—how could my daughter not feel? She seemed so hard-hearted in that moment. How could she take something so real and traumatic so lightly?

The friend was bored. She decided to go home before long. When Mary was left to watch the rest of the movie with me and her little sister, and a new Mary appeared. This Mary was moved by what was happening. She was enthralled, and at least for a few minutes after the movie ended, she was a little different. I think, a little better.

This could be analyzed in many ways, perhaps Mary's friend would have been just as different had she been watching the movie with her mother, not her friend, but either way, Empathy wasn't Cool. Thinking about others' feelings, trying to put yourself into their shoes wasn't something these twelve-year-olds found easy to do. It wasn't a part of the popular culture, and I really do think, when I was twelve and watching movies with my friends, empathy was cool. I know we cried together and got all deep and emotional (probably overly so). I do think times have changed.

Watching a movie or reading a book that lacks true empathy is like eating gobs of frosting. It tastes good but leaves you a little sick afterwards and wanting something with real substance. I wonder (if my anecdotal findings on Twilight and Harry Potter are at all correct) if that is why Harry Potter has inspired kids to read more than Twilight has? I think Harry Potter is full of great moments where children can experience real empathy. Not quite so much with Twilight.

This is a very long way of saying that I think the Mother-Daughter Book Club books are okay for Mary, and not just because they aren't harmful. They truly are full of empathy. Friends struggling to be friends, but learning things in the end. Relationships between mothers and daughters also struggling, but growing by the book's conclusion. People trying to read great books together, even when it's hard. 

Mary doesn't put these books down having forgotten what it truly means to be a loving, caring human being. But does Shaemus forget about that humanity when he reads a Ninjago comic book? Um, probably. 

It is the books with empathy that will lead our children back for more. Empathy doesn't mean serious or boring or stuffy. It just means that somewhere on the pages you can find what it means to have a heart.

(And that is a pretty awesome title, by the way. Wish You Were Eyre. Sam wants to hand it out to his friends...)

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