Summer Reading: Grim Lit, Un-Purple Prose

Is it 1984 yet?

Amritas, a linguistics professor and blogger in Hawaii, wonders about the timing of the campaign sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English.

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) is sponsoring a nationwide reading and discussion of George Orwell’s classic novel "1984" this October. Educators and students in high schools, colleges and universities, and citizens in libraries, community organizations and book discussion groups, are invited to read the book and discuss its prophetic nature and what it might teach us about life in the contemporary United States.

Actually, I think George Orwell would have been able to tell the difference between Usama bin Laden and John Ashcroft.

Grim Lit

Why are children's books so grim? In The Spectator, Rachel Johnson complains that British children's literature these days is all too devoted to sex and social issues. Instead of reading  Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden, her daughter reads about a child who smears the walls with excrement, children who cope with a manic-depressive mother, a girl dumped in a dustbin at birth, etc.

For example, there’s Doing It by Melvin Burgess, about three boys learning about sex. Johnson quotes from the blurb:

"Dino really fancies fit, sexy Jackie but she just won't give him what he wants. Jonathan likes Deborah, but she's a bit fat -- what will his mates say? Ben's been secretly shagging his teacher for ages. He used to love it, but what if he wants to stop?"

Too many children’s book are grim, not just dark, Johnson writes:

Philip Pullman and Lemony Snicket are dark in the way that C.S. Lewis or Roald Dahl are dark, in an inventive, fantastical, even anarchical way that takes root and sprouts in the child's imagination. Whereas "Doing It" and the forthcoming Julie Burchill book, Sugar Rush, which I am told is a joyful exploration of the sunlit teenage world of drugs and lezzies, sound unquestionably grim and narrowly grotty.

Melvin Burgess also wrote Smack about two 14-year-olds who run away from their alcoholic, abusive and/or strict parents and become heroin addicts. It does sound depressing.

My daughter read a lot of social issues books -- she must have read a dozen about dyslexia -- in her youth, but they were lighter than this: The homeless girl would be a friend, not the main character. The crazy mother would be offstage after the first chapter, replaced by the difficult but basically decent grandmother.

She also read Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden and the like. These books aren’t all sweetness and light, by any means. Anne is an orphan sent to live with strangers who want a boy to work on their farm. Mary is a neglected child who's orphaned; her cousin is a neglected invalid. In Little Women, the father is away fighting in the Civil War. Beth dies. Yet these books are hopeful.

Unpurple Prose

A self-appointed censor is rewriting a series of mystery books in a Utah library, reports the Salt Lake City Tribune.

Davis County library officials are facing a mystery that only Jessica Fletcher could solve.

It seems a library patron has been busy crossing out the "hells" and "damns" in books based on the the popular ''Murder, She Wrote'' TV series and changing them to "hecks" and "darns."

The only clue is that the censor uses a purple pen.

Who's a Jeopardy Genius?

Ken Jennings has won more than $1.3 million answering questions on Jeopardy. Is he a genius? Howard Gardner, Mr. Multiple Intelligences, tells the New York Times that Jennings has great "verbal linguistic memory,'' and probably a logical, organized mind. Also he has the "inter- and intrapersonal intelligence" (people smarts) to be a great bluffer.

Jonathan Plucker, a cognitive scientist at Indiana University who runs a site on intelligence, suggests intelligence may be a general ability "translatable from one field to another."

(Plucker) said he was quite impressed after watching Mr. Jennings compete. "He was playing the other competitors as much as he was playing the board," Dr. Plucker said, by making guesses, holding back at certain times, acting confident. "This guy was clearly good at contextual sorts of intelligence," which is to say, reading the situation and the rules, in addition to having the necessary knowledge.

I don't normally watch the show but I saw Jennings clean up last week. The guys is cool under pressure. I got one question he missed. Saul's hometown is Tarsus, not Damascus. Sure, he was on the road to Damascus when he was converted, but he wasn't heading home.

I was on my high school’s It’s Academic team in 1970. We won the first round, but lost in the second to New Trier West, which went on to win the Chicago-area championship. They had a red-haired sophomore who kept answering questions before the announcer had finishing asking them. At my 20th high school reunion, I got together with my It’s Academic team mates. “Do you remember that kid from New Trier West?” Mike asked. Brad remembered his name.


Sabina James writes:

My husband and I are from India; our three children were born here. The difference between our parenting and those of our American friends is that we are not afraid to be adults and are raising our children to be adults. Our friends are letting their children make choices that will determine their future. What does a seven-year-old know about the job market? In our house the TV is off and there are no video games. The children read, play and work with their hands. They also are taught to take their academics very seriously. Our hope is that they will be fully functioning adults when they leave our care. All this takes a lot of work on our part but that is the role and responsibility of the parent.

 James R. Choon of Laie, Hawaii writes:

(The success of immigrant students) has nothing to do with brains and much to do with discipline, expectations and parents following through with their children. American parents have become too busy and thus too lax with academics.

Bill Ramm of Clinton Township, Mich., writes:

I spent 6 1/2 years in the Republic of Korea while in the Air Force. The reason their kids are smarter than ours is because of the emphasis placed on educating children. Kids in South Korea go to school Monday through Friday (longer days than our kids) and half a day on Saturday. They are drilled in the basics in elementary school, and by the time they reach high school they know more than most of our high school graduates. There is no sassing of teachers as older people are respected there and teachers even more.

Gary Coates of Raleigh, N.C., writes:

Recently, my local news paper published the pictures and bios of this year's crop of valedictorians. No less than one third were children of Asian families, including India. Our state has only 1.4 percent Asian population. Immigrants and their children understand the value of our free educational system. Somebody needs to clue Americans in on the fact that we offer opportunities not found in most of the world. 

The blame for the failure of American children to measure up rests squarely with their parents.  We could educate our children on a pittance of what we now are spending if the parents would hold their children’s noses to the academic grindstone.

Darren Slack of Minneapolis writes:

I do not agree with the idea of an “academics only” school. I teach math at an inner-city middle school that had very few non-academic choices (only football, basketball and baseball). Because of basic skills classes, a number of “low level” students sit at a desk all day long with no gym or music classes. These are children, not robots. They need to exercise the body (physical education, sports) and the soul (music, theater) as well as the mind.

There is a lot of talk out there about how sports build character and leadership skills. I do not disagree with those notions. However, I feel, as both a former student-athlete and as a teacher, that “non-academic” extracurricular activities do help students in the classroom. Now all we have to do is convince parents that “non-academic” extracurricular activities are not the be-all and end-all of their children’s lives.

Joanne Jacobs writes about education and other issues at She's writing a book, Ride the Carrot Salad, about a start-up charter high school in San Jose.

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