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Reading May Be Rotting Our Kids' Brains

Posted by on Jan. 6, 2015 at 11:46 AM
  • 20 Replies

Reading May Be Rotting Our Kids' Brains

children's book trends

I’ve been reading The Incredible Journey to my 9-year-old at night (now that he's enjoying books more), and I was telling my sister-in-law my method for doing so: since the book uses such rich, detailed language, I occasionally scan ahead and break down particularly challenging words into terms he’s more familiar with. I do this because I loved the book so much when I was a kid, and I love the experience of sharing it with my own child now -- I don’t want him to give up on it and ask for something different because he’s frustrated by having to continually ask for the definition of a word. “Is it written for his reading level?” she asked me, and I tipped my head and thought about that question. On Amazon the age range says 12 and up, but I remember reading it when I was in grade school. So maybe yes, maybe no. But overall, is it the sort of book that would get published today and become a bestselling children’s classic? I really, really doubt it.

The Incredible Journey is a novel about a young Labrador Retriever, an elderly Bull Terrier, and a Siamese cat who trek many miles through the Canadian wilderness in order to reunite with their owners. There’s a movie version but it’s pretty terrible, I think they gave the animals talking voices and made the whole thing as cheery and stupid as possible. The book is much more mature and downright frightening in parts as the animals face starvation, exposure, and wild forest animals. It was published in 1961 and is one of the best children’s stories that’s ever been written, if you ask me.

My son enjoys our nightly reading sessions (perhaps in no small part because I really put my all into reading it with emotion and gusto, in my attempts to encourage him to imagine the various scenarios unfolding on each page), but he’d likely tell you that he’s far more interested in his Humphrey the Classroom Hamster series, or Captain Underpants, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

I can’t fault him for his preferences. Here’s an excerpt from The Incredible Journey:

The leaves were losing their color rapidly, and many of the trees were nearly bare, but the dogwood and pigeon-berry by the sides of the trail still blazed with color, and the Michaelmas daisies and fireweed flourished. Many of the birds of the forest had already migrated; those that were left gathered into great flocks, filling the air with their restless chatter as they milled around, the long drawn-out streamers suddenly wheeling to form a clamorous cloud, lifting and falling in indecision. They saw few other animals: the noisy progress of the dogs warned the shy natural inhabitants long before their approach; and those that they did meet were too busy and concerned with their winter preparations to show much curiosity.

An adult might read this and know that those evocative sentences are meant to foreshadow bone-chilling peril for the traveling animals, but my son may well have drifted away, lost in the pew-pew-pew battle of Lego creations in his head. Which is fine, I don’t expect him to be reading above his level, nor do I demand that he love the same things I love to read.

But take a look at these excerpts from another best-selling children’s series that’s geared for his general age:

[giant cartoon]

Tuesday: When I got to school today, everybody was acting all strange around me, and at first I didn't know WHAT was up.

[another giant cartoon]

When I got out of the van, I called Roderick a big jerk.

[yet another cartoon, because words are hard]

Is it any wonder my kid isn't likely to have the patience to sit through long, adjective-filled sentences in order to embark on a long mental expedition when so many popular kids’ books have been watered down to the shortest, punchiest content possible?

I’m more guilty of contributing to this trend than most people I know, actually, because of what I do for a living. Adults are skewing toward shorter, grabbier headlines, and that’s why I don’t title articles like this “A Long Thoughtful Essay on Whether or Not Our Dwindling Attention Spans Will Have Profoundly Negative Results as Time Inexorably Marches On.” There’s a reason most of the content you read on the Internet has been condensed to a few bolded, deliberately provocative, media-rich topics: content providers are competing for eyeballs, and our eyeballs are increasingly unable to stay fixed in one location for more than a minute or two.

This of course leads to polarized “discussions” that aren’t even what you’d call conversations. After all, if you can’t get your point across in an easily sharable 140 character sound bite, what’s the use? No one’s going to pay attention.

It’s a disturbing trend, one that seems doomed to lead us more and more toward drifting apart as a society. As parents, we do all we can to help our children develop nuanced thinking skills and the patience to truly delve into any given subject — but jeez, we’re busy, right? We’ve got our own frantic schedules and flickering screens demanding our attention.

In the end, all I can hope for is that there’s room for everything. Maybe The Incredible Journey gets read on a tablet alongside a host of beeping games and apps, but it still exists for those who want it — and for the times when we need to skim along the surface because life is a little too overwhelming, we’ve got wimpy kids and underpants superheroes to help us out.

Do you think the tone, content, and pacing of children’s books have changed since we were young?

by on Jan. 6, 2015 at 11:46 AM
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Replies (1-10):
by Ruby Member on Jan. 6, 2015 at 12:06 PM
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 No, I don't think they have. I think there is a wider variety, in all different writing styles now. Yes, some are written as simply as Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but others cover more serious topics. Wonder, by R. J. Palacio, is for ages 8-12, and covers physical deformities, finding true friends, and adjusting to middle school. I read it in one night, not expecting to be as drawn in as I was. Harry Potter covers a lot of heavier topics, yet kids as young as 8 are devouring the whole series.

Having books out there that appear "dumbed down", imo, is a way for authors to try and draw in kids who aren't necessarily big readers. If you can get them reading the silly, simple stuff, eventually, they may read other things on their own. Ds1 tended to read only things below his reading level until 6th gr- at that point, a friend recommended a series (The Ranger's Apprentice, by John Flanagan) more on their level, and something finally "clicked". 




by Bronze Member on Jan. 6, 2015 at 12:18 PM

I think the good books are still out there and still being written.  I also think the punch one sentence and a picture books have their place, what changed, in my opinion is that we now live in a world that caters every single thing that people might possibly pay money for directly to children. Everything is dumbed down and made "kid-friendly". People are put out when there are no coloring book/kids menus at restaurants, anything that would require a child to sit still and be quiet for more than a few beats is "not kid friendly".  If there is a chance it will be hard or the kid will be bad at it then the thing needs to be modified so its more "on their level". 

Its okay for things to be hard, its okay for kids to be bored and its okay for a kid to utilize something that is not marketed for children. 

by Bronze Member on Jan. 6, 2015 at 12:20 PM

I don't care what my child reads as long as it is age appropriate and he is reading.  There has always been a large variety in reading materials for kids and young adults.  There is a large variety of reading material for adults too.  What is the point in forcing kids to read something we consider literary genius is they do not have any interest in reading it?  Diary of a Wimpy Kid is popular for the same reason Dan Brown is a popular author - because they are fun and entertaining to read.  If the people who write these articles actually sit down and read the books they are slamming, they will find the authors do incorporate a large vocabulary into their books without making each sentence a mouthful.

by Bronze Member on Jan. 6, 2015 at 12:52 PM
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 I said it in the other group and I will say it here.  If a book like Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Captain Underpants encourages a child to read it is a win-win situation.  My take is if a child is reading (age appropriate) books they will develop their language skills and move on to other books when their interests and tastes evolve.  My son right now is big on the "Screech Owl" books, last year it was Diary of a Wimpy Kid, next who knows.  As long as he is enjoying the books and is reading he is developing a love for it.

by Bronze Member on Jan. 6, 2015 at 1:02 PM
No, you're comparing two different genres and going "Why aren't these the same?"
by Gold Member on Jan. 6, 2015 at 3:07 PM
Oh please. And honestly you should not be adapting the words - that is exactly how they glean new vocab - hearing it in context. If he likes the book read it. My kids rarely ask what a word means.

But regardless there are a lot of great books and easier books have their place too. You can not build a great reader without giving them good tools to make them want to read! Who cares what they read for now.
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by on Jan. 6, 2015 at 3:29 PM

It just depends on where you look.  I think that there is more drivel to wade through these days because technology has made it easier to publish (there are so many stupid kids book available for free on the Kindle... seriously, horribly written stuff), but there are plenty of wonderful books continuing to be written.  There has always been a range of type of kids books, and the age recommendations may change over the years, but that's why it's important to buy based on your child's skill level, and to read to them beyond their age level so they're hearing the more complex language even if they can't read it yet.  To me the important thing is correct grammar.  Simple is one thing, they are still learning after all, but that's not an excuse for poor grammar.

My son is only just starting to read, he's 6 in Kinder, so we read the short level 1-3 books with him all the time and he follows along and reads the words he knows.  But I've been reading chapter books to him for over a year now.  We just started the Harry Potter series together and I was so happy he asked me to start them!  He asks to read together the min he gets home from school.

by Silver Member on Jan. 6, 2015 at 6:06 PM

I think variety is good especially for the kids that are not avid readers. We tend to gravitate towards the classics and lots of no fiction. The biggest challenge we face is finding reading level appropriate books (above 8th grade) with subject matter that is okay for a 7 year old.

by Max on Jan. 6, 2015 at 7:01 PM
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The way use language has changed. So older books will reflect that and seem more complicated because we aren't accustomed to it. 

Diary of a Wimpy Kid certainly isn't literature. But there are books coming out that are beautifully written. 

by Silver Member on Jan. 6, 2015 at 9:48 PM

There have been and always will be fluff books and more quality books.  I prefer DD read a mix.  She is actually more into quality books, but will occasionally read a Babysitter's Club book or Dear Dumb Diary.  I would prefer she doesn't ONLY read those, as I think some do encourage poor behavior, btu I also think kids process those things through literature and can learn lessons that are harder to do when seen on TV. 

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