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

Posted by on Jan. 6, 2015 at 9:14 AM
  • 31 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 towards 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 towards 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 has changed since we were young?

by on Jan. 6, 2015 at 9:14 AM
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by Silver Member on Jan. 6, 2015 at 9:22 AM
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It is very hard to get some boys to actually enjoy books and read just for the pleasure of reading.  Diary of a Whimpy is very funny and MANY boys relate and enjoy reading.  I don't think it is rotting their brain.  After reading that series, many go on to read other books for the pleasure of reading.  I do not see that as a bad thing at all.

by Lisa on Jan. 6, 2015 at 9:48 AM

I think as with any generation, books and the stories that come from them have had to progress and change with the progressive, changing times.

Reading in general cannot "rot a brain."

by Member on Jan. 6, 2015 at 10:01 AM
I completely agree that it has changed. My dh and I went looking for books we enjoyed as kids and found everything was revolved around stuff like Legos and TV shows. We even picked up one of Shel Silversteins poem books and decided against it because our son wouldn't enjoy it like we felt we did. At least my son enjoys me reading to him which is better than nothing.
by Platinum Member on Jan. 6, 2015 at 10:55 AM

Stories, books, and what is considered appropriate at different age levels as well as what is considered a good, well-written book changes over time. Books that are just fun to read can contribute to a child's enjoyment of reading, just as comic books can. The only thing I have a problem with is when school libraries put these "fun" books on their shelves while removing and in some cases, out right banning books like The Diary of Ann Frank and in upper grades, The Grape of Wrath.

by Bronze Member on Jan. 6, 2015 at 11:35 AM
1 mom liked this
When I was a kid, I used to page through the ecyclopedia and my parents' old textbooks. Despite the veritable walls of words, I mostly looked at the pictures, and they were very educational pictures. I liked Human Anatomy and World History, the pics in the engineering books didn't make sense until I had Precalc. If the books are there, they'll get read. Go ahead and pick up some Shel Silverstein and leave a few old college textbooks around.

My brother went through a phase where he read nothing but comic books and video game strategy guides. He reads all the time now, has his bachelor's, and works as a transportation manager. A little Captain Underpants won't doom your kid to school failure and unemployability.
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by Bronze Member on Jan. 6, 2015 at 12:18 PM

 I think you have to find books that your child likes.  My son is a big fan of the "screech owl" series and I have no problem with it.  If they are reading and enjoying the book that should be a plus.  Their tastes will evolve and change with age.  Captain Underpants hopefully will just be the beginning to a love for reading.

by Silver Member on Jan. 6, 2015 at 1:12 PM

With our three children, we used classic children's literature, geared for their age range. Not "geared" as in vocabulary level, because challenging vocabulary is the entire POINT of literature, and if a parent is reading it to the child, then what better opportunity for the child to learn new words? The parent's comprehension helps the child understand, and the context. And sidebars to explain a word are a wonderful experience of sharing.

But, I was careful to choose books "geared" to my child's emotional maturity. For instance, a child until about 7 psychologically needs to encounter Good in the world. Even some fairy tales need to wait until age 6 or so, because they confront the child with intentional malevolence. 

For example, we read  through the Harry Potter series, BUT: it is clear that the level of each book, psychologically, matches Harry Potter's age IN that book. I would never want a child younger than 15 to be exposed to that horrific scene when cringing Wormtail shriekingly cuts off his own finger to obey Voldemort. Yuck.

So, definitely give your children the classics - libraries provide them for free! - and be picky about more recent publications to see if they are worthy to be part of shaping your child's view of the world!

by Platinum Member on Jan. 6, 2015 at 2:49 PM
1 mom liked this

more derp from the Stir. 

my kid reads both WK AND classics. 

by on Jan. 6, 2015 at 2:49 PM
1 mom liked this

 Reading is good. ANY books such as the Wimpy Kid books or the Harry Potter series will introduce a kid to reading and help him or her to enjoy reading. I don't believe in picking and chosing and banning books at all. Most childrens' books from the past all the way up to now are fine. My granddaughters read "Junie Moon" books, then moved on to the Hunger Games, older teen books.  One read "THe Diary of Anne Frank".My grandson started out with the Diary of a Wimpy Kids book ,then Harry Potter and the Hunger Games trilogy. He is a super reader as are the rest of my grandkids. Reading ability will give them an advantage in all school subjects and produce good grades.

When I was little, I started reading at 4, read for hours, every day, even the Encyclopedia and I still love to read.I wasn't that athletic and didn't play outside that much, especially in the winter in MN so reading was much more fun for me.

Encourage kids to read.Always.

by Member on Jan. 6, 2015 at 3:10 PM

Well, I'm the preschool SUnday school teacher at our church and we use a very common SS curriculum.  It is SOO watered down that it bores the kids to death. 

Last SUnday was the story about the wise men visiting Baby Jesus.  If I went by the bland storybook, there were three men who followed a star, found Baby Jesus, and returned home.  Nothing about Herod, his trickery, the dreams that the wise men and Joseph had, nothing about the Flight into Egypt. 

I canned the whole scripted thing and told them the story of the bad king named Herod and how Joseph outsmarted him and got away.  They were hanging on every word. 

I did leave out the part about Herod slaughtering all the baby boys in Bethlehem, however. 

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