August 21, 2011

Junk In; Junk Out?

So... I have a slew of students this past year and more this summer who have jumped on the bandwagon of reading (phew), but something is gnawing at me about their book choices. I imagine children's librarians, as well as critics of our declining cultural standards, are restless too.

There is a new genre of books that are "conversational" in tone, and graphic novel-like. Although actually old-fashioned comic books, and a certain type of graphic novel, are filled with complex plots and rich vocabulary. The ones I am referring to are a type of hybrid.

The Wimpy Kid series is probably the best known, and a few others that are about the same reading level (4th and 5th grade) are:

Big Nate Series
The Great Hamster Massacre
Charlie Jackson's Guide to Not Reading
Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life

These are titles that make overnight readers our of reluctant readers. Score! These are books that kids love so much that read them over and over again. So what is the problem? Well, if we adhere to the nuances of vocabulary research and the studies on how connected writing skill is to rich reading, not to mention variety and volume, then I have some basis for my gnawing.

A few of the Amazon reviews of Wimpy Kid #1 that I resonate with:

Great book if you think burping, farting and acting badly is great.

The words moron, jerk, dork and hot girls are used in the first 5 pages.

While I am not a proponent of sanitizing our kid's lives and reading materials so as to insulate them from the realities of growing up, neither am I a cheerleader for steering kids into books that glorify teasing and bullying. Plus, in my small, but reliable, literacy laboratory of my private practice, the readers of these books unconsciously drag the informal tone of the writing into their own.

"At camp I was like so totally hanging out with the other kid
who is lots like me, and totally liking that."

"The koolest part of the book I read was when the kool snails
turned into warriors cuz you know how snails look, don't you?"

It truly hurts my ears to read it aloud.

So, what to do? I tell parents to let these be "dessert books" and the main course be ones with thicker plots, richer vocabulary, sophisticated grammar, and a lot less mean. Okay, Huck Finn was mean, but there is an undertone that proves a lesson for him about that behavior. The Wimpy Kid never grows and changes, but his sentences get a little longer in each book!

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