Thursday, December 31, 2009

Battle for Fiction

“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”

- Dwight D. Eisenhower, letter to the Airborne and Marine forces before D Day (According to my son)

When you have two children, invariably one child is “easier” and the other is “more challenging”. It’s tempting to label children, but I try my best to fight against it since I was (what I deem) unjustly labeled. I wrote a previous post* about my mother’s attempt to neatly categorize my sister and me.

The truth is that my son is quicker to challenge me and quicker to raise the vocal volume in comparison with my daughter, but he’s a thoughtful, kind, and intelligent child. Over the years, there have been a few issues in which we’ve struggled. One is over reading. When my son was in kindergarten, he had an excellent teacher and was blossoming, but she retired, and her replacement was someone who should not have been a kindergarten teacher. My son went from happy, blissfully unaware that he was learning in spades to sullen and unsure of himself.

The teacher avoided setting up reading groups for months, so I tried to have him practice at home, but he was burned out by the time his school day ended, and it just became a battle that nobody won. I dropped the attempt, and soon he lost nearly all he’d learned. When the groups were finally formed, he believed he’d never learn to read. This was (of course) preposterous, but try explaining that to a six-year-old? His lack of confidence culminated in a showdown between him and the teacher, and she sent him to the principal’s office. The assistant principal handled the situation like a pro, calming my distraught son, who prided himself on being a good kid in school. When I came to school later, I spilled my misgivings about the teacher. She was the worst type of instructor, who dealt with the surface behavior instead of the underlying reason for that behavior, and my child was not the only victim.

First grade was spent with a teacher who patiently undid all the damage that the kindergarten teacher inflicted. By the time my son got to second-grade, he was an enthusiastic learner again. By fourth-grade, his reading level was years beyond his actual age.

I knew that the reason for his take off in literacy was that he devoured nonfiction books. World War II, in particular was a subject of endless fascination for him, with its larger theme of good versus evil. He’d amassed such a collection that he started a library for students to borrow in his fourth-grade classroom. My son was tackling adult books in his thirst for information. I had an inkling that my son’s reading comprehension had increased when he was taken by the above quote enough to copy it in marker on construction paper when reading in the summer between third and fourth-grade. It’s still displayed on our refrigerator.

But from time to time, we still butted heads over reading. He was resistant to read fiction, except when he was required during a reading group in his classroom. If he wasn’t inhaling an encyclopedia-sized book, he was "reading" cartoons. Since I was a writer, this drove me nuts. I’d force him to read a novel, buying and borrowing books on any subject he liked, as long as they were fiction or historical fiction. This strategy was implemented with limited success.

Worse was when we were on road trips. He’d want to play on his handheld game system the entire five-hour ride between Cambridge and New York, but I’d try to break it up with reading. I’d give a thirty-minute block devoted to reading, but every five minutes I’d hear, “How much more time do I have to read?” Yes, I was force-feeding fiction to my son.

In my defense, I write fiction, so how could my own son avoid fiction like the plague? This summer was the worst because he didn’t read anything but nonfiction all summer. By the end of August I made him read, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. Though he’s a fast reader (when he wants to be) he took w e e k s to complete it.

But then something changed. In fifth-grade, his friends began recommending novels, and he began reading them. When someone suggested, The Lightning Thief series by Rick Riordan he loved the books because they married mythology (sort of nonfiction) with fiction. I found him just picking up the books and reading in the car, on the couch in the morning, and past his bedtime. He also enthusiastically wanted to tell me about what he was reading, and enjoyed our drive through Manhattan, where some scenes in the books take place. He’s made me promise I’ll read the series so we can discuss the books in more detail.

My son is on the last book now. What will happen after he’s done? I don’t know, but I think I’ve learned my lesson, and I’ll let him choose his own books from now on.

Happy New Year.



  1. I really think that I'm somewhat of a good (crazy) writer because I was a good reader!

  2. I agree that frequent reader helps in all other academic pursuits. I'd tell my fifth-graders that at the end of every school year, begging them to read all summer, I think most of them ignored me.

    I like your good (crazy) blog!

  3. So what did he pick up afterwards?
    And is he still reading non-fiction?

  4. @ Alesa, he went through The Lightning Thief series by Rick Riordan (putting him on a nonfiction ancient Greece quest) and then the Artemis Fowl series. But book 6 bored him, so he hasn't finished it. That was back in June. Then he tried reading The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan, but abandoned that too.

    Now, except for books at school (for reading group), he's back to nonfiction. I bought him a bunch of Wicked History books for Hanukkah. Because I'm supportive.

    And I only nag him about once a week to read fiction.

  5. My first kindergarten teacher was also a terror. She was one of those teachers who picked favorites and displayed it. I remember on one occasion turning in a paper and her saying to me, "If only your behavior was as good as your work." and wondering what I had done so wrong. It is a horrible feeling for a six-year-old.

    Ah, Percy Jackson and the Olympians. I read the first one when I was in the fifth grade. I now own all five, plus The Red Pyramid and it's sequel and The Lost Hero. If he didn't enjoy The Red Pyramid, he still might like The Lost Hero as it still has to do with Camp Half-Blood though it's focus is on other characters.

    Artemis Fowl. Love. Him. To. Death. Him, and Charlie Bone, and Septimus Heap. I have my own library as you can probably tell.

  6. Brooke, what a terrible thing for your teacher to say! I try to remember that one sentence can stick with a student in a positive or negative way, so choose wisely.

    I offered to get my son The Lost Hero, but he's declined so far. Maybe this summer.

    A few years ago, I read him several of the Charlie Bone books. But he and I never finished the series. I should pick them back up, and see how it all ends.

    My son loved Artemis Fowl, but I still haven't read them. I haven't read Septimus Heap either.

    Sounds like you have a great library!