When Good Books Go Bad
Why do some books make the generational leap, while others are left behind?
I can’t pay my kid to read Anne of Green Gables. The Little Princess, Little Women, Little House on the Prairie? Forget it, out of the question, no way. But why?
As I learned when I gave a talk at the local public library, for more than 100 years, dead-ending with my daughter, you could assume that a girl raised in the United States had read or knew about Little Women. In a room of more than 50 women gathered at the library, all of them could name the four main characters in the novel.
Canadian girls had the equivalent in Anne of Green Gables. For British girls, the Enid Blyton and E. Nesbit books were the must-read. I grew up playing Little Women and Little House on the Prairie with friends, just as a Canadian friend recalls taking turns with her sister to “be Anne.”
No longer, at least for the kids I’ve taught and raised. They read of vampires, wizards and mean girls, which is fine. This is not a criticism of what kids today read; I’ve been lucky to read and teach young adult literature that blows venerable adult classics out of the water. What puzzles me is why books that were hot for a solid century leave the kids I know ice-cold.
My daughter complains, “nothing happens” in Little Women. I concede the point. However, this criticism comes from the biggest Jane Austen fan in Essex County, a kid who describes the books, the movies and the eight-hour mini-series as “action packed.”
“Nothing happens compared to what?” I ask. “The horse chases in Pride and Prejudice?’
She shrugs, the universal language for “you’ll never understand.”
But I’m trying. So here are my top theories:
Girls – and you’ve come a long way, baby – don’t do “little” as in women, princess or house. They live large these days, and the titles turn them away.
Adoption is our norm. Anne of Green Gables and The Little Princess, products of the Victorian era, portray orphans as sad, with adoption as a hoped-for happy ending for the courageous main character. The kids I know see adoption differently, as a legal process that begins, not ends, a family saga.
Girl power looks different these days. “Frail and sickly,” said my daughter when I pressed her to give her impression of the heroines of these books. “Plucky and resilient,” I countered. “Victorian times were tough.” But too late; my daughter was already running another lap around the block, trying to beat the neighbor kid’s best time.
When I met novelist Alexander McCall Smith this week, he said that his favorite book from childhood was The Boy’s Book of Merchant Shipping. As he talked, I realized that he was describing not the book, but the memory of reading the book, which is truly what I’m hoping to share with my daughter. It’s not that I want her to read Little Women, Princess, and House on the Prairie. I want her to have read it, like me. But I’m proud that she won’t be swayed. Choosing her own narratives ensures that she remains the main character in her own life story.
What books and stories have you shared successfully (or not) with your children? And why do books such as Little Women fail to move today’s generation of readers? Tell us in the comments section.