Monday, April 20, 2009

This week, features one of my favorites of the series, a Japanese story about two sisters with very different priorities. And I have a new interest, in that an ESL teacher in Texas has been using the stories with her third graders each week, asking them a fairly simple question and collecting their answers on-line.

What I find fascinating is that, while their answers are very short and unsteady, they are picking up nuances in stories I would think would go over their heads while missing some points in the more straightforward tales.

It is important not to underestimate the abilities of young people.

Ten years ago, the Denver Post was running a serialized story, "Field of the Dogs" by Katherine Paterson, known for "Bridge to Terabithia," "Jacob I Have Loved" and "The Great Gilly Hopkins," among others. In the story, a young boy moves to Vermont and is having problems with his relatively new stepdad, his very new baby brother, the move to a rural area and fitting in with the rough-edged blue collar kids at his new school.

He discovers that, when the neighborhood dogs get together in an isolated field, they talk to each other. He also discovers that there is a particularly unpleasant dog they fear. He decides to help out his dog and the nice dogs in that pack, and swipes his stepfather's shotgun. Things do not go as he plans, no dogs are hurt on either side of the social divide, and he instead turns his energies to working out his own problems and letting the dogs work out theirs.

It's a nice minor story, but, by the weekly schedule on which the Post happened to be running it, the chapter in which Josh steals the shotgun coincided with the shootings at Columbine. Fortunately, it was not the same day, and my friend Dana, who runs the Denver Post's NIE program, was able to pull it from the page before it ran.

But now what? They held the chapter for a week, and then ran it the next week and continued the story. The response was extremely positive, as both parents and teachers thanked them for providing a safe place in which to talk about the issues that had exploded in Littleton that past week.

That's what children's literature, and folk tales, and literature in general, is for: To inspire people to reflect on things.

Alas, this is more typical: Two years later, the paper where I was no longer working bought "Field of the Dogs" to run in their NIE program, but apparently only read the three sample chapters, not the synopsis, and didn't bother to read the entire thing when they had it in their hands. They simply began running the chapters in the paper, until they reached that one.

Guns? Kids? That's a no-no, and they pulled the serial two-thirds of the way through. They subbed in a much more placid tale that wouldn't upset the kiddies or their teachers or their parents.

Because we all know that kids can't think or react or analyze anything that might be difficult or nuanced, right?

If it were just that one little newspaper, it wouldn't matter. But for every Katherine Paterson being published these days, there are 50 Madonnas and Dutchesses of York providing safe, stupid utterly unnuanced stories that will do nothing to inspire children to read or think. And parents, and grandparents, and other grown-ups see the pretty pictures and fill their children's bookshelves with this uninspiring, formulaic pap.

Well, Katherine Paterson continues to sell a lot of books anyway, thanks to parents and teachers who understand the difference and who aren't afraid to offer their kids challenging material that might stretch their little brains.

And I'm grateful, both as a writer and as someone who needs to share a world with the results of their efforts.

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