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 also 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?

MK April 04, 2011 at 01:11 PM
I have successfully read the Little House series to my kids---they loved the idea of making do with nothing. They said it reminded them of the Wilderness Lodge at Disney. I had zero luck with Tom Sawyer---in fact, it served to lull my son to sleep and we never got past the white fence. My son said, and I quote, "listening to this is as interesting as watching paint dry." I gave him points for knowing there was paint in the story. Little Women--well, that's my all time favorite children's book and I love it with the same passion my daughter loves Selena Gomez. We were not getting too far past the first chapter, because the idea of no Christmas presents in the beginning was to horrifying to my kids. (Ironic too, since I was competing with the DS that they got for Christmas for their attention.) I tried to explain that LW is about the subtle interplay in the sister's relationship. To prove my point, I skipped ahead to the piece when Amy burns Jo's book, and then almost drowns because Jo is still mad at her.... That story REALLY resonated with my children. So much so, it came back up in conversation the following week when, inspired by LW, one child destroyed the other' magnus opus in Lego. To retaliate, my little artist offered to drown the offender, claiming to be inspired by Jo. Fairly sure that was not the point.
Stephen Isabirye April 05, 2011 at 08:30 AM
You talk of Enid Blyton. well,I am glad to inform you that I have written and published a book on Enid Blyton, titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage (www.thefamousfiveapersonalanecdotage.blogspot.com). Stephen Isabirye


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