Andrew Smith, author of the new book The Marbury Lens, recently spoke at the SCIBA Authors Feast. Here's part of the speech he gave:
I have seen the future, and it is standardized.
I think there must be some kind of Cosmic Calculus of Literacy that says "Teen Plus Book Equals Not Going To Happen." We hear it all the time from us grownups -- parents and teachers especially. It's easy for a majority to buy into the idea that kids don't love to read; after all, parents tell us about their kids who hate to read, teachers talk about their students who hate to read, and pretty soon we all start believing the myth.
I have to wonder what happens to kids -- why do they lose that eagerness, excitement, and love for reading that we've all seen when a gradeschooler comes home with lists of words he can actually read aloud to us -- how proud he is in the accomplishment of reading, how empowering it is, and how much the child is enchanted by books and what they contain? Why does that switch apparently get turned off for so many kids by the time they hit their teens?
Part of the reason why teens resist reading at school is they've been "standardized" to death. Standardization means no choice; it means fitting in, becoming the same; lumping everyone into the middle. It means that success will equal this terrific standardized future where kids grow into incredibly average adults who lack creativity, and whose naturally inquisitive minds have been numbed by standardization.
In school, there is this powerfully prescriptive kind of philosophy: Read this, it's good for you. I know you're going to hate it, so you won't read it because kids don't read.
You don't have to be especially brilliant to know what a kid's going to do when you tell him something is "good for you."
It's like assuming a kid hates to eat because he doesn't like Brussels sprouts.
I was invited to participate in a number of Teen Read Week activities this year. Among the reasons for my abstention was the recognition that all these functions involved ME (a definite non-teen) reading to kids, or telling kids what was "good" to read, or compiling recommendations for kids, etc. I didn't see or get invited to a single Teen Read Week event that was about... um... teens actually reading. They were all pretty much the same: grownups telling kids what's good for them.
So I came up with my own version of Teen Read Week celebrations. I invited kids to form a daily club during the entire week, where kids could come in and read whatever they wanted to read, aloud to other teens. About 30 kids participated every day (and most of them were boys, by the way). I didn't do anything. The kids brought in their favorite books, they told their friends what they liked about the book, then they read to their friends for about 3 minutes or so. And they drew pictures of themselves for me (which I keep and use as a backdrop when I speak to educators about teen literacy).
One boy who wanted to read asked, "Can we read anything we want?"
I said, "Anything."
He asked, "What if it has the F-word and stuff in it?"
I answered, "Then I expect you won't skip over that part."
He said, "Cool!" and the boys were hooked for good.
That particular boy brought in Ned Vizzini's It's Kind of a Funny Story to read. He said it was his favorite book, and that he'd read it about a million times. I've known this kid for a while, and I've never seen him so energized and enthusiastic as when he read aloud from that favorite book of his. Since then, the kid has also shyly dropped in to join my Teen Writers' Group.
But the most amazing thing that week happened when my own 16-year-old son came in and read a passage from Ray Bradbury.
I realized that I hadn't sat and listened to my son read aloud to me since he was, like, seven or something. Hearing him read now as a young man, on his own volition and from a book that he loves, was an incredibly powerful moment for me.
And I could tell how much he loved that book. I could hear it in all the kids when they read.
I'll wager that just about every "grownup" reading this has listened to little kids read aloud from first readers. I'll also bet that very few, if any, have ever sat down and asked a teenager to read aloud from a book that they love.
I got to listen to teens doing that for five straight days this past Teen Read Week.
You know what it sounds like? It sounds like flying cars and floating cities -- everything we dreamed when we were kids; the stuff that was going to be really cool about the "non-standardized" future.
It sounds like I can toss my teen readers the keys to the world and say, "It's your turn to drive now, kid. And sorry about the whole leaving-it-in-a-ditch thing."
Andrew Smith's The Marbury Lens is on sale now! Check out the trailer below, and prepare for an intense ride when you read the book.