Rant on Reading, ROW80 Delayed, and Gender Bias in Character Inspirations

Joy of reading.

Nathan Bransford recently talked about the strangeness of rereading older children's books.

He says that "The magic that made them classics still absolutely remains, but it's striking how much sensibilities have changed. ... I was struck by the very adult perspective in From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and the way A Wrinkle in Time starts slowly before veering into what I now think is a bit of a scattered plot by today's standards."

Also, the most recent Letters of Note features a letter from Harper Lee to Oprah Winfrey: "I arrived in the first grade, literate, with a curious cultural assimilation of American history, romance, the Rover Boys, Rapunzel, and The Mobile Press. Early signs of genius? Far from it. Reading was an accomplishment I shared with several local contemporaries. ...we children began to circulate reading material among ourselves until each child had read another's entire stock. There were long dry spells broken by the new Christmas books, which started the rounds again. As we grew older, we began to realize what our books were worth: Anne of Green Gables was worth two Bobbsey Twins; two Rover Boys were an even swap for two Tom Swifts. ... We were privileged. There were children, mostly from rural areas, who had never looked into a book until they went to school. They had to be taught to read in the first grade, and we were impatient with them for having to catch up. We ignored them."

Now, just last week I heard a parent say they wouldn't bother teaching their kids to read before they (the kids) started kindergarten, because otherwise "they would be ahead of the class and might get bored."

Cue appalled and disbelieving silence.

First of all, just because they might be ahead in reading doesn't mean they'll have caught up with everything else - there's always something new to learn.

Second of all, we're talking kindergarten, and maybe first grade. I'm sure the teacher can give them another project to work on while she runs through the alphabet with the other kids.

Third of all, bored? The whole point of learning to read, and loving to read, is that you will never be bored again.

I was trying to find a copy of the Non Sequitur comic that brilliantly illustrated that last point, but Googled for ten minutes without success. It featured one of the characters (Kate?) reading and, when questioned by another character (Danae?) whether she wasn't bored, there was a wonderful illustration of all the exciting adventures inherent in simply opening up a book.

And by that token, I'd have to disagree with Nathan. The books I loved as a child don't sound dated to me at all, any more than reading any other type of classic from before c. 1995.

Sure, some of the language and points of view might be dorky (as much as I love C. S. Lewis, his asides in The Elderly Narrator's Voice in The Chronicles of Narnia come to mind), some of the customs might seem too restrictive in places and too liberal in others, but the reader knows all that going in. The emotions, the growth of the characters, the excitement and adventure, are all there, and sometimes seem more real than those in books published nowadays. But then, I've always been attracted by the dusty patina of time.

A description like this always gets me excited: "There is no greater joy than picking up a new book without knowing much about it and being suddenly transported to a new world. This is what I felt after reading The Winter Pony by Iain Lawrence. This middle-grade novel, set in 1910-11, reads like a classic adventure story."

On the other hand, I don't know how anyone could study this many books in depth in one semester: here's W. H. Auden's syllabus for a class he taught in 1942. Yet I'd try it if I could have Auden lead the class. Off the list I've read Augustine, Shakespeare, Blake, Rilke, Eliot, Kafka, Lewis, and some Dostoyevsky, Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Still haven't read Moby Dick!

I wonder what a modern version of that syllabus might look like?

Don't forget the Virtual Surrey Writers' Conference starting Friday morning! My ROW80 goal-catching-up-on might be derailed this week as I have to prepare to host the conference. If anyone wants to come over to the Forum from Friday to Sunday, there are lots of workshops and book promotion activities to take part in! Actually, speaking of Druid's Moon (only 10,000 words to go!), I took a look at my images for the story the other day:


Does anything look off to you? The fact that I only have one maybe-image for Lyne, but seven times that many options for Fred. I've got fewer images for her than I do of Beauty and the Beast related illustrations!

Do you have a gender bias when stumbling across images that remind you of your characters?
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