Is ‘teen lit’ a waste of time?
Janine Dunlop considers the ‘not-all-reading-is-good-reading’ argument.

Kid1 (age 15) is a voracious reader. Always has been. When he was little, we used to have to read the same book over and over, sometimes on the same night, because he loved the stories so much. He started reading novels at age 6. He went right from recognising words to reading sentences and skipped the entire Janet and John/Kathy and Mark stage.  Now, I can buy him a pile of secondhand books and within a week or less, he’ll have finished them. It’s a rare night that he goes to bed without a book.

So far, so great.

Here’s my problem with his reading: all the books he chooses to read look the same to me. He reads teen lit. even though his reading level is way beyond that. He largely sticks to the same genre (sci-fi/adventure). When he’s finished a series of books, he re-reads them. When he has nothing to read (i.e. – we haven’t been to the library for a while), he goes to his shelves and picks out anything – a book he read when he was 10 is good enough for him - as long as it’s something he can bury his nose in.

I’ve tried recommending books to him, but with little success. That’s too creepy, this one’s too boring, that one too adult, and that one doesn’t look good. The way I see it, he’s reluctant to challenge himself and move out of his comfort zone.

A recent essay in the New Yorker caught my attention, because it expressed just what I’ve been worried about. The author asks whether all reading is “good” reading. She uses the example of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, one that Kid1 loves and has read over and over. She thinks authors like Riordan and the like are doing teenagers a disservice and steering them clear of literature that challenges them mentally and teaches them things about the world around us. 

The author of that essay was fairly sure about where she stood on the topic: not all reading is good reading. Having read her essay though, I was confused: where do I really stand on this topic? Surely as long as Kid1 is reading, it’s a good thing? 

I took to Facebook to find out what other parents think. What emerged was a really interesting discussion about what “good” reading is and the general consensus was that I should just leave well enough alone.

One respondent calls picking and choosing what kids should read “literary snobbery”. She thinks this approach is “laughable” and believes kids should read whatever they want. Another countered with the fact that caring about the quality of what your children are reading isn’t snobbery, it’s our job as parents.

 “Most reading is good reading,” said one respondent. He started reading through Spiderman, Superman and Hulk comics. Another started her children reading by giving them Garfield. 

“Anything is better than nothing,” said one respondent. Two of them had similar opinions that any reading is good reading. “Anything that encourages venturing into the wonderful world of reading is great,” said one, while the other made a case for a “social circle of readers [who] will pull one another in adventurous directions”.

One respondent had a great example of this working: “My son (who must have been 12 or 13 at the time) asked me to take him to the library to look for books on Greek mythology after reading [Percy Jackson], and I have no doubt it would have been years before he would otherwise have chosen Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey (as well as some other Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Nordic Mythology books) to read.”

Which maybe all goes to show that I should just be glad I’ve raised a reader. I hope he moves on to “better” literature later in life. I hope he discovers that there’s a whole world of books beyond what he’s currently used to. In the meantime, I’ll be the one taking him to the library on a regular basis and rejoicing in the fact that he’s happy to leave with an armful of books to devour.

Do you think teen lit is holding teens back from discovering more challenging books?

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