"The Newbery has probably done far more to turn kids off to reading than any other book award in children's publishing."
--John Beach, associate profe...more"The Newbery has probably done far more to turn kids off to reading than any other book award in children's publishing."
--John Beach, associate professor of literacy education at St John's University.
Taking with them the joys of Number Cruncher, my childhood memories of 5th grade are fading. I remember reading this book, but not what it really says. I remember the twist, the idea, but had forgotten the words. This was me repressing childhood trauma, along with Brandon Skelly and his casual bullying. So, I read it again.
John Beach is wrong, of course. It’s not the fault of the award as much as it’s the fault of teachers. The award is doing us all a favor, akin the the signs the UN puts up to warn locals of landmines when they can’t find the money to remove them. The reward is merely given to books that often have a certain flair, and a startling habit of killing main characters to teach children a lesson. A lesson, presumably, not to love your dog.
I can’t help but love good characters. They become more real than people, and as a child I connected with the characters who live an entire school year in fourty, or four hundred, pages. Here, it is the unexpected arrival of the kid of a pair of distant, postmodern authors that will ultimately give the impovershed, religious, and rural Jesse Aarons the escapist school year he didn’t know he needed. When I was young, I just thought a girl moved in next door. Stupid kid. It must have just been escapism.
Escapism. Be it videogames, movies, or church, it’s the place we go to dodge the burdens of this world. Jesse, stuck with impovershed parents and bitter two-dimensional grasping, ingrating sisters who stand in the back of ever scene like cardboard cutouts, is a boy caught up in a competition between other boys over the kind of respect little boys like—who can run the fastest. He nurses a secret bohemian bent. He’s the weird kid that draws. I feel for him. When I was his age, I was the weird kid in class who didn’t run. I escaped as well, deep into my fantasy world where I was right, “they” were wrong, and I could be the King of my Own Mind. But then again, almost everyone thinks they’re the odd one out, the kid no one likes. Everyone wants to be king, and no one is.
Because that’s what escapism gives us—a retreat from reality to a world where self justification provides quick answers to why the world is so unfair.
That’s what Peterson has given us. A world where a girl teaches a boy that it’s ok to imagine and be creative, insomuch as you create a fantasy world to escape from bullying, being outcast, socially awkward and alone. In that world, you won’t be any of those things. You still are, of course, being bullied. Instead of simply reporting it to someone who will really help, take comfort in the fact that you’re secretly a king.
Peterson’s son lost his best friend to a freak lightning bolt, and Peterson, desperate to return the favor, strikes down her own character in an equally empty way. One can’t help but imagine she wrote the story backwards from there, showing her son how to remove himself from that pain.
A book is a wonderful platform for showing children how to grasp the problems of life, but let these problems be the ones children are actually having. Bullying sucks, but staggeringly few children have their friend die so abruptly in a way garunteed to cause maximum guilt. Even the actor who played Jesse in the 2007 film was quoted as say that “he had to imagine what it would be like to experience the terrible loss his character had to come to terms with, he was able to relate to the hard time Jesse had at school.” Jesse, his fantasy world shattered and terrified because the hard world of his religion was going to send his best friend to hell reaches out to the world around him. He finds self-justifying comfort, and can quickly return to his magical land.
If you want to give a child escapism, provide escapism. Harry Potter is a fun read. So are the Narnia novels. If your child needs an afternoon in his own head, encourage them to invent and create.
If you want to teach a child about the truth of death, the indifference of the world, and the cruelty of other people, do that. It’s the life we live. It’s hard, but children deserve the truth while there is still someone who can walk with them. It’s OK to mentor children, provided you don’t take the hard questions they ask, pat them on the head and tell them everything will be all right.
But don’t teach children to escape. I did, to escape Brandon Skelly and the fact that I was the slowest runner in my grade.
Instead, I end up learning all these lessons much later, when the world has little patience for someone who lives a fantasy life. (less)