Back Off, Adult Gatekeepers?

"Which assigned novels did you appreciate when you were in high school?" an aspiring teacher asked recently.

"None," I answered, after a long pause.

I can't remember any novel assigned or recommended by an adult that deeply affected or captivated me during my teen years. What I do remember is browsing the stacks of the public library and finding books for myself, some that bored, some that entertained, and a few that absolutely addicted me to the subversive power of story.

Now that our boys are in high school, I see them doing the same thing, seeking their story fixes outside adult circles and finding them mostly in film (probably because their parents are bookaholics.)

Do adult gatekeepers actually get in the way when it comes to the mysterious, life-giving connection between kids and stories? Take the Newbery Medal, for example.

"Of the 25 winners and runners-up chosen from 2000 to 2005, four of the books deal with death, six with the absence of one or both parents and four with such mental challenges as autism, and most of the rest deal with tough social issues," observes Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post in Plot Twist: The Newbery May Dampen Kids' Reading. Is our goal to depress North American children en masse?

"If you force someone to read a book, the less likely you are to like it," Elias Feldman, 13, an eighth-grader at private Landon School in Bethesda, told Strauss.

The kid's onto something. You can't compare the girl who wrote to say she'd already read my novel Monsoon Summer four times this year with the bored student who informed me he barely slogged through it for a homework assignment.

So why do we force-feed our kids stories? I think we're scared that Hollywood and Madison Avenue might "dumb them down" to consume only popular, shallow stories via television and movies. So we organize committees and award medals to give them richer literary fare. "Richer" defined by us, of course.

History and anthropology reveal that young people have always appreciated meaningful, entertaining, delightful storytelling, but we hover-adults don't trust this generation's ability to resist influence and find their own stories as they come of age. 

I'm not suggesting that parents and teachers stop sharing our favorite books with kids, especially younger ones; in fact, it's one generation's duty to nourish the next with stories. That fourth-read fan of Monsoon Summer might never have discovered it without an adult handing her the book. But what would happen if we stepped back a bit, especially as they age, and let them find their own life-changing tales -- without judging the media or the message? Scary, yes. But revelatory. And maybe even revolutionary.