Reading — The Right Stuff

Reading is not natural. That doesn’t mean it is bad, of course. Reading is an essential skill. It does mean that reading is something that needs to be taught, and taught carefully.

This is not an article about whole language vs phonics. That argument has been hashed around for years. The answer was there right from the beginning: contextual clues are valuable, but in the early stages of reading, learners need to be able to recognize letters and the sounds they represent, and to sound out unfamiliar words. Whole word recognition and context awareness support this skill; they cannot replace it.

Once learners have those basic skills, why do some become enthusiasts, while others struggle? One of the answers is that too often young people are forced to read texts in which they are simply uninterested, and in which the language is unfamiliar. This almost guarantees that learners will perceive reading as a bore, and a chore.

Learners should be encouraged to read what they like. If a boy is interested in motorcycles, let him read motorcycle magazines. If a young woman is interested in motorcycles, let her read motorcycle magazines. Or books about ponies, or music, or dinosaurs, or computers. Whatever, as long as readers are reading.

That is not the end of the story. As they progress, readers need to be stretched, to discover more of what the world, and literature, have to offer. The child-centered or student-centered approach can be taken too far. Young people do not know enough about the world and work and society to know what they need to know. Not all learning can be self-directed.

Direction needs to done with care. One of the traps is that directed learning becomes an excuse to impose teachers’ political agendas. Another is to move too quickly from light, student-selected, personal interest materials to “literature.” Very few students move directly from dinosaur comics to Dickens.

Not that there is anything wrong with Dickens. I am an English teacher. I was an early reader. But I sorely resented being made to read Austen and Dickens in high school. I didn’t have the attention span, or the motivation to slog through hundreds of pages of society and conversation that seemed to have nothing to do with me, even though I understood by that stage that not all learning could be fun, and that not everything I needed to know would be immediately and obviously “relevant.”

But by the time I got to my mid-twenties, I had devoured all of Dickens, Twain, Melville, Steinbeck, and was looking for more. My mindset and my understanding of the world had grown to the point where those works made sense to me, and the slightly odd language was no longer a hurdle.

It is at the mid-point in this journey of reading that many new readers get lost. As a high-school English teacher, I am always on the lookout for novels which are well-written, have a positive view of life and human nature, and which tell an engaging story. Finding such books is harder than you might think.

I had a friend, a teacher at another school, who wrote coming of age novels for young adults. “My books are gritty. I don’t pull any punches,” he told me. It turned out what he meant by that was that he included every obscenity, every possible sex act, and every form of drug and alcohol and domestic abuse. I asked him if he made any money from books sales. “Well, I’m still teaching,” he replied. I guess books that “hit them where they’re at” don’t appeal as much as he hoped they would. I could have told him that. Violence, constant abusive sexual adventures, and drug use are simply not what most ordinary teenagers experience. Sadly, there are some who have these experiences. But they are often so saddened and distracted that they are not regular readers.

Then there are books which are well-written, but have no story. They don’t go anywhere. Or books which tell a great story, but in which in which the writing is no distractingly bad that, except perhaps as a critical exercise, you wouldn’t want growing readers to read them.

The most basic factor in making a movie people want to watch is to create characters viewers come to care about, and then to put them in dangerous or stressful situations. If you don’t care about the characters, you won’t care about what happens to them, no matter how amazing the special effects. The same is true of books.

Any book that hopes to engage and enthuse growing readers must have characters the readers quickly come to like, or at least, can identify with in some way. The book must be clearly written, in a way that flows logically. It must be consistent. It must tell a story which poses risks and puzzles for the characters to resolve and overcome.

I have recently discovered a new series which does exactly this. Like my friend’s books, it pulls no punches. Except the punches it doesn’t pull are very different. Actions have consequences. Sometimes there are no shortcuts. Getting what you want may involve hard work and risk and unpopularity. Sometimes you need to take responsibility, even when what has gone wrong is not your fault. Dark Turnings by Wynford Wilde makes these points as a natural part of the story, without ever being “preachy.”

It seems to have no agenda other than to be an exciting story. A group of ordinary young people face extraordinary odds and overwhelming evil with no more than courage and trust in each other. It is fun and ultimately uplifting. The characters are well-developed, individual and likable, with the possible exception of Louise. But even she has redeeming qualities which will leave readers rooting for her.

Dark Turnings is like a return to the classic adventure stories which were popular when I was a teen. The story romps along, with dangers and potential betrayal at almost every turn. It is consistently imaginative, and beautifully written.

Recommended for anyone who enjoys fantasy or adventure, and especially for young adults.

Jennifer Jones: Dark Turnings is available on Kindle and in paperback.

Jennifer Jones: Dark Turnings by Wynford Wilde