“Nothing will come of nothing”
- King Lear, William Shakespeare
I had an interesting and eye-opening text exchange with my 12-year-old daughter last weekend. I laughed heartily at what she wrote, but it got me thinking about how reading can open up a child’s mind to its limitless potential.
We have never shied away from challenging our children to read, and allowing them the freedom to push their limits. The Classics are not dust collectors in our house. On our shelves, and accessible to our children are oft read books like The Time Machine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Little Women, The Count of Monte Cristo, Tarzan of the Apes, The Complete Works of Poe, the list goes on and on. My 12-year-old had just finished wrestling with Hamlet. For two or three days she devoured the book. We would answer questions when she had them, but she also took initiative in finding a Shakespeare translation type of book and worked things out for herself. Would it stick? That was anyone’s guess. Abraham Lincoln’s two books “of reference” that he read and gleaned the most from were The Complete Works of Shakespeare and The Bible, and look at the heights of grandeur his words achieved.
The scene: I am arriving to pick her up from a school dance. There is a long line of cars, I can see her but she can’t see me, and the line isn’t moving. I let her know I am there in line and to look for me. She did not have a book in hand. This came right from her, on the spot.
So here is the text exchange, verbatim:
Me- Be patient…
Her- Aha! Neither a borrower nor a lender be, but true to yourself remain. Tis madness indeed…oh woe is me, methinks the front of the line doth not a pleasant place to be, indeed it be a raving torture from the bloodsucking knaves, the vile mosquitoes, fain I kill one, two rise in its place like the hydra the mighty Hercules did slay…
Me- I turneth into the schooling place now
Her- Aye, tis good, my eyes doth droop of their own accord, and my legs do tremble with accursed fatigue…
So there it is, Shakespeare stuck.
That exchange got my mind rolling. Why do some feel the need to dumb down literacy for children? Why do we need to water down Classics that have stood the test of time? We do not have to, not at all. Let the children wrestle with words that blow their minds. Like a muscle building exercise, let them do some heavy lifting. We, as parents, mentors, teachers, etc… can be their spotters, helping them if they struggle, easing the weight when they are “maxing out”, but let them work that muscle out!
In the critiques of my upcoming Young Adult Steampunk Horror novel FREERUNNERS, it has been suggested that my vocabulary would possibly go above the heads of the young adults I am targeting. I say thank you, and phooey. How do we know how high their minds can go? If we do not try, how do we know the levels their minds can reach?
Here’s an example from my novel, FREERUNNERS:
The wailing was maddening. Their guttural sounds slinked up through the night to where I stood. Even though I knew I was out of their wretched clutches, I felt no safety. The stench of the Possessors spread like a swarm of biting flies. It reached up onerously to invade my nostrils. Foul.
I could have said:
The zombies were screaming and they smelled horrible. I knew I was safe, but was still scared.
We arrived at an old storefront. In the windows I saw etched images of travel cases, umbrellas, hats, and other items. The storefront was dilapidated like the others on this street. Poe stood before the double doors and lowered his goggles. His top hat sat cockeyed on his head and I could see the sweat beading on his forehead. He wrenched away a piece of bent metal, revealing one hole in each door. Poe quickly removed his brass forearm protectors and handed them to me. He placed one hand into each hole. I heard faint clicking sounds as he moved his hands in the darkness. The tense muscles and bulging veins in his forearms revealed how strenuously he was working. Click.
I could have said:
We got to the store. Poe was sweating as he played with a lock on the doors and opened them.
Less verbose? Yes. But where is the literary challenge? Will it turn off some potential readers? Maybe. But maybe it will plant seeds in the fertile ground of young minds…their imagination. I will make it or break it writing passionately and truthfully from my heart.
I don’t expect ALL children to acclimate to reading levels equally, but watering down the reading materials to meet the lowest common denominator does not great minds create. Just my random musings.
I had just taken to reading. I had just discovered the art of leaving my body to sit impassive in a crumpled up attitude in a chair or sofa, while I wandered over the hills and far away in novel company and new scenes… My world began to expand very rapidly… the reading habit had got me securely.