Date: 21 July 2013
Books Completed: 144
Books Left: 56
I’ve spent a bit of time this summer with the 25 books that will be featured in the Black-Eyed Susan program for my students this year. One of the things I love about this intense concentration of children’s literature into my daily reading is how it focuses my attention on author’s craft. This year’s program features a book by Jacqueline Woodson that is a particular stand out.
Each Kindness tells the story of Chloe and Maya. Narrator Chloe sees that newcomer Maya looks a little shabby and awkward, and like the rest of the class, Chloe holds herself apart from the new girl. Maya tries very hard to fit in, but no one welcomes her. Mrs. Albert the teacher notices and takes advantage of Maya’s absence one day to explain the ripple effect of kindness, hinting that the class should apply this philosophy to Maya. Chloe seems willing and so the reader anticipates the two girls will end up friends. Unexpectedly, Maya never returns to school and Chloe is left to ponder the might-have-beens.
This is not the conclusion the reader expects or really wants. However, it’s a realistic and therefore much more powerful one. In ending her story this way, Miss Woodson ensures that her tale, while instructive, is neither pedantic nor predictable. It was a brave choice and one that showcases Miss Woodson’s respect for her audience.
Even more than adult readers, kids want the happy endings, they like it when stories get wrapped up neatly with a pretty bow. Yet in trying to please kid readers in this way, some authors end up underestimating their audiences. In general, yes kids are more innocent, inexperienced, and perhaps less complicated than adults, but they are not stupid. They deserve to have writers speak directly to them, not down to them. Miss Woodson’s choice to give her book the more genuine ending allows her to do just that.
This brings me to some criticism of an extremely popular book (not in the BES program, incidentally) in which the writer does not give his readers enough credit. I’m talking about Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief.
Let me explain.
Percy Jackson is an early adolescent who does not do well in school. The only academic success he has is in studying mythology. One day he learns that his absent father is actually a god. Trouble is, he does not know which one. Upon three occasions, powerful and supernatural things happen, ultimately to Percy’s benefit, when he is around water.
Water…god…who’s your daddy…hmmmmm.
Percy does not realize that he is Poseidon’s son until a trident appears above his own head. Really? He couldn’t figure that out? Guess he wasn’t so great in mythology after all, huh?
No, I would not expect 4th and 5th graders to have known about Poseidon, but Percy should have–mythology is the one thing he’s good at! My point is that this absence of insight damages Percy’s credibility. When the protagonist lacks integrity, the writer is banking on his readers’ ignorance. In short, Riordan is writing down to his audience—going in the same direction as my opinion of him.
It’s true that the kids don’t see that in essence, Percy is kind of a stupid character—as the phenomenal success of the entire series indicates. (I have to say, though, my students always concede the point when we talk about it!) But the fact that they don’t see this doesn’t matter. Readers, whether kids or adults, deserve respect from their writers. The best writers use the tools of their craft to convey this respect.
That is what it means to me.