When I became a teacher, one of the things I most looked forward to was reading my students’ book reports. I wanted to read their interpretations of their favourite books, and I wanted to find out what they thought of the books they’d read. Years later, I know better: there is nothing more tedious than reading book reports – and the worst part isn’t even that some of my students don’t even bother reading their books in the first place. Want to know what’s even worse than that? Read on!
The school year is almost over, and that’s when I have to plough through an endless stream of book reports. Some of them, I must admit, are quite fun to read: the children clearly enjoyed their books, and have some intelligent things to say about them. Some even browsed the internet and included quotes, others came up with truly original interpretations. One of the best ones was when a student said the book she read made her realise there are others suffering from the same issues as she did, and knowing this kind of changed her life. Those reports make me smile.
The last one I read, however (and this is a week ago, because ever since then I’m afraid to continue reading), was so shocking that I feel like I’ll never be able to smile again. One student had read the book Five Feet Apart, about two teens who fall in love, but who are suffering from cystic fibrosis. Even though she had a boyfriend (I think), and she was exactly the same age as these teens, she managed to write down in her book report that she “couldn’t identify with the characters at all, because they had an illness.” Right.
I wonder what it must be like to be a teenager these days. It does explain, I guess, why they hardly read books anymore. It’s because it’s not about them! It doesn’t matter that they’re about people with issues, with insecurities, with annoying parents (for every teenager has those, right?) – as long as there’s one characteristic that doesn’t match theirs, they simply don’t care anymore. So, let’s do a thought experiment, so see if I can still think like a teenager. Here’s a random sample of books – let’s find out why students wouldn’t be able to identify with them.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, about a butler who slowly realises that his former employer wasn’t exactly the perfect man he always considered him to be, is a book that resonates with me on so many levels. However, here’s how children might respond to it: “I’m not a butler,” they could write down, or “I wasn’t alive during the Second World War”, or even “I haven’t got a driving license”. I get it. Next, The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams, would probably make more sense to children; it’s about a young girl who realises that the Oxford Dictionary omits women’s words, making it a highly gendered book. It could be quite an interesting feminist novel, right? I think they’d complain that they don’t care about books, that they aren’t suffragettes, or that they don’t spend their days collecting words – or that they don’t care about language at all: “Cuz language is boring u know.” Ok. How about Milan Kundera’s Immortality then? Hmm. They might say they don’t live in Paris, that they don’t know how to imagine something anymore, or that they are unable to think.
Let’s try Nick, a kind-of sequel of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, by Michael Farris Smith (actually, let’s not; it’s one of the worst books I’ve ever read). Here’s what children could say: “I didn’t fight in the First World War”, or “While I have been drunk, I have never done the things he did”, or “I’m not a fictional character who’s been given a new life in another book.” How about Frankenstein, then? Nah, they would probably complain that they’re not a monster, that they have never been out at sea, that they don’t like nature, or that they have never attempted to create a being out of dead bodies. The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, perhaps? Hmm, maybe. But my students might complain that they haven’t got any sisters, that they don’t live in America, or that they aren’t witches – or that they haven’t got a personality.
The search continues. The Penelopiad by Margarat Atwood, perhaps, which tells the story of the Trojan War from the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife? I don’t think this would be a match: Penelope, for instance, has a husband, while they don’t, and the woman can weave. And most importantly, teenagers these days would definitely not be as patient as her. That’s why Northern Lights by Philip Pullman might be much more relatable: it’s got a strong female character who sets out to save the world, and she falls in the love in the process of it. Oh wait, I can hear them complaining, again, this time with arguments like “I haven’t got a dæmon,” “I’m not a girl,” or “I would be too lazy to walk around all day.”
So is there anything that children these days can identify with? Hmm. Let’s see. How about H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon? Oh wait, of course not, how could I even suggest this title? No way that they would like the main characters, for they have been on the moon, while teens have not. Similarly, these men were interested in science, and, let’s be honest, who cares about that nowadays? Also, they lived in the year 1900. How silly of me to suggest this title. There’s only one more I could try: We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver. It’s about a mother who has to come to terms with the fact that her son is a school shooter. Talk about current affairs, right? Well, I can see them shaking their heads and sighing: “This is written from the point of view of a mother, and I haven’t got any children.” They could also add that they have never been involved in a school shooting. Or, if they’re especially detached from the real world: that they don’t know why on earth one would write a book about school shootings.
In conclusion: it’s getting harder and harder to engage children with books these days. Every single book in the world is about something that isn’t exactly about them, and even the characters that seem to have been based on stereotypical teenagers are not like them. And there’s nothing I can do about it. I can get frustrated, rip out my hair, refuse to read their book reports, or tell them that it’s not about reading about themselves but about universal values and overcoming issues every single person deals with. Nothing would help.
I can only wish that eventually one of the characters they read about will relate to them. And that’s when their eyes will open, and they will develop a love for books, and they will tell others about their favourite characters. And they will never, ever, again write down such drivel as “I couldn’t identify with this character at all”.
Or am I asking too much of them? What do you think? Which fictional character do you really identify with? Which book would you recommend to teenagers? Do you think children should only read books that feature relatable characters? Please let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book-related posts!