As an adult reader, I revel in the unexpected. I don’t want formula from the books I read. I want to experience twists and turns. I want my writers to take me on what appears to be a familiar walk and then turn it into an unknown adventure.
But as a child, I was almost completely the opposite. I craved the familiar, the known. I wanted the story to be something I could figure out early. I even had the habit of turning to the last page, just to figure out where the story would end before I had even begun.
I was thinking about this shift in my reading habits the other day as my youngest son and I were having an intense discussion about … Scooby Doo. Years ago, when my older son was watching a Scooby Doo episode, I sat down with him on the couch and I remember being transformed back in time. It might have been an updated episode, but the plot was exactly the same as I remembered it from my own childhood.
You know it, too: there’s a mystery or something has been stolen; toss in a few red herrings to send the kids in different directions (making sure that Scooby and Shaggy are always teamed up); the kids catch the villain, often wearing a mask as disguise; as the police cart them away, they mutter something about “those meddling kids”; and they all celebrate with some Scooby snacks. My middle son watched Scooby Doo a few years later. Same story. And now my youngest was reflecting on Scooby, too, and he – at age seven — mentioned just how predictable the story is each time. (‘Lest you think all we watch is Scooby Doo in my house, let me say this is not the case. We’re not the home of the Scooby Doo fan club! It just happens to be a good storytelling device here. Honestly!)
Like my boys, I loved Scooby Doo for a time as a kid, and I realize now it is because I knew what was going to happen. Always. The plot arc was not a weakness to me; it was the strength.
That got me thinking to some of the books that I loved to read when I was young, too. Mostly, they were strictly formulaic, although not quite so adherent to the arc as Scooby Doo.
I devoured every single one of The Hardy Boys’ series, even though I could guess from the first page what was going to happen, and when, and how it would all unfold over the course of the book. The Encyclopedia Brown series, and then Ellery Queen, all set on a course that resonated with me. I didn’t care. I was absorbing some sort of storytelling concept into my writing DNA.
And that’s what predictable books do for young readers. I suppose publishers understand this – which is why so many books now seem to follow Harry Potter so closely (lonely child who discovers an unknown strength and seeks revenge). I even had a parent in a conference ask me, in exasperation, if I could find a way for her son to move past The Warriors series. “It’s just the same story, over and over, “ she noted. “Please,” she begged me.
But books like these provide a map of the known territory for readers finding their ground. My sons read The Magic Treehouse, and The Secrets of Droon, and other series that followed a similar pattern.
What we teachers and parents hope is, at some point, these readers begin to abandon that predictable path for the unknown worlds of literature. And when they become writers, those influences provide a framework for creation. This is why reading aloud to young children is so important. It plants the seeds that can be harvested later.
For me, this is why books like The Invention of Hugo Cabret and The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet and Regarding the Fountain and other novels that push into the boundaries, and beyond, are such a joy. I may have some formulas ingrained in my brain from my years of reading The Hardy Boys and watching Scooby Doo, but that only sets the stage for the unexpected read, which is the thing I hope for more than anything these days when I open the pages to a book.
Kevin Hodgson teaches sixth grade and he no longer reads the last page of books first. He blogs at Kevin’s Meandering Mind (http://dogtrax.edublogs.org/) and can be found on Twitter as @dogtrax.