Don’t Be the Grumpy Film Critic of Children’s Literature by Mike Grosso
Do you remember the last time critics panned a film you admired? If you’re like me, you probably wrote your own imaginary impassioned response chock full of frustration and disbelief. The critic is entitled to their opinion, of course, but as a filmgoer you’ll reconsider the authenticity of their words the next time you see their byline.
Our reactions to film criticism are oddly applicable to children’s literature. It’s no secret that adults far too often impose their literary will on children. Kids rely on us to find new books — parents and educators are the final gatekeepers between author and intended audience, and only recently have some of us come to understand the extent of that power and how its improper wielding leads to a meaningless battle where both sides are set to lose.
Take the ever-popular opinion that critics are out of touch with audiences and apply it to what happens in the mind of a child when a powerful, respected adult berates the art they love. What do they feel when yet another teacher refers to graphic novels as ¨not real reading¨? The answer is they feel the same as you when your favorite film is trashed by a critic. The criticizer is seen as grumpy and out of touch. They only hated it because they weren’t prepared to embrace it on its own terms, with its intended audience in mind. They’re now seen as artistically untrustworthy, and you won’t ever again — not in a million years — take their opinion seriously.
Makes sense, right? Despite their occasional (okay, more than occasional) lack of social filters, kids are far more sensitive than adults. We get angry when our favorite film is trashed by a person we’ve never met, so the effect is tenfold when said person is our parent or mentor. Why, then, do so many adults — who are arguably familiar with this negative response to film criticism — expect a comparable thrashing of popular kidlit to convince a child to “read up”?
Let´s be clear — you don’t have to turn your literary negativity up to eleven to make a child feel terrible about their book choices. All you need is a single comment about “picking up a real book one of these days” or “reading your age”, and boom, you’ve become an out-of-touch film critic. The child no longer sees you as a reputable source for new books. They’ll block out any and all future suggestions, and they certainly won’t go out of their way to ask you for recommendations.
So what’s the alternative? Well, I’ve had a fair number of graphic novel fans in my fifth grade classroom these past few years read non-graphic novels cover-to-cover for the very first time. I don’t say this to imply that should be your end game. Graphic novels are amazing, and readers grow when they read them. Said readers aren’t graduating from low to high art. There’s no graduation ceremony, no cheeky praise of their elevation in taste, and no celebration of their embrace of “real” literature.
I say this because it illustrates that readers take risks when they no longer feel judged. They feel safe making their own reading decisions when we create a safe reading environment. They still read comics and graphic novels in class (and are actively growing as readers because of it), and I make it clear they can do this for the rest of their lives if they’d like. That’s the whole point. Regardless of what they read next, they will trust an adult’s book recommendations from this point forward.
Getting this to happen isn’t educational rocket science. It doesn’t require a curriculum or a Kagan Strategy. In my experience, creating a safe reading environment where students leave their comfort zone boils down to two things — sharing my enthusiasm for all types of books and respecting their final reading choices.
When I book talk, it’s abundantly clear to my fifth graders why I’ve connected with the books I’m sharing. It comes out in my voice and word choices. I literally grasp my favorite books harder because the energy in the discussion is the one classroom contagion that I want to spread like strep throat.
So if you have students, or a child at home, try this tomorrow — book talk a popular, non-problematic book that you consider low brow literature (if you know kidlit you probably already have a book in mind). Channel the boundless kid-love energy for that awful, supposed murderer of literacy, and book talk it the way it truly deserves instead of the way you subjectively wish it deserved. Watch what happens to your kid(s) during this time and in the followings days. I’d be shocked if your reluctant reader doesn’t strike up an impromptu book conversation that shows you a depth to their literary taste you never knew was there. If they don’t, it probably means they saw through your act. Polish up your acting skills and try again with a new book tomorrow.
Rinse and repeat until you’re no longer the grumpy film critic, and love of reading spreads through your classroom (or house) like strep throat.
Mike Grosso is an author, musician, and fifth-grade teacher who always keeps a guitar in his classroom. His father gave him his first lesson, and his mom taught him how to keep a steady rhythm. Mike continues to write and record music at his home in Oak Park, Illinois, where he lives with his wife, son, and a drum set he plays much too loud. See what he’s up to at http://www.mikegrossoauthor.com or follow him on Twitter @mgrossoauthor.