I had my first book presentation at a public school, last week. Well, a public school that's not the one my kids go to. That one doesn't count. Anyway...
So I get this call to come in and do a presentation at this middle school in the area. They're all very excited and so am I. Not that I wanted to let on that I was excited, but it's hard not to be. I get there just a little early, because I don't really know what they're expecting of me or where I'm going to be or, even, whom I'm presenting to other than that it has to do with the English department. Which is, you know, appropriate. It would have been kind of weird if I'd been called in by the math department. They take me over to the library, which is where I'm going to be (which was also good because I had a copy of The House on the Corner to donate to the library), and there are actually a few kids on their lunch break waiting to meet me. That's not something that I was expecting. Of course, the librarian totally embarrassed one of the kids by telling me how eager to meet me he was. He blushed and tried to play it off as no big deal, but it was fairly obvious he'd been waiting for me to come in. After shaking off his red face, he drifted over to me just about the time his bell rang, and he had to leave. But he was back for one of the presentations, so he did get to ask me a couple of questions.
The first class came in, I introduced myself, and I took a couple of questions. After that, I read the first chapter and, then, jumped ahead to read this bit that happens on Halloween night. I felt it was seasonally appropriate. After I read, I took questions for about 20 minutes or so. There was, of course, the expected, "What inspired you to write this book?" question.
And that's a very good question. Because I wasn't struck by inspiration for The House on the Corner so much as I went out and found it. I'd love to tell the story of that, but that's not what this post is about, so that will have to wait. At any rate, Tolkien and The Hobbit are involved in that story, so I asked the question, "Who's heard of J. R. R. Tolkien?" Blank stares. Seriously. I was met with a room full of blank stares. Not having hands might be expected, because, sometimes, kids don't want to raise their hands in that kind of situation, but you can generally tell who actually knows and is just trying not to raise their hand. But I was met with blank stares. Finally, after several moments, one of the teachers raised her hand and said he wrote The Lord of the Rings. Ah, some recognition and some mumbles about having seen the movies. I went on to explain that The Hobbit is one of the two books I think everyone should read.
When the class was leaving, the English teacher (not the one that had answered the question) came up to me and told me that I had inspired her to go read The Hobbit, because she had never read it. That's a good thing. Of course, I wish I could have inspired her to read my book, but, truthfully, my book is not one of the two books I think everyone should read. The Hobbit is a good start.
So I was distressed by the whole interaction about reading, and I realized that I'd forgotten to open with the question I meant to open with which was "Have any of you ever thought about being a writer when you grow up?" That question followed by an encouraging word about reading and writing like I talk about in this post. I did ask the second group that question and was met with identical blank stares as when I asked about Tolkien.
Before that, though, between groups, I asked the librarian what kind of reading participation they have at the school. Oh, my... I'm still having problems comprehending this. She said they had instituted a program a few years ago where the students earn points for doing reading and can exchange those points for... well, I don't know what, but they can exchange them for some kind of rewards. That sounded like a good idea until she said it had had basically no impact on the students. Then she showed me some of the reading statistics from the school.
They have one class of advanced readers. These are the best readers in the school. A middle school. Hundreds of kids. Out of hundreds of kids, they have two (in the whole school) that read at a high school level. They have two more that read at a middle school level. About half of the class of advanced readers read at a 5th grade level. The rest of the advanced readers are below that. This is the advanced class. The advanced class is full of kids reading below the level of my 8-year-old daughter. I had, and still don't, no idea of how to respond to that. I can't even begin to comprehend the kids in the rest of the school. The ones that aren't advanced. Is it a middle school full of kids who actually just can't read? I do know that California, as a state, had some of the poorest STAR test results in reading ever, last year.
The librarian went on to say that they really don't know what to do about it. They don't know if it's a problem with the school or the parents or both. They do know that none of the tactics they've tried so far have made any significant difference. I would say, though, that from the little I saw, the teachers don't set a good example for reading. Of course, I think the biggest influence for that is going to come from the home, but I'm not sure I would listen to a teacher telling me about how I should read more if the teacher wasn't a reader. And the librarian seemed to be not much of a reader considering how unfamiliar she was with the actual contents of the books in the library. But that's just a guess. Maybe she reads entirely different material. She was lacking in student book recommendations, though.
As a writer, the lack of reading distresses me. And it's not a distress that's about not being able to sell books to people that don't read. I just can't comprehend the lack of reading. Is it because Hollywood is so quick to make movies out of anything that looks remotely profitable? I do have kids asking me on a fairly regular basis about when I'm going to make my book into a movie. Because they don't understand that I can't just decide to do that. After all, I decided to write a book, so I must just be able to decide to make a movie, too. But this whole thing makes me question that. I don't really have a good answer.
Is reading a skill, like riding a horse, that's passing out of common usage? Are we going beyond needing it? To a place where visual media is replacing reading like automobiles replaced the horse? Like calculators (which I was never allowed to use when I was in school) have replaced the need to learn basic mathematics (because they actually have classes in how to use calculators and, not only are they allowed in classes, now, they're often required). Honestly, the whole thing scares me. The idea of a world without reading scares me. But, I'm sure, the idea of a world without horses used to scare some people, too.
The one solace I have in all of this is that the public school system clings to tradition like no other institution in the United States. Despite all the data supporting changing the way some things are done, the school system clings to its traditions and its "we've always done it this way" mentality. As long as that is maintained, I'm sure reading will stay in the schools even if 50% of people never touch another book after they graduate.