Ahhhh, Summer Reading. That little program, and the corresponding questions, designed to keep a kid’s brain sharp over the summer holidays. It’s handed out with the best of intentions, mean to keep the child engaged and thinking throughout the summer, get them excited about the next year of school, and to combat the information leakage that is bound to occur over the sun-fun-and-t.v.-filled days.
I remember getting summer reading lists and packets in school. As soon as I saw the titles on the book list, I automatically knew I didn’t want to read any of them. If an adult thought these books were a good read, I was almost guaranteed to hate them. To this day, the only summer reading book I remember reading was A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain. And I only remember it because I was so frustrated by the language that I had to put it down and read something else. I couldn’t tell you what I picked instead. I’ve mentally blocked it.
That’s kind of the mindset I had when I started doing the reading for the book talk I’m giving. Who is this Nutmeg committee choosing these books? What gives them the right to say, “Read this, not that”? Why can’t kids pick their own books?
I did the research. I know the answers. Being a librarian is awesome.
The Committee is made up of Connecticut librarians, go figure, who choose books based on certain criteria. According to the Nutmeg Book Award site: “All books nominated for the award must be: works of fiction, with appeal for readers in grades 4-6 or 7-8; copyrighted in the United States and first published no more than five years from date of selection; currently in print, and available in paperback; well-written, with strong characterization, vivid setting, striking language, a well-constructed plot, and a plausible conclusion.” Once the books are chosen, the kids read them and vote on their favorites. The one with the most votes, wins. Awesome, huh? So, while the books are initially selected by adults, it’s the kids who make the ultimate decision.
Sure, it all makes sense. Public librarians and school media specialists want the kids to read good stories, of course. But, speaking as a librarian, we also want the books to challenge what kids think about and how they think about it. All while keeping it fun…simple, right? Wrong. There is a surprising amount of crap literature out there. I use “literature” loosely.
And, while I do appreciate what the Nutmeg awards are doing….I still do have some issues with the concept. Alas, such is life.
Now that the explanation bit is over, on to the part you’ve ALL been waiting for. Hopefully not with baited breath, however, that would have been a long while to not breathe. After reading the the 2013 books, and starting on the 2014 list, I’ve discovered the Nutmeg formula. And here it is:
Step 1: take a main character with some kind of troubling characteristic. Examples include
- behavioral issues
- learning difficulties
- special intelligence/skill
- troubling family life
- large secret
- prejudice/racism (either directed at the character, or held by the character)
- unusual childhood
Step 2: make the setting America
- ‘neutral’ any day
- the Depression Era
Step 3: introduce some oddball friends for spice/comic relief
Step 4: throw the main character(s) into a difficult/dangerous/mentally taxing/creepy situation
Step 5: at the climax, show the main character ultimately make a choice which enables
- mental and emotional growth
- deeper family and/or friend and/or community connection
It almost writes itself. Of course, there are some exceptions, as with any formula. And, it’s those exceptions that keep me reading.
But why, you ask, are you posting about this? Sure, since there’s a formula, it’s obviously FOR SCIENCE, but why else?
Because, dear reader, while reading the 2013 and starting the 2014 Nutmegs, I’ve come to ANOTHER startling realization. I now understand why middle schoolers and Tweens are So. Darn. ANGSTY.
The books we are making them read are stuffed with all these feelings that they should not have to deal with yet: guilt, pain, troubling parental/adult relationships. I mean, maybe I’m just overly empathetic toward the characters and the situations, but MAN. I was reading some of the books and found myself tearing up, my shoulders hunching against the blows (mental, physical, or otherwise) that the characters were going through, and being unable to put the book down because, if I did, MY MOOD, would be affected by the unresolved conflict and I started snapping at my parents/my boyfriend/my friends/random people. Some of the situations in these books are heavy, and because the settings are often so real, there isn’t that barrier of “this couldn’t really happen, it’s fiction”.
Long story short…it’s tough bein’ a kid.