Tuesday 25 November 2008

John Green on Reading Ambition

Yes, I am not dead. I've just been busy.

But not too busy to share this wonderful speech by John Green (Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska) delivered during his recent book tour, about literacy, teachers and our role as writers in nurturing the future lives of teenagers:
This is the business, right? It is not just reading for the sake of reading. Literacy is important. Literacy is vital, but literacy is not the finish line. Literature is not just in the business of See Jane Run. Literature is in the business of helping us to imagine ourselves and others more complexly, of connecting us to the ancient conversation about how to live as a person in a world full of other people. Read it all
My friend Felix (age 15) from across the road, spent this evening appearing and disappearing every thirty minutes, first to microwave some batter in my microwave; then, to play Somewhere Over the Rainbow on my daughter's ukulele and finally, to taste test the prawns, courgettes and egg rice that I'd made for dinner.

As he left the first time, he suddenly asked, "You got anything good to read?"

I wracked my brains. I had just finished Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness - but the news had spread quickly amongst the kids I knew that (Spoiler! Spoiler!) the best character in the book was going to die. Resistance to heartbreak had already gathered apace.

Luckily, that very afternoon, trying to inspire some humour into my own writing, I had dipped into Henry Tumour by Anthony McGowan. "How about a talking tumour?" I asked. Felix didn't look very excited. In fact he started examining the contents of my fridge. I try a bit of hard sell. "The tumour tells the kid what to do. There's a lot of swearing." Felix wanders away, obviously bored.

When Felix suddenly remembers that his mum might want him back across the road for supper, he rushes off. As he leaves, he yells over his shoulder. "I'm gonna read it!" "Read what?" "The Henry book!" I was so thrilled I had to encourage him with discouragement. "There's a lot of SWEARING. You've got to cover one eye!"

Which makes me like one of the people John Green talks about:
Too many times, we say to our young people, “Hey, read this. It’s a fun read. Not too serious, you know. None of that English stuff.” As if there is some kind of dichotomy between good and fun. As if Gatsby is oatmeal and vampires are Lucky Charms. Vampires, of course, ARE Lucky Charms—they are magical and delicious and just dangerous enough to excite me. I love vampires, and I love vampire books. And please know that I would never argue against putting books kids want to read in their hands. But I am arguing that we need to make space in our classes—no matter how advanced or remedial the students—for ambitious novels. Because good is not the opposite of fun. Smart is not the opposite of fun. Boring is the opposite of fun, and when we create the smart/fun dichotomy, what we end up implying is that Gatsby is boring.
But Gatsby is not boring. And Henry Tumour is really a lot more than a bit of swearing as Felix is soon going to find out. But I'm confident he won't put the book down once he's realised that it's not just a book with swearing in it. He won't put the book down because it's a good book.

Maybe I should have had more faith and recommended something even more taxing. Says John Green:
The best books are rarely easy, but teenagers love fun things that aren’t easy.
Yup. That's what makes teenagers so cool. And lucky that they've got all those brilliant books still to discover.


  1. Thanks for sharing the link to this speech by John Green. His points about YA readers are engagingly put. It's very logical that being validated as a person would increase the interest of a student (and of any of us) in exploring the ideas of others. I can see how being taken seriously and being able to participate in discourse can foster the exploration of great books for their own sake.

  2. Well, heck, I was reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as a young teen, so that thing about liking a challenge is true - it's an "I can do this" kind of attitude which actually makes a kid thinks he or she is quite cool - albeit it perhaps a bit geeky! ;-)

  3. i read a lot of the famous books - the crime and punishments and the grapes of wraths - when i was kid.

    i had a bookworm freak reputation anyway so i thought, why not be EXTREME bookworm freak?

    but when i revisit these books now as an adult, i realise that i didn't get a lot of them. i hadn't had the experience and maturity to say, hey, that's a universal truth.

    but like the richard griffiths character in The History Boys says (i have to paraphrase because i can't be bothered to pull the book out):

    the reason we read texts that we are not old enough to understand is because when the moment happens and you experience whatever it is the text was talking about, you've already got that truth embedded in your soul.


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