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Is All Reading Good?

Horrible grammar, bad behavior, and precocious extracurriculars. A few of today's popular titles have all educators pondering whether some children's lit is legit.


By Cynthia McCabe

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Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s protagonist Greg Heffley bullies his best friend and is ungrateful to his parents. Junie B. Jones’ title character is a teacher-sassing troublemaker who murders grammar with words like “bestest” and “runned.” And don’t even get us started on the extracurricular social activities of the Gossip Girl gang.

But if those are the only books a reluctant reader will pick up, do their drawbacks outweigh the benefit of having the student finally turning pages?

“I think you should be glad they’re reading anything at all,” says Patricia Edwards, distinguished professor of language and literacy at Michigan State University.

In her area of specialization—creating home reading environments for families—she’s become accustomed to the reality that there aren’t typically strong reading role models for students at the end of the day. “A lot of parents don’t have reading as a tradition and there aren’t any books they would suggest their children read.” So if a student gravitates toward a book, even if it’s not a classic from the literary canon, that shouldn’t be cause for alarm.

Joining her in the any-reading-is-good camp is Deborah Wooten, a board member of the Children’s Literature Assembly. Children learn how language and writing work, even when reading books dismissed by some as piffle, says Wooten. “It exercises the imagination and visualization.” She’s concerned with what she sees as decreased readership among children and young adults because of digital distractions. A Nielsen Co. study released last month found that teenagers spend roughly four hours a night in front of a television or computer.

But plenty of parents put themselves in the opposite camp. Writes one in the review section under a Junie B. Jones title: “I had to stop every other sentence and talk about how we don't call people stupid, how we don't judge others by the fact that you can beat them up, how you don't deal with being afraid by calling everyone names and hitting them.” Diary of a Wimpy Kid fares little better. “Name calling and bad mouth attitude on almost every page,” writes one parent reviewer who yanked the book from his 9-year-old son.

If an educator feels a twinge of guilt about not intervening when a student will only read books deemed to be part of what one Junie B. Jones Amazon reviewer called “the wave of ignorant-is-good, anti-intellectualism drowning our culture,” they can use the child’s interest as a springboard for recommendations of other more substantive literature, say Edwards and Wooten.

That’s what St. Peters, Missouri, elementary history teacher Tina Queen did. “I had a reluctant reader I lured with Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” Then she encouraged him to read the critically lauded The Indian in the Cupboard. “He trusted me when I told him he'd like it because after all, I was right about Diary.”

They can also directly tackle what some critics consider problematic, such as Junie B. Jones’s mixed-up adverbs. “You can say to a student, ‘When you’re reading just remember…’ and teach them to be more critical thinkers,” about the material, says Wooten.

We asked NEA educators where they stand on the question of whether all reading is beneficial? Take a look at their answers below or join the discussion here.

Melissa Colella-Brown
First-grade teacher, Waterloo, New York
I think books like Wimpy Kid, or Junie B. Jones are fine. My students love them. I always tell kids that it is not okay to act or use the grammar like the characters and I have never had a problem. I think it is more important for the kids to read. I have seen students who have had no interest in books order the whole sets from our book orders. It makes me happy to know that they are reading something at home.

Abby Kay Graham
Second- and third-grade teacher, Springfield, Missouri
I agree that getting a student interested in any type of book is better than nothing at all. I have also had students buy sets after I do a read-aloud. They really loved it when I read Captain Underpants. The kids really liked Stink — a spin-off of Judy Moody. I even had a boy ask to have it to read it again for self-selected reading. So when I bought the next book I told him it was for him, and he was beaming. I love seeing kids with an interest in reading.

Mikael Howard
Librarian and alternative education teacher, Sand Springs, Oklahoma
Any reading is good reading. The books that we believe to be poor quality may introduce students to reading. After they are hooked with these books it is our job as educators and parents to slowly begin introducing new books to these students. As long as the students are able to develop the skill of visualizing what they are reading they are learning.

Amy S.
Laconia, New Hampshire (from our discussion boards)
Twaddle is an insult to a learning mind, and a stumbling block to the educator. There are too many wonderful, quality works of literature that can be found to give to our children and students to read than the junk that is available around every corner. It's the parent's responsibility to monitor what their children read and watch. Once your students leave your class, the parent must encourage their children to read good things and not only that but monitor what they are ingesting into their impressionable minds!

Judy Weigand Day
Substitute teacher, NEA-Retired member, Arkansas City, Kansas
I just started with a boy today who said he didn't like to read. He eventually told me he would read Junie B. Jones and the Magic Tree House books and anything about science and animals. When a child is allowed to read about what he likes, he will progress and branch off into other books and subjects.

Sheilah Wrinkle Harber 
Second-grade teacher, Grain Valley, Missouri
I agree with everyone but have to say that the Junie B. Jones books are terrible! They are full of bad grammar. And I disagree that that's how most kids talk. She's mean, bratty, and immature. I don't think my second graders are becoming better readers by reading that junk. I'm thinking of pulling them all from my library. Surely I'm not alone on this!

Tamara Cooley
Fourth-grade teacher, Barre, Vermont
Whatever hooks them is wonderful and even if they begin to use the language [in the books] then we have a teachable moment to let them know that literary styles have many parameters and that that is what makes writers creative and they should use the language to be creative.

Camille Napier Bernstein
English teacher, Boston, Massachusetts
As adults we get to choose what we read 80 percent of the time—why shouldn't kids get turned onto reading something that interests them? I always tell my kids that there ARE books out there for them because there are books on EVERY topic under the sun. They just have to identify their passions.


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Is All Reading Good?

If books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Gossip Girls hook reluctant readers, does that outweigh any drawbacks from the subject matter itself? Tell us what you think.

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