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Are You Listening, Oprah?

In the children's section of the City of Books, we tend to have underdog favorites — books that we always recommend to customers because we know that some child, somewhere, will be transformed by them, as we were when we read them. These are books that have fallen through the cracks of the publishing world, or that have fallen off of school reading lists, or that have been overshadowed by the monolithic bestsellers of recent years. We hope that by championing these books, we are participating in a larger project to keep good stories in children's hands, to broaden their minds and hearts, and to ensure that these children remain readers for life.

Which is what made me think, reading Brockman's comments yesterday, that Oprah should leave adult literature to her increasingly snippy, predatory critics and start selecting children's books for her book club. In fact, it just might be what children in our woefully illiterate country need. I know, I know: I'm one of those speciously optimistic advocates of the written word who thinks that if everyone just sat down and read Charlotte's Web there would be world peace, and you're already skeptical of how I've connected daytime television's ersatz cultural guru to any real solution to the present state of primary education in U.S. Call me a philistine, but I've always admired Oprah's ability to persuade millions of people to read and discuss books. Have I turned up my nose at some of these books? Sure. Have I read and enjoyed some of these books? Yes. Do I still love Jonathan Franzen? Madly. But when faced with federal policies like No Child Left Behind, I begin to wonder how we are going to keep teaching children to be truly literate human beings — people who can read road signs and metaphors with the same fluency.

The only way to learn to read more thoughtfully is to read a variety of books, all the time. Why not a populist advocate like Oprah? I've been following the snit over Oprah's book club since the Franzen affair. I've read the arguments — about the homogenization of literature, the packaging and marketing of writers and books as products for consumption — and sometimes I agree with them. But I think we can all agree that reading is a noble enterprise, and that the lack of reading, and the lack of respect for books as objects of empowerment, has made our country less thoughtful, less compassionate, and less admirable. If only children's literature had an advocate as commanding and steadfast as Oprah. Imagine what it would be like if all of the millions of readers Oprah inspired were children? Children everywhere with their noses in books???wouldn't it be beautiful? And these children would grow up enamored of books, in love with reading. As adults, they would know how to navigate a job application, write in complete sentences, and read the heinous subtext of political rhetoric.

If you're listening, Oprah, I've got a few under-read children's books to suggest. First, the Lonely Doll books by Dare Wright. These picture books, by one of the most fascinating cult figures in children's literature, follow the adventures of Edith, an orphaned doll being raised by a Teddy Bear. Relevant issues for discussion include adoption, non-traditional families, and the uses of corporal punishment. Next, Jenny and the Cat Club by Esther Averill. Jenny Linsky, a sea captain's cat, climbs the social ladder of the prestigious Greenwich Village Cat Club; hilarity ensues. Cross the wit of Roald Dahl with the darkness of the Harry Potter series and you get John Bellairs. One of my favorites from childhood, The House with a Clock in Its Walls by Bellairs, has illustrations by the beloved Edward Gorey. Lewis Barnavelt, the orphaned hero, moves into his eccentric uncle's house, which is inhabited by a clock that counts down to doomsday. (Doomsday: a surprisingly common threat in children's fantasy stories; discuss.) An entire year could be spent reading alternatives to Harry Potter such as The Chronicles of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne Jones, Five Children and It by Edith Nesbit, and Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising Sequence, all well-written books that introduce children to real life issues through captivating fantasy worlds.

There are passionate booksellers, librarians, teachers, and, of course, parents, all over the country who have an effect, every day, on the reading habits of individual children. What we need now is a loud, insistent voice that can reach from coast to coast and across classes, to demand that children learn to read, to really read. Are you listening, Oprah?

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Charlotte's Web (Trophy Newbery)
    Used Trade Paper $3.50
  2. Many Children Left Behind: How the... Used Trade Paper $4.50
  3. Jenny and the Cat Club: A Collection...
    Used Hardcover $9.00
  4. The House with a Clock in Its Walls
    Used Trade Paper $3.50
  5. Chronicles of Chrestomanci #01: The...
    Used Mass Market $3.95
  6. Five Children and It Used Trade Paper $3.50
  7. The Dark is Rising (Dark is Rising... Used Trade Paper $4.50

21 Responses to "Are You Listening, Oprah?"

    Scooby January 19th, 2006 at 7:43 pm

    Brilliant! Yes, get Oprah on the line -- now. It's funny that I've never heard anyone make this suggestion, and more strange still that Oprah hasn't gone in this direction without your pushing.

    Oh, and if everyone read Charlotte's Web, there would be world peace. I did an experiment once (albeit with a control group of six college students, and all of them were stoned).

    Kim Laird January 20th, 2006 at 6:45 am

    Better yet, sell Oprah on the idea that adults CAN benefit from reading children's books.

    Brockman January 20th, 2006 at 11:38 am

    Actually, I'm pretty sure everyone HAS read "Charlotte's Web." I think it's more likely that if everyone were stoned all the time, there would be world peace... and lots and lots of snacks.

    deedee January 20th, 2006 at 11:58 am

    While it would be great to have more adults reading children's literature, the last thing we need is everyone reading the same children's book. Plus children's books need to put the engagement of children first. It doesn't matter that I liked x or y. What matters is whether kids connect with it.

    There's nothing I hate more than the homogenizaion of choices for children. They all have to be reading Rowling or Haddon or Sachar or Alcott or Madonna. The last thing we should be doing is teaching our kids our bad habits.

    To truly engage children in the life long habit of reading is to reach them as individuals. Children don't care who Oprah is and parents need to understand that she doesn't know their child. The only way to engage children in reading is set an example and work with every individual child to find books that spark their interest. That could be anything from sf space adventures to nature magazines.

    We need to step up and make time for children and reading.

    Bolton January 20th, 2006 at 2:01 pm

    Looking at the New York Times's children's bestseller list, I have trouble believing that children need to be encouraged to read. Yes, Harry Potter has been hyped up and down for years, but has anyone here ever tried to MAKE a child do something they didn't WANT to do? Like, read a book they don't enjoy? The reason Harry Potter sells so many copies isn't because of the hype, it's because the kids (and, to be fair, adults) who read those books love them like crazy monkey-love!

    (I'll never forget, two days after the last Potter book went on sale, passing a bus stop where a 10-year-old kid sat cross-legged, engrossed in the book -- and he was already about 40-50 pages from the end of a 652-page tome.)

    Ditto the Lemony Snicket books. Ditto the Christopher Paolini series (which, on the basis of several negative reviews (including Entertainment Weekly selecting Eldest as the worst book of 2005), doesn't have Harry Potter's adult/child cross-over appeal).

    It looks to me like children have no problem finding books they love and buying the hell out of them. If you ask me, the real problem is adult literature inspiring the same devotion from adult readers.

    Lama January 20th, 2006 at 3:37 pm

    Once again Oprah's stunning ability to actually do something good with all that wealth and fame has inspired an intelligent discussion.
    Bravo Alexis.
    Bravo Oprah, who waded into a fading habit of reading books.
    When Philip Roth says the novel is dead I want to cry.
    When Ms. Rowling can get people to come in with stars in their eyes and ask, "What can I read after Harry Potter?" and they find hundreds of good books, I want to shout.

    Samantha January 20th, 2006 at 6:06 pm

    If Oprah starts reccomending children's literature, children will start reading more. That doesn't make sense. Children don't pay attention to Oprah. And the 30's to 50's white woman demographic that makes up the vast majority of her "millions of followers" would be rather put off by being asked to read Juvenile Fiction. I agree JF is good, but I doubt they will. Maybe you can get SpongeBob to reccomend a couple titles.

    Alexis (Post Author) January 20th, 2006 at 10:09 pm

    Wow. What a response. Good points, all. I'd just like to note, as to whether children know/care who Oprah is: I was a latchkey kid of eight or nine when Oprah went on the air and I watched her show every day after school through high school. I'm pretty sure that's how I learned where babies come from (along with a lot of other things my mother would be horrified to know about). I bet I wasn't the only one, and I bet it's still going on twenty years later. And you thought the worst she could do was influence middle class white women between the ages of 30 and 50...

    Heba January 21st, 2006 at 12:48 pm

    Honestly, I started watching Oprah when I was around eight or nine too and I'm nineteen now. Boy did that show open my eyes! But here's my $0.02 on the topic of Oprah promoting childrens' books: as great an idea as it is, most children don't watch Oprah, and most adults can't understand what makes certain books really entertaining or appealing to children. If Oprah were to start creating a booklist for children, it probably would not contain some great novels because as adults, we regard literature differently and have different expectations from books. Fact of the matter is, although Oprah is able to select books well for adults, it doesn't necessarily mean she can do the same as successfully for children.

    kcb January 21st, 2006 at 11:48 pm

    Why do you think that there are so many adults clamoring for direction in what to read, needing to be rallied by a popular celebrity in order to read? Perhaps because they did not love reading as children. Perhaps they were not exposed to many different kinds of books, perhaps they had no examples of reading as bliss when they were young. So they became adults who don't know what to read, who don't feel the motivation to read on their own for enjoyment. We need to focus on kids so that in twenty years, no one will care so much about whether Oprah is recommending books or not. A bestseller's list doesn't reassure me that kids are reading anything other that what is being very heavily marketed to them. Books compete with TV and movies and video games and computers. We have to think of SOME way to make books appealing to kids. If a celebrity (pick the one you think would work the best; I don't care; that's not the point) can make reading seem cool and fun, it's fine with me.

    Jen Robinson January 22nd, 2006 at 11:47 pm

    After reading all of these comments, I'm not sure whether or not having Oprah specifically champion children's books would do the job. But I still think that Alexis makes an excellent point about the need for championship of children's literacy, and the positive outcomes that would come from more children loving books. Like kcb I think that anything that makes reading cool and fun is a good thing. Alexis, thanks for a well-written and thought-provoking article!

    Julia Mann January 25th, 2006 at 5:51 am

    I don't think kids should be encouraged to spend anymore time in front of the TV. I don't endorse turning them on to "hype" either, but J.K. Rowling and crew have already seen to that. We shouldn't need celebrities telling us or our kids what to read. But this seems to be something on which a large part of the world turns....so if we must rely on Oprah then perhaps she can just have a show about parents getting their OWN kids into reading. I can see it now..Oprah has Brad and Angelina (or Tom and Katie?) on today, and she shows them how to read to little Throckmawten PittJolie. That oughta do it.

    Janice January 25th, 2006 at 6:29 am

    The only (nearly) fiction that I read is children's literature, under the guise of getting good books for my girls and/or checking out their schools' readings lists. I appreciate the reference to the Potter alternatives, but would add that my children both loved the Paolini books, and counted the days for the second to come out. The Golden Compass series was a great and fun surprise to us. Always looking for classical alternatives to the trashy teen girl novels. Thanks.

    clm January 25th, 2006 at 5:44 pm

    Not too long after Oprah began her book club, well over 7 yrs ago, her summer "book", was the series of Lil Bill books by Bill Cosby. I was working at a book store at the time.I remember taking a call from a woman who was wanting to order the new Oprah book and was horrified when I told her that it was a childrens book. Her response was "Great. I guess I'll have to choose my own book then." I realize that she doesn't speak for all of Oprah's fans, but I don't want people like this woman choosing what's best for children. I'm passionate about children making their own choices in literature, with encouragement and guidance, but I hate to see them force fed.

    Mom January 26th, 2006 at 1:46 pm

    I, for one, am grateful for Oprah's positive influence during the after school hours! If Oprah has helped some families to deal with things they never would have dealt with before, she can certainly have a positive impact on children's literacy... There are a number of ways Oprah could go about encouraging children to read. The point is that she has a powerful voice that many children and parents hear. MOM XOXO

    alexis (Post Author) January 26th, 2006 at 5:23 pm

    For Janice, if you're looking for alternatives to trashy teen novels (bless you!), I've compiled a little list for you. These are contemporary books that appeal to teens, but aren't shallow & poorly written (like certain series that will go unnamed):

    Please Don't Kill the Freshman by Zoe Trope
    Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin
    13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson
    The Earth, My Butt & Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler
    Anything by M.E. Kerr

    One of my favorite "classic" books is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith--perfect for romantic young women who aspire to be authors.

    And yes, folks, that was MY mom who responded above.

    LSJ January 31st, 2006 at 5:22 pm

    I was really happy to see you mention one of my favorite series, The Dark is Rising Sequence, by Susan Cooper. I discovered the series when I was in Middle School and still love to read those books.

    I think some of the best written books in the world are for children, not adults. Perhaps the celebrity to ask to get kids going on to other books than just Harry Potter would be Ms. Rowling herself. However, the best people who should be encouraging reading and writing are the main people in the childrens' lives--Parents and Teachers. My mom and Mrs. Scott, my 4th grade teacher, conspired between them to get me to read and, in some ways, it worked too well. I can't stop reading to save my life. :o) (For the record, though, I have not read Charlotte's Web.)

    Excellent essay and discussion topic. Thanks!

    Jeff Kozlowski February 6th, 2006 at 11:04 am

    Very well said. As a Special Education Teacher/Administrator and aspiring Young Adult writer who fell through the publishing world cracks myself, it amazes me that more people aren't understanding what the teens/kids are wanting to read. We need to give them insight and allow them to read stories with depth. There are many problems in the world around them and kids want to be able to indentify with the characters in the books on some level.

    There is a major shortage of books particularly for teen boys and young adult males. I just wrote and submitted my book to many publishing houses that told me, great idea but we aren't ready to tackle that market yet. We need to get these boys reading again and off of the computers.

    I guess that I am so passionate about your article because I was trying to give these kids the exact type of book that you are describing and the publishers doors were slammed in my face.

    If you are interested, I have self-published The One.

    Cheryl May 11th, 2006 at 9:09 pm

    Amen, Jeff! I have a 12 year old son, and finding good quality reading material for him is a job. Even historical fiction novels are mostly geared to girls. I'm glad girls are being more empowered, but as in most things, the pendulum has swung too far.

    We'll get farther by our children reading prolifically than any government legislation and standardized testing. Perhaps the money wasted on those programs would be better spent improving school and public libraries? Many school libraries are terribly understocked. Now there's a movement for Oprah, making libraries friendly!

    I do get a lot of good tips off this site, frankly. Good job guys!

    Christina Pickett July 12th, 2007 at 9:10 am

    Oprah would be a great avenue to promote chidren's literature among children and adults. As research shows us one way to encourage reading in children is when they see their parents read. So I believe that reading should be a joint venture for children and their parents as well as other adults that are in their lives. We can't make this Oprah's responsibility or mission it has to be the responsibility of parents, schools, grandparents, godparents, aunts, uncles, etc.

    I just launched a website that advocates children's multicultural literature (MeltingPotBooks.org). This venture came to me when I left education but still believed that as a parent and a educator that many children lacked proficient reading/comprehension skills and also needed to be educated on the diverse society that we live in today. What better way to champion this effort than by suggesting great book titles and outlets in which parents and educators can get children to gain and/or keep interest in reading outside of an structured environment.

    Brian Culley August 16th, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Dear Alexis,
    I happened to read your blog and I wholeheartedly agree with you. This country is definitely in need of a new spokesperson on child literacy, Oprah's time may be bettered spent towards this noble endeavor. What she would be able to achieve through one show might take us a lifetime to do. While adults having a source of information on books we would read for entertainment is a good thing, child literacy is a much more important topic. After all who would be reading the books she recommends if they didn't learn to read as a child.
    I was fortunate, in that I had several people, Mom, Dad, and my big brother with the Big Brothers and Big Sisters Organization, to instill a genuine love of reading in me as a young child. I have passed this on to my daughter and now we read together and discuss the books we have read. It is one of the things that continue to keep our relationship strong.
    I am 43 years old. I have a daughter and a granddaughter. When I was seven, I met Alan Jordan, through the Big Brothers and Big Sisters organization. After I reached 19, I started to travel, and we were out of touch for a long time. One day, I Googled Alan and discovered that he was the author of a number of books. When I touched base with him, he sent me a copy of The Monster on Top of the Bed, which comes in several different formats. (CD with a printed book, e-book, .mp3 files, an e-book that is multi-media, and an accompanying e-book called My Monster on Top of the Bed that children can actually use to create their own monster stories, and to record their voices as they read the story. They can then send this book to their Grandparents or classmates.

    When I showed The Monster on Top of the Bed to my 11-year old daughter, Briana, she said, “I can see how reading and listening to the book can help kids to not be afraid of the dark.” I didn’t ask her, but I think if I did, she would be willing to read it to my two-year old step-granddaughter, Sara. I’ll bet they would have a great time reading it. I also think that Briana might enjoy listening to the story in Italian and Spanish as well as English, and this is easy to do because you can play one set of pages at a time, and there is a page-turning sound. If you’re using the CD or if you’re using Windows Media player you can stop and start and backup anytime that you want.

    When I talked to Alan he explained that he is working on teacher’s guides for the book (and other books too); maybe the two of you would have something in common. If you want me to put you in touch with Alan, just ask me.

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