The Elegant Variation observed today that Simon & Schuster has plans to aggressively market Meg Cabot’s THE PRINCESS DIARIES to teen girls. Mark Sarvas is a literati’s literati (I say this with fondness) and so I believe it would be biologically impossible for him to support such a plan — or such a book. (If Mark ever had a daughter turned teenage rebel, she would no doubt strike him exactly where it hurts: by voting Republican, aspiring to Wharton and reading nothing but the Gossip Girls). He makes a valid point about society’s craven desire to turn kids into consumers and he’s obviously right to recognize that same desire here, even if reading is involved…but that’s the thing, that’s where my own ambivalence comes into play…because reading is involved.
Because kids, be they girls or boys, need to learn at the youngest possible age that reading is fun. So I find myself supporting whatever capitalistic exploitative marketing technique might get a young girl reading for an hour or two instead of salivating over the latest Coach purse (even if she is reading about girls who hang out at the mall and buy Coach purses), because so often the parents themselves aren’t quite doing it. They usually mean well, those parents, they recognize reading as A Good Thing and urge their kids to do it, yet if they themselves never set the example of settling down on the couch with a good book and reading for pleasure, why should said kids regard fiction as anything other than the stuff of tedium, homework and exams? There’s an awe-inspiring gap between what many kids want to read and what adults feel they ought to read; in order to get them to the latter, we need to let them have the former. Hell, we need to show them that the former actually exists.
At best, light or bubblegum or trashy reading is a gateway to deeper, more meaningful forms of literature. At worst, it’s still a lot more life-affirming than aspiring to be Paris Hilton.
So my question today, for anyone who feels inclined to answer it, is this:
If you were teaching kids (you choose the age and the grade) English Literature, what novel would you put on your curriculum? You may choose anything. We will pretend for the sake of argument that school staff and parents would fully support you.