Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Encouraging Summer Reading That Speaks to Teens' Souls

Our 14-year-old son returned from a vacation with the youth group of Communion and Liberation this week, eager to buy a copy of the latest translation of Giacomo Leopardi's "Canti" as well as a good translation of Fyodor Doystoevsky's "Crime and Punishment." His emerging interest in fine literature is yet another reason my husband and I are so grateful for CL, a lay ecclesiastical movement within the Catholic Church. Our son is learning that faith is a living entity and that the beauty expressed by poets, and musicians is one way we can gaze upon the Infinite. My conversation with him also is a reminder we parents have an obligation to continue to nurture our children's souls as they navigate adolescence.

Here is what Leopardi, a poet, essayist and philosopher of the early 19th century, has to say about the Infinite:

These solitary hills have always been dear to me.
Seated here, this sweet hedge, which blocks the distant horizon opening inner silences and interminable distances.
I plunge in thought to where my heart, frightened, pulls back.
Like the wind which I hear tossing the trembling plants which surround me, a voice from the inner depths of spirit shakes the certitudes of thought.
Eternity breaks through time, past and present intermingle in her image.
In the inner shadows I lose myself,
drowning in the sea-depths of timeless love.

This is not too shabby a way for an adolescent boy to whittle away time during his shifts as desk attendant at a local pool. Alas, many teens do not get such exposure. My good friend J. pointed me to a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal, which posits that so much of contemporary "Young Adult" literature deals with dysfunction: suicide, alcoholism, incest, self-mutilation and so on. As a high school English teacher, I could not agree more with Meghan Cox Gurdon's "Darkness Too Visible."

"How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18," she writes.

This is why, when our son's reading skills exceeded the children's sections of bookstores and libraries, we headed straight for the adult section. There is so much richness in the works of writers there. We  need not pander  - we must not pander - to the whims of popular culture by dropping our soon-to-be adults in the Young Adult section. There is so much junk there. I am glad we introduced our boys to Twain and Ingalls Wilder long before they were ready to read them on their own.

Children rarely exceed our expectations, right? So if we read to them and expect them later to read to themselves  literature that speaks to their hearts, to the longings of their souls, they likely will seek out those works as they grow up. I know I'll be forever grateful to the adults who lead teens in the Gioventu Studentesca part of the movement. They are figuratively taking our teens by the hand and leading them farther down to the road to their destinies. They're teaching them that good music and beautiful books, like Christ himself, speaks to their deepest desires.


  1. anonymous wrote: Rudolph Steiner in his educational works wrote that expecting a child to move abruptly from early childhood fairy stories to stark reality even in childrens literature is a sure way to destroy the reading habit.
    With this in mind my daughter moved to the lighter fantasy novels and, as her friends dropped away from the library and bought comics, she eagerly awaited the next visit to C.S. Lewis etc.
    She has retained her love of books (and ended up at Cambridge!)
    Thank you for your experience.

  2. Have you ever heard of the classical model for education? It's gaining loads of popularity among homeschoolers and private schools, largely in part to Sue Wise's: The Well Trained Mind.

    Your decision to skip the ill written modern literature designed for teens is just what the Classical style promotes.

    I'm glad to see your son was so willing to read this rich literature!

  3. Sarah: I am not too familiar with it. If I were homeschooling I would pursue that. That said, I think all parents are homeschoolers in the sense that we all are our children's first and most enduring teachers.

    I can not even begin to count the number of field trips, art openings, museum visits etc. we have shared and continue to share with our boys. And we also have cultivated a sense of hospitality in our home and our visitors from far and near have enriched our lives. Just like my parents' visitors did when I was growing up.

    (We also watch plenty of TV, play video games and spend too much time online...!)

    When I reflect on my own childhood, what I know about the world, about culture, literature etc. came from my mom primarily - not from the public schools, which were outstanding by the way.
    I was blessed in that she is a classicist, speaks many foreign languages etc. etc. She now has taken to writing novels and she is 80!