Walk into any bookstore or library, and you'll find shelves and shelves of hugely popular novels and book series for kids. But research shows that as young readers get older, they are not moving to more complex books. High-schoolers are reading books written for younger kids, and teachers aren't assigning difficult classics as much as they once did.
At Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C., the 11th-grade honors English students are reading The Kite Runner. And students like Megan Bell are reading some heavy-duty books in their spare time. "I like a lot of like old-fashioned historical dramas," Bell says. "Like I just read Anna Karenina ... I plowed through it, and it was a really good book."
But most teens are not forging their way through Russian literature, says Walter Dean Myers, who is currently serving as National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. A popular author of young-adult novels that are often set in the inner city, Myers wants his readers to see themselves in his books. But sometimes, he's surprised by his own fan mail.
"I'm glad they wrote," he says, "but it is not very heartening to see what they are reading as juniors and seniors." Asked what exactly is discouraging, Myers says that these juniors and seniors are reading books that he wrote with fifth- and sixth-graders in mind.
And a lot of the kids who like to read in their spare time are more likely to be reading the latest vampire novel than the classics, says Anita Silvey, author of 500 Great Books for Teens. Silvey teaches graduate students in a children's literature program, and at the beginning of the class, she asked her students — who grew up in the age of Harry Potter — about the books they like.
"Every single person in the class said, 'I don't like realism, I don't like historical fiction. What I like is fantasy, science fiction, horror and fairy tales.' "
Those anecdotal observations are reflected in a study of kids' reading habits by Renaissance Learning. For the fifth year in a row, the educational company used its Accelerated Reader program to track what kids are reading in grades one through 12.
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Via Chuck Sherwood, Senior Associate, TeleDimensions, Inc