Books & Culture
Karin Callahan sits on the desk beside the boy who just finished reading several pages of "To Kill a Mockingbird" to the rest of the sophomores in her Schenectady, N.Y., High School English class.
While Callahan looks for a definition, a book sits pitched like a tent on one student's desk. Another girl tears strips of paper so she can pass notes. A boy in the corner stares intently ahead at nothing.
Today, she asks questions about Harper Lee's classic. But often, Callahan asks herself another question, one repeated by teachers, librarians, parents and anyone who believes in that Ray Bradbury quote hanging on Callahan's wall: "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them."
How do you -- with all the things competing for their time -- inspire teenagers to unlock a world that can only be found in books?
This summer, while school was out and teenagers gorged themselves on free time, the National Center for Educational Statistics released a troubling finding. The percentage of 17-year-olds who said they never or hardly ever read for fun grew from 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004.
At the same time, the percentage of 17-year-olds who read every day dropped from 31 percent to 22 percent.
"It's about drawing them in," Callahan said. "That's the most important thing because if they're not reading, there's nothing."
The English classes at Schenectady High and the teen lounge at the Guilderland, (N.Y.) Public Library, two places worried that more kids aren't picking up books, have become battlegrounds for literacy.
They'd rather not blame it on competition with video games. Many times, Callahan said, students don't read because they're simply too busy. They have too many activities after school, are responsible for younger siblings at home or they work.
And, the teacher said, schools are partly to blame. The emphasis on standardized testing has sucked some of the joy out of reading and pushed it out of students' schedules because homework consumes a lot of their time.
In the teen world, there's also sometimes a social stigma attached to reading. The kids who eagerly attend library story times when they're young fade away as they hit adolescence.
Reading simply is not cool.
"There's a lot of pressure on just about every teen to fit the status quo, go with the mainstream," said Trevor Oakley, teen services librarian at the Guilderland library.
While 90 percent of teens between the ages of 13 and 17 said they'd watched television yesterday, 33 percent said they'd read a book for pleasure, according to a 2004 Gallup Youth Survey of more than 430 kids nationwide.
Reading, Callahan said, exposes people to situations and topics they may not encounter otherwise. It sharpens their ability to think critically. It feeds their own creativity.
And that's particularly important for teenagers, Oakley said, because it shows them how they can express themselves and gives them a way to cope with the trials of growing up.
Jesse Kukulich, a 17-year-old who comes to the library every week and is part of Oakley's Anime Club, started writing about four years ago and says Oakley is his book editor, looking over the more than 100 pages the teen author has written so far.
Kukulich enjoys science fiction and fantasy and is a faithful Harry Potter follower. Over time, Oakley used Kukulich's interest in post-apocalyptic style books as a gateway to "classics" like George Orwell's "1984" and Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World."
"It puts new ideas in my head," Kukulich said.
Guilderland library has developed a vast collection of anime and graphic novels. It's not high literature, but it brings kids into the library and exposes them to new ideas, Oakley said.
Recently, members of the library's anime club asked him if they could learn Japanese, so they could better understand the stories.
It's important, say Oakley and Callahan, to find those magical books that will capture kids. One enjoyable book can lead to a lifetime habit of reading.
For Callahan, that book was "The Scarlet Letter." The Nathaniel Hawthorne novel so shaped her love of literature that she decided to teach it. And as soon as she became a teacher and stood before her first class, she couldn't wait to share the book with her students.
The students hated it.
So she learned over time to find the books that would hook them. For the first batch of freshmen students she taught at Schenectady, it was youth author Louis Sachar's book "Holes," which tells the story of an innocent boy's time in a juvenile detention camp where the kids spend the day digging holes.
Callahan didn't have enough copies for the kids to take home. And they could never wait for the part of the class where they'd read the book out loud together. Callahan found them sneaking copies under their desks to read during vocabulary lessons.
And she was thrilled.
"They need to personalize it in order for it to have meaning," she said. "Every English teacher's had an experience with great books."
In Schenectady, the English department has stepped away from the traditional canon of "A Tale of Two Cities" and other novels, and looked at more contemporary work that has literary value.
Some students read "A Child Called 'It'," a former best-seller by Dave Pelzer that details his life of abuse by his mother. Kids who have struggled tend to relate to it, the staff says.
They tie modern-day themes in movies and music with similar themes in books.
And one teacher asks students to condense Shakespeare's "Macbeth" into a 32-second play, so they work past the sometimes difficult prose and get into the heart of the story, Callahan said.
Jessica Cydylo, one of Callahan's sophomore students, didn't start reading until just this summer when she picked up the first book in the "Gossip Girl" series as part of the school's summer reading requirement.
Now, she's on the fourth book in the series and likes to go to the bookstore as much as the local mall.
"I always have a lot of stress from school and stuff so it takes my mind of everything," Cydylo said.
All it took was one book.