Classic Literature Is Not Necessarily Good Literature

Yes, Johnny IS reading, but WHAT is he reading? Decide if the subject matter is something you want your student to devote hours and hours to before you assign the book. Many selections being sold today as “must have” children’s books are not anything I would want to have in my home. Contemporary children’s authors seem to think sibling rivalry is to be encouraged, unacceptable behavior is heroic, and deplorable grammar is an effective method of identifying with the reader.

I recently read an advertisement for a children’s museum exhibit featuring a popular cartoon character. The theme of the exhibit was “Reading is Cool.” I happen to disagree. Reading, as an isolated activity, is not necessarily cool. The subject matter could make the reading into a very “uncool” activity. We should be teaching our children not only the skill of reading, but also teaching them the much more important skill of selecting quality reading matter: is this book a good model of grammar usage, or does the author continually “break the rules” in an effort to grab an audience? Is the subject matter worthy of my time, or do the characters run contrary to my family’s standards and values?

Additionally, just because a story has been around for decades does not make it worthy of your time. Many “classics” (as described by literary critics) merely focus on subject matter that no one else had yet dared to tackle, e.g. The Scarlet Letter/adultery. Before taking a recommendation from anyone, know what their standards are. The same standards-screening principle applies to movies, videos, computer games/software, etc. as well as books. Occasionally, I felt the need to read a book myself to determine its worthiness before allowing my student to read it. Not only was it a great use of my time, but it also gave us a wider scope in discussing the book later — plus the student was able to see a parent devouring a book, something all too rare in today’s video-saturated world.


  1. Reba Davis says:

    So glad to hear someone else say that as a parent I should question the so-called “classics!” I recently started reading a literature textbook that I had picked up at the thrift store (years ago), thinking the time had finally come for my daughter to start using it. It is the first semester of 10th grade for Abeka curriculum (Vol. 1 of their “Classics for Christians” series). I haven’t used Abeka for anything in years, but since it was about $1, and the store also had volumes 2 and 3, I bought them thinking I can use the classic literature without necessarily following their program. So far, the first dozen selections have me very disappointed. I began to wonder if I was being too critical and decided to check your blog for anything on high school literature when I found this article!

    The very first story in Vol. 1, “Good Morning Miss Dove,” is the complete antithesis of what homeschooling is all about, IMO. It was somewhat interesting, but that was about all it had going for it. Next was a terribly dry essay by an author I’ve never heard of and can’t find anything about on the web (John Todd). The essay was on being a good student and lost my interest in the first paragraph – can you imagine asking a teenager to read it? Both of these first two selections seemed to promote what I call robotic learning. Then, the very next one was an excerpt from “Hard Times” by Dickens – only it wasn’t even recognized as such, but presented as a short story by the title “A School of Facts,” in which the whole idea of being a robotic learner is portrayed through satire as completely absurd. And yet the questions at the end of the “story” never indicate this truth or even mention the idea of satire.

    Next we enter part one of the death phase. With the exception of a couple boring essays (another “character essay” with no credit to the author whatsoever, and then “True Glory of a Nation” by Bishop Whipple”), the following six selections were about people dying. That’s right – SIX that were about either people or animals dying. The only one of them I felt was worth reading was “Markheim” by Robert Louis Stevenson, but even that is pretty heavy for a tenth-grader, I think.

    I can’t tell you what the next two were about since I didn’t get very far with them. One had words and phrases that didn’t even seem like English at times. The other was completely King James style language plus it was full of old obsolete terms. I can understand most anything in the KJV Bible, but this lengthy excerpt from “The Idylls of the King” by Tennyson is ridiculous. I’m not a genius, but I am a pretty good reader with a decent vocabulary, so if it’s overwhelming for me why should I even try to get my daughter to try it?

    And then it’s back to death and doom with “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven” by Poe. If those stories were not labeled as classics, and someone made them into movies, they would be labeled as “horror” movies and I would never want to see them, let alone allow my kids to see them. So why in the world are they in a 10th-grade text book published by a company that claims to be “Christian?”

    Of course I don’t believe our kids should only read “happy” stories, or novels with strictly religious themes, but even within purely secular literature there are plenty of great selections that are not all boring, impossible to understand, or depressing, right???

  2. RIGHT!!! This is also why we devised the tactic of watching the video-version first, then reading the book. By watching the movie first, you get a quick understanding of the plot, setting, and characters — enough to hold your attention while the book releases it all much more slowly. Sometimes my kids wanted to read the entire book to see how it differed from the movie; sometimes they read only a chapter or a few pages to get the “feel” of how the author handled things and see his writing style; sometimes we just stopped the movie in the middle and moved on to something more interesting. ;-)

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