Life is an adventure. Reading should also be an adventure.
I watched an amazingly powerful movie last night, The Good Lie. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2652092/) There is a scene in the movie that has stayed with me, actually there are quite a few scenes that have stayed with me. In this one particular scene, one of the lost boys/Sudanese refugees, now a young man in America, is taking an English class. He is discussing his reading assignment, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As he was discussing the “good lie” that Huck told, I found myself feeling rather amazed at his ability to tease this notion out in what must have seemed like an odd tale to him. I was just as amazed that he was able to comprehend this challenging text when it was not in his native language. But I also found myself wondering what he thought about or how he felt when he encountered that hateful word that has hijacked our discussion of this book. The movie never addressed this but I found myself wondering about it.
Reading a book is a very personal experience. We bring a multitude of past experiences and understandings to our reading. So when I think about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn I think about my twenty seven year old son. Like any mom who understands the importance of reading to her children, I read to my kids everyday for many, many years. My son’s all time favorite read aloud was, Huck Finn. Well, he actually had two favorites, Huck Finn and The Education Of Little Tree. I’m not going to take this space to discuss the controversy around the author of Little Tree. I’ll just tell you it is a fabulous story and we read it because of that.
As I reflect on our reading of Huck Finn, I remember how much fun it was to read because it was so easy to read with a southern twang. Mark Twain made it that way. And I remember how much my son loved when I was reading in that accent. But I also remember that word. That horrible word, so filled with hate. I remember the first time I came to that word. I stopped dead in my tracks and looked at Kyle, my son. I couldn’t say it. So I explained that there was a word that was very hard to say because it brought to mind so many horrible images. He asked what it was and I told him. I also told him that when I came to that word again I was going to skip over it but I would pause so he’d know I was skipping it. He seemed satisfied with that. I’m not sure I was, but it worked for us at that time. He was only seven. I kept reading because the story is so darn great and the conversations we had were even better. So why do I feel that I could never read that aloud to my fifth graders? Do I feel they can’t handle the story or rather, the word? Or do I feel their parents’ won’t be able to handle it? Or is it me; can’t I handle it?
Like I said, Huck Finn isn’t the only book that I censor reading to my students. The Education of Little Tree is the other book my son loved and I don’t read aloud to my students.
Kyle was ten when I read that to him, the same age as the children I teach. He use to beg me to read aloud when I was reading that book. The conversations we had were so rich, so full of warmth, love, empathy, compassion. Like with Huck FInn I could see him “go away”. Go away to that magic place a good book takes you. Away to the time and place of the well written book. Yet, the fact that a little boy helps his grandpa run a still where they live in the Appalachian Mountains keeps me, and probably many other educators, from reading this wonderful book to our kids. But the question I ask here is, “Should it?” Should controversial topics keep us from reading fabulous stories to our kids? I admit that I continue to wonder if I’m making the right decisions. Decisions that are based on avoiding controversy.
PS – I could not possibly end this post without reference to how we each can help the education of the lost children from the Sudan. Here is a link if you find you would like to learn more and/or give to this incredibly important and worthwhile cause.