Thursday, September 4, 2008

Tom Sawyer--some books are worth the challenge!

Some books are better when read aloud. Some books need to be experienced.

If a book is difficult, but well worth the read, it may take a lot more effort and energy than a child is willing and able to exert. That's where a parent or teacher can step in and impress a story upon a child's heart forever.

When I was a child my parents gathered us around regularly and read J.R.R. Tolkiens The Hobbit, and then The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. It's the warmest coziest family memory I have and because of it I harbor a deep emotional connection to Bilbo and Gandolf and Frodo and Sam, and I've never forgotten the lessons they taught me about loyalty and courage and struggle.

I teach Freshman literature and composition at a small liberal arts college and I always begin the semester with Hamlet, mostly because it's my favorite Shakespeare play, but also because my class theme is Complex Ethics and Simple Truths, and Hamlet is chock full of moral complexity. But it's a difficult read, particularly for second language students. (This semester, out of my 44 students, only 9 are from the U.S. The rest are from Tonga, Samoa, the Philippines, Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Mongalia, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Thailand, Cambodia and even Austria.) I get a lot of complaints that Shakespeare is too hard, but I don't buy that. I know my students are up for the challenge.

To prepare my students for Hamlet, I show an inspiring film about a teacher named Rafe Esquith who teaches 5th grade at Hobarth Elementary School in Los Angelos, and has this magical ability to get results and teach kids morals, partly by using difficult and challenging texts, like Hamlet. After watching The Hobarth Shakespeareans for the first time I realized I was underestimating the power a challenging book can have on even the most hesitant reader and decided to change my approach at home to match my approach in the classroom.

I made a book list of difficult, but classic stories I wanted to read aloud to my kids and started with Tom Sawyer.

It took us 6 months to get through it. Not an easy journey, but an interesting and rewarding one. Not only is the vocabulary difficult, but the dialect is completely foreign--much like Shakespeare. I had to stop often to explain vocabulary and context. There were times when the boys got fidgety and complained that they didn't understand what was going on. Often, in the beginning, they would sit and play with their gameboys or look at baseball cards while I read. But I plugged away at it and it paid off. The boys began asking me to read Tom Sawyer to them every night. When I finished a chapter they would ask for another and then another.

The story is compelling and the characters are multi-faceted--nothing cardboard or fast-food about this book. You rarely find round characters like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in children's books today. These boys aren't always well-behaved, but they are real, and Mark Twain doesn't make them misbehave for the sake of entertaining a bored audience. He gives them real emotions and fears, which are often humorously complex and intense. They don't like doing chores or sitting through church. They ditch school, twist the truth and say rotten words. All the things we forbid our boys to do, but they do anyway. My boys sleep through church, pass blame to each other and laugh hysterically anytime someone mentions words about bodily functions. I don't love this about boys, but it's real, and I love real.

The conflict is serious and dramatic. Tom and Huck witness a murder. That's big-time. But the subplots and subsequent conflicts made my boys laugh and think and question and wonder. Tom and Huck are superstitious and quirky and charming and Mark Twain is smart and witty and insightful. Reading it was an experience. A memory.

After we finished we rented the one version of the movie I could find. (The musical with Jodie Foster). Interestingly, My boys watched it over and over and over again.

Now we're on to Huck Finn. My daughter is reading it in her English class and thinks it's the most pointless, boring book in the world. She feels so sorry for the boys that they have to listen to me read it. But I can't help but believe if she were to listen in and read it with us slowly so we could digest it and experience it together, she'd probably fall in love with Huck Finn.

It's worth the challenge anyway!

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