CSotD: The Literary Corner

Doing comic strips about the end of the school year — or the beginning, for that matter — is tricky because of how widely school calendars vary, state to state. But, this being the week after Memorial Day, there are a flood of summer vacation strips and this Non Sequitur (AMS) — a rerun, but a good one — picks up on the dreaded Summer Reading List.

Author Kate Messner, whom I knew back when she was Middle School ELA Teacher Kate Messner, wrote a brilliant blog entry about summer reading lists several years ago which is well worth reading.

She’s all in favor of having kids read over the summer, but very much against telling them what.

It’s good to hear someone who genuinely understands kids and literacy and reading speak out in favor of letting them read. I visited Kate’s classroom and she’s one of the two or three best teachers I’ve ever seen in action. She’s since become a fabulously popular writer of children’s books mostly, I think, because her style makes for stories of substance combined with fun, easy reading.

She doesn’t say this, but I will: Most Summer Reading Lists are larded with crap anyway. The first of several times I shared her summer reading list blog entry, it was to share a column I’d written somewhat before, in which I unloaded on pretentious reading lists:

And when teachers aren’t pushing tired old warhorses and things like “Gulliver’s Travels” that they haven’t read themselves and that are well above any kids’ reading level, they’re praising big important books that win awards from teachers and librarians for making big important points.

“Broccoli Books,” you might call them, in honor of Carl Rose’s classic statement on such things, and there’s an entire coterie of prize-winning authors who have based their careers on what teachers and librarians think kids ought to read rather than what kids want to read.

As Kate Messner wrote, kids will find what they want to read, if you take your foot off their necks and let them. (She didn’t phrase it quite that way.)

For several days last week, as I was nearly at the park with my pup, I’d drive past a little girl walking home from school with her nose buried in a Big Nate book. I couldn’t tell which one it was, but Nate’s trademark hairstyle peeked around her hand from the cover while she walked, intent on the story.


And I’ve just read “Remarkably Ruby,” the latest kids’ book by Terri Libenson, who sharpened her pen, and her grasp on inner lives, on the Pajama Diaries (KFS) comic strip for years before branching into graphic novels with enough verve to earn that “New York Times Bestselling Author” description.

The two books have little in common except that they express children’s voices in a way that kids recognize and embrace: Big Nate for laughs and Libenson’s books for an assurance that they aren’t alone in the world.

Kids need both. And if Rick Riordan can sneak in a little classic mythology, that’s a bonus.

There’s also an entire industry, as Tom Gauld points out, trailing behind and trying to duplicate whatever it turns out kids really want to read. Most of these turn out to be pale imitations of the originals they emulate, but, then, as Sturgeon’s Law says, 90 percent of everything is crap, while, as Messner points out, even crap will get kids reading.

Most of them will eventually upgrade to the better stuff. Or at least make an effort.


And then perhaps one day, like Dan Thompson in Brevity (AMS), they’ll be making allusions to books their own children may have read and TV shows their kids never heard of, in cartoons that make their contemporaries giggle despite themselves.


Or at least, like Harry Bliss (AMS), demonstrating that they spent way too much time watching Mr. Rogers.

Even silly jokes rely on cultural literacy, and if you’re hoping to elevate the conversation, you need to begin on the ground floor.

Bearing in mind that the Brothers Grimm helped build an entire nation-state on a foundation of fairy tales.


Which political discursion reminds me that at least one GoComics commenter schooled Lisa Benson (Counterpoint) last week for this attack on Biden, pointing out that, in the original story, the magic beans worked.

If you’re going to make literary allusions, read the text.


Juxtaposition of a Different Fairytale

(Candorville – WPWG)

(Joy of Tech)

Shifting gears but staying in the realm of fairy tales, the collapse of crypto prompted a short story arc in Candorville which played not only on the folly of the promises but on the folly of trying to bail out at the right moment. Crypto’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

Meanwhile, as Joy of Tech points out, the paranoid people who embraced crypto for its alleged privacy basically just reinvented money without the safety net .

Is crypto simply an elaborate, climate-destroying Ponzi scheme? There are certainly some crooks at the top and just as certainly some poor schlubs at the bottom, but maybe the center will hold, if everyone who believes in crypto claps their hands.

In any case, the notion of escaping the eye of Big Brother by paying cash is so delightfully simple that I’m almost tempted to try it myself.

And given that my IRA is down 17% since December, I’m disinclined to make jokes about people who stuffed their money in their mattresses because they didn’t trust the banks. The FDIC was created to save people from bank failures, but it doesn’t extend its protection to the stock market, cryptocoins or casinos.

Or inflation, come to think of it.

Oh well. As Bat Masterson wrote in his last column

There are those who argue that everything breaks even in this old dump of a world of ours. I suppose these ginks who argue that way hold that because the rich man gets ice in the summer and the poor man gets it in the winter things are breaking even for both. Maybe so, but I’ll swear I can’t see it that way.

In the end, we all live on childish fairy tales.

The best of them are inspirational rather than deceptive.


6 thoughts on “CSotD: The Literary Corner

  1. I think your commentary on summer reading applies only to the 14 and under youth. The goal there is to create and reinforce a lifetime love of reading.

    For older teens, cultural literacy is more important. After all, don’t cartoonists want their readers to understand whatever literary allusions they might happen to employ?

    My teenage son had been raised in a non-religious household. Therefore, one of his summer reading “assignments” was The Dartmouth Bible.

  2. In our bookstore we sometimes get parents who don’t want their kids to get anything but HARD books. Something I’ve come up with that sometimes helps is to say, “If your kid was going to start working out to join a sport or something, you wouldn’t want them to do extra heavy lifting every day. What they need is to do light rep days in between the challenges. That’s how you build endurance.”

  3. I joined my first book club, the My Weekly Reader book club in 1960. I did not love all the books, but there were very few clunkers, and they were age appropriate. I still remember “The Secret of Crossbone Hill” and “The Pink Motel” fondly.

    My parents finally decided that the book club was too expensive (I would have read the book by the day after it arrived) and started taking me to the public library, so it all worked out.

  4. George, you’re right that reading lists are for the younger crowd. For high school, a list of books is usually short and specific to books that will be taught that next semester.

    But the younger set is where love of reading kicks in, hence the idea that they should be encouraged to read what they want, not what they must.

    It seems similar to the Old School sports coaching in which running laps or doing pushups was punishment for misbehavior — it goes against the goal of enjoying exercise, rather than seeing it as a negative. Ditto with reading.

  5. Re this Question: Is crypto simply an elaborate, climate-destroying Ponzi scheme?

    Crypto currency is made with electricity…large amounts of electricity. I live in Central Washington. The three counties here are on the Columbia River and have publicly owned dams that produce cheap electricity. (My domestic power costs less than 3 cents a KWH.) Server farms are popping up here to, among other things, create crypto. This is using cheap electricity that could be used by whole cities down the West Coast. Our dams are on the BPA power backbone that reaches down to California. Remember this when there are brownouts this summer.

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