Relevance (which sounds like a book title but isn't)

One reason why I don’t read books for grown ups is that too many of them are Relevant, in that they are about the “grown up experience in early 21st century America,” which is presumably what I am experiencing. Of course, since I don’t read them, they may be about something else altogether. I am a weak-minded escapist, and one thing I look for in a book is irrelevance, often soothing, comfortable irrelevance (and if you are a re-reader, like me, you find that even books that are at first thought-provoking, like Ender’s Game, become soothing with repetition).

I’m thinking about relevance because at the author of the blog The LiteraBuss just called Sarah Plain and Tall “another outdated story that has no relevance to today's kids” and said about Little House on the Prairie “It's from a different time, and if you're reading it for historical perspective, there are much more meaningful ways to go about that.”

I’m happy to agree that both these books do not particularly deserve to be required reading, but I’m a little surprised that they should be dismissed so vehemently because of not being relevant and modern. To me, modern is not a selling point in and of itself, and the themes of family and home that characterize these books are kind of, um, central to the human experience. And I find, in my own irrelevant reading, that when books that take such central, powerful themes and display them in an alien setting, those themes can be seen more clearly, and thought about more thoughtfully than would otherwise be the case (a classic example being the books of Ursula Le Guin). Through irrelevance, relevance.

By way of interesting contrast, there’s a post at the Guardian book blog today that celebrates old books, entitled “Why girls’ books still build their dreams around home.” It points out the strong and unforgettable sense of home and family in many classic girls books—Little Women, the Chalet School books, Ballet Shoes, and the Little House books. And it suggests that these themes might actually still have relevance to kids today.

Such books appeal to me. But then, I’m already starting to daydream about going Home for Christmas, and singing carols around the piano with my family, and decorating the tree, and making cookies with my boys using the same cookie cutters I used as a girl…


  1. I'm so glad you chose to post about this Charlotte. And you did it in such a calm-and-collected way. I read that post and steam started coming out of my ears!

  2. I agree with you and Becky! We read the whole series to our daughter when she was six and she couldn't get enough (neither could we!) These are absorbing stories about people we cared about--and I said as much on a comment to the Literary Buss.

  3. Charlotte, you can always be counted on for intelligent dissections of issues that matter. Thank you for this, for bringing our attention to it.

  4. Oh, and, I meant to say: My third grader niece was just this past weekend speaking of her absolute love of books that "feel like classics."

    Is The Cricket in Times Square relevant? Maybe or maybe not. But my niece can tell you (a huge smile on her face) why she loves it to pieces.

  5. Wow! I was all over Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prarie, and Little Women when I was a child. Regardless of the time period in which the books were written, children are attracted to strong characters with whom they can identify, and that's common with all of the books mentioned. What Literary Buss says is ludicrous. Thanks for posting about this...

  6. Charlotte,

    I appreciate you coming to my page and posting a reply in yours. To me, that is honestly what blogging is all about, starting the discussions that get people thinking critically about these books. While some people take the discussion a little bit too seriously and start name calling and losing their cool (something that I try to rise above, and I'm glad that you also took a high road and were very constructive in your criticism of me), it's really not about that.

    If some of these other posters would look at my posts in context, which I realize that no one does these days, so it's unfair to keep that expectation, they would understand where I am coming from. I am interested in modern literary critique through multiple perspectives, including critical social theory, race theory, and literacy and the modern child (I'm not so much focused, especially in this post that you reference, on personal, as "irrelevence," because in the classroom, relevence is often a key focus. I love To Kill A Mockingbird personally, but it should be trashed from the elementary school classroom because its content is more appropriate for older children. I stand by what I said about Little House on the Prairie and Sarah, Plain and Tall, because I PERSONALLY loathe them both. It's a matter of opinion, and I thank you for sharing yours.

  7. Ohhh, A Cricket in Times Square!

    Thanks for your balanced review of this subject -- I read a lot of immediate response to it. I can definitely agree that much of the "canon" for MG and YA readers is dated and doesn't accurately reflect gender, race, class issues etc., but that definitely doesn't mean they should ever vanish utterly. We all take what we can from books, and move forward.

    And your Christmas sounds like the Christmas of my dreams.

  8. Thanks, all of you, for commenting. I think Tadmack's comment gets to the heart of the matter--"we take what we can from books." Not everyone wants, or is able, to do this equally with every book. Especially at the elementary school level, where, it seems to me, personnel experience and taste are so much more developed than larger cultural context. Add to this the fact that elementary school children are at such very different stages in reading ability, and it seems a bit premature to me to have books that are required independent reading for the whole class. Save it for eighth grade. That being said, I think that when a book is read out loud to the whole class, with the teacher able to stop and clarify, to add relevance via dialogue, it is a lot easier for a whole class to be engaged. This might be why books like the Little House series work well when a parent reads them out loud at home, clarifying, explaining, and pointing out that people back then thought and did things that we are repelled by today!

  9. Thank you for this lovely post. I was also in the "steam coming out my ears" category over that earlier post. She mentioned some of the most treasured books from my childhood and ones that I plan to pass along to my children.

    For everyone? Certainly not. Categorically trash? Absolutely not.

  10. It's still all about "the right book for the right child at the right time". There are still children who love Little House, so we shouldn't dismiss them utterly. The original post from The Buss was about MAKING students read books for a class. My only reservation about the post is that personal opinions about a book ("I loathed it as a child") are rarely useful in getting the right book to the right child. I loathed Brian Jacques, but realize that many students adore his work.


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