Reading & Literacy

Payoff Seen in Using Popular Fiction To Promote Reading

By Karen Diegmueller — October 16, 1996 5 min read
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When a 9-year-old San Francisco girl went in search of a Nancy Drew book last spring, she discovered that the local public library system did not stock the popular series that has been around since 1930.

The novels about the amateur girl detective were not, in library officials’ view, worthy of their young readers’ time and attention.

Books such as these are typically not of the ilk that gets parents or school board members riled up because of perceived sexual innuendo or adult themes. Instead, they are of the genre that educators call popular, pulp, or just plain junk literature. And as much as teachers and parents wish youngsters would pick up Robert Louis Stevenson or Edith Wharton, these other books won’t go away.

Now, though, educators are going beyond just learning to live with such books; they are learning how to use popular fiction to entice students into reading and enjoying higher-quality literature.

Just this past weekend, educators, authors, librarians, and students planned to gather at the University of Maine in Orono to discuss the value of popular literature. More than 200 participants from the United States and Canada had signed up for the Reading Stephen King Conference, named after the prolific horror writer from Maine.

The organizers acknowledged that they are battling an attitude that has persisted for decades. For instance, many of the teachers that Brenda M. Power, an associate professor of literacy education at the University of Maine, works with try to control their students’ reading choices. Ms. Power, the director of the conference, said those teachers have the conviction: “I wouldn’t let my students bring in toys; why should I let them bring in books with poor plots and characterizations.”

“Research shows that the key thing you want to do, if you want to produce a lifelong reader, is to help them connect with any book,” she said. “If you’re reading it grudgingly, if you’re not engaged at all, it’s not really reading.”

Exploiting the Genre

The Stephen King conference was inspired by a similar endeavor in 1993 when the University of Iowa brought 500 people to Iowa City for the Nancy Drew Conference.

In a book published last year by the University of Iowa Press, Bonnie S. Sunstein, an assistant professor of English education, described how participants testified to the impact the Nancy Drew books had on them as children.

An Ohio woman, for instance, spoke about how she and her sister devoured the books--during recess, after school, at the dinner table, and under their bedcovers.

And though many educators still maintain that such books are just fluff, others have awakened to the potential of using popular outlets such as paperback fiction and television to teach about literature.

For example, graduate associate Lisa-Anne Culp introduces her students to the classics via popular movies, paperbacks, and television shows in the literature class she teaches at the University of Arizona.

She takes a show like “The Simpsons,” the popular animated comedy, and has her class analyze it for plot, characterization, tone, dialogue, and setting.

“It’s a matter of easing people into something,” said Ms. Culp, who believes the same method can be applied at the precollegiate level. “When I start talking to students about television sitcoms, what I really want to teach them is how to analyze literature. Sure, I can give them Aristotle’s Poetics. Half of them I’m going to lose. They’re not going to understand it.

“If I show them something familiar first, then they can take what they know and apply it to Aristotle,” she said.

One day a week, Kimberly Campbell invited her secondary school students to bring a book of their choice to English class for silent reading. Only parents could impose restrictions on what the students chose, said Ms. Campbell, now the principal of Riverdale High School in Portland, Ore. Choices ranged from such modern popular fiction authors as Dean R. Koontz and Danielle Steele to Mark Twain and the classics.

Some educators, Ms. Campbell included, have found value in the very books that others belittle.

Take R.L. Stine, the author of the Goosebumps series. Brian Edmiston’s 6-year-old son, Michael, introduced the assistant professor of education at Ohio State University to the author of these best-selling spooky tales. Michael had exhausted all the scary monsters that roamed through dinosaur stories, “Beauty and the Beast,” the Gilgamesh tales, and Greek mythology before finding the Stine books.

“Just as adults will look at the dark side of humanity, you should explore that with your children,” said Mr. Edmiston, who is writing a book about the topic.

Bucks Count, Too

Joel Shoemaker, a library media specialist at South East Junior High School in Iowa City, Iowa, makes some popular literature available to students. Arriving at the junior high from the elementary schools where such materials were unavailable, the students are “just panting to get at Stephen King,” he said.

While he falls on the side that argues reading anything is better for students than reading nothing, Mr. Shoemaker still questions the usefulness of the pulp books.

He also has to be practical. Given curriculum mandates, he is able to spend less than 5 percent of his budget on paperback popular fiction.

The San Francisco public library also had cited limited resources for keeping Nancy Drew at bay. And library officials maintained that most of their young readers just weren’t interested. “Neither the Nancy Drew nor the Hardy Boys nor the Oz books are big sellers here,” Marcia Schneider, the director of community relations, said.

“We have maintained all along that the serials we already buy are the ones that kids want to read,” she said, citing The Baby-Sitters Club, Sweet Valley High, and Goosebumps.

Despite library officials’ belief that Nancy Drew doesn’t appeal to many of its young readers, the library went ahead and ordered some after the 9-year-old complained that she couldn’t find one of her favorite series and her plight was publicized.

And, like the heroine herself, some generous San Franciscans came to the rescue; the public has donated enough money to help the library carry Nancy Drew.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 1996 edition of Education Week as Payoff Seen in Using Popular Fiction To Promote Reading


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