If you've been reading the Times lately, you may have noticed that there's a controversy a-brewin'. No, not the one about whether Disney buying Marvel means Archie will have to leave Riverdale to bus tables at the Enchanted Forest. Meanwhile, poor Betty has to earn a living in more creative ways.
No, I'm referring to their recent article about a teacher who lets her students choose their own reading material. It's a radical new approach to "children's literacy," "children's literacy" being to the voting public what shiny objects are to the ADHD-impaired. Naturally, no one had an opinion.
So I thought I'd weigh in, if I may.
Let me give you a little personal background. In grade school, I was a "smart" child. And like many smart children, I had this dim, perhaps innate feeling that while it was nice to get high marks in 'Math' and 'Handwriting' and 'Cubby Organization,' Harvard didn't actually care.
Sure, I had the tools to be a good student -- as in I demonstrated the kind of social skills which usually precurses being described as a 'bookish sort of girl.' This was very much helped by my propensity for wearing leggings with stirrups and a matching top. I was a pre-nerd. But above that, I was just really lazy.
So when our second-grade teacher allowed us to read every night from the book of our choice, I decided to "keep it light."
And that's when I discovered crack. Also known as Sweet Valley Twins.
Who are the Sweet Valley Twins? I'll tell you. The Sweet Valley twins were Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, two girls who were exactly like you with the small exception that they were perfect.
Sure, they went through the normal adolescent girl rites of passage -- first date, first period (although they got their first period about nine times, an unfortunate side affect of being twelve for 30 years), boy troubles, school projects, bank robbery foilings, multiple attempts on their lives. You know, the usual stuff.
But they, unlike you, were totally gorgeous. They had long shiny blonde hair. They represented two different but equally good forms of popularity (ruling by fear and love, respectively). They had a rich best friend who brought them on crazy mystical island adventures.
Their mom was a part-time interior decorator, so she was "empowered." But she was also always baking cookies and shopping for perfect sandwich ingredients. They had a pool, but no one ever had to, like, skim it for bugs and dog hair.
Now, these girls had their share of problems, as described in the mini-series The Evil Twin. The plot is pretty self-explanatory. A girl named Margo -- evil, of course -- becomes completely obsessed with Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield and plots to kill them. And, in a stroke of fatalist genius, she looks exactly like them. (Seems a little crazy, but it has been known to happen.)
So she travels across the country to find them, killing and stealing and shopping for the perfect blonde wig. And she lures Elizabeth Wakefield into an abandoned shed and she has a knife!
Don't worry, she dies.
But actually.....she's not dead and has her own identical twin! Nora, who's even more diabolically genius than her sister. And now they're both going after the twins to kill them!
But don't worry, the twins figure it out.
The worst part about Sweet Valley, though, was that just when you thought a series was getting stale, just when you thought to yourself, "a tenth Christmas? Really?", just when you began to wonder when the hell they were going to use the bathroom, they'd come out with another series.
By this time, of course, they had a series for elementary school, middle school, junior high, high school, and an alternate universe where all they did was play volleyball all day.
Later, they went to the inexplicably world-class Sweet Valley University, which, despite Sweet Valley being a small town, was a good three hour drive away from its namesake.
These girls can't help but mess you up a little, because there's was no way to become their equivalent. Sure, I could dye my hair blonde, but I couldn't star in a movie, save the local youth shelter, and assist a ghost in bringing her killer to justice all in one year. Let alone on "One Crazy Saturday." Let alone that when I was twelve I spent all my time at Claire's Boutique looking for smiley face necklaces.
And now my point, which is that all this inferiority I felt, all the relative mediocrity, and worst, all the non-blonde-ness -- all this was due to the freedom I was given as a second grader to read whatever garbage I wanted.
Is Sweet Valley the root of all my problems? No, Mom and Dad, it's not. But at least after a chapter of Jane Eyre you can look at yourself in the mirror.
And that's why kids should be reading classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Great Expectations. Trust me, you will learn a lot more from Scout's growing racial awareness than from the Sweet Valley Twins' growing suspicion that the new girl at school is an undercover movie star (they were right, by the way).
Bildungsromans teach kids to grow into themselves, to challenge their current beliefs. Try as you might, you can't teach your child to have "long blonde hair, blue-green eyes the exact color of the ocean, and dimples on their left cheeks." Just teach her what she may not have the sense or motivation to know, which is that when you come across three hundred books which include that phrase, do not read it.