Thursday, April 16, 2015

Navigating the World of Teen Reading

Honey for a Teen's Heart Review @ Mt. Hope Chronicles

My history with Honey for a Child's Heart goes all the way back to second grade. My teacher shared the resource with my mom, and it became my mom’s go-to book when searching for good literature selections for us girls all through our childhood. I purchased my own copy (an updated edition) eight years ago. It is still one of my favorite resources when I need to be encouraged and inspired to share good books with my children.

I purchased Honey for a Woman's Heart: Growing Your World through Reading Great Books the same year. It has a different format from Honey for a Child’s Heart. Rather than sharing her own list of recommended books and authors, Gladys Hunt asked other women to share their favorites, and the recommendations are sprinkled throughout the book as Hunt inspires us to read widely. This book reminds me why I love my ChocLit Guild book club so dearly. There is nothing like reading in community with friends who are also lovers of the written word!

Having read both the child’s and woman’s editions, I had been putting off purchasing Honey for a Teen's Heart, not knowing how much it would add to the conversation about books. But a funny thing happened this past year: I became the parent of a teen. And because my newly-minted teen has now been a voracious reader of chapter books for more than six years, he has read an insane number of the good books available and appropriate for children AND he is capable of reading challenging books.

Teen-hood is a time to start branching out a bit. Rather than sticking with “safe” books, I want Levi to start reading books with more challenging ideas and learning to think and discern and discuss. But that also doesn’t mean I want him to walk into the young adult section of the library and sit down to the buffet without any parental guidance.

As it turns out, I have no idea where to go from here and I need guidance in order to practice good parental guidance! I know some classics such as Dickens, Hugo, Austen, and Dumas. But I also know that Levi’s reading needs to be wider and more varied than classics and than my own teen reading. It certainly doesn’t help me any that Levi’s genre of choice is fantasy, which is not, by any stretch of the imagination, my forte.

So I purchased Honey for a Teen’s Heart, hoping that it would give me inspiration as well as tools to help me facilitate a rich reading experience for Levi.

It’s perfect in every way.

The author ties together all of the ideas that have been floating around in my brain this past year—about parenting teens, choosing good literature, reading stories, asking questions, and learning in the dialectic stage.

I would like to review this one in depth for those of you as curious about the contents as I was.

In the first chapter, Hunt again shares the benefits and wonders of reading and sharing life through books, but she also gives great parenting wisdom and insight into teens and the culture that surrounds us.

“Adolescents coming into their teenage years send out two conflicting messages: (1) ‘Leave me alone and I’ll make my own decisions,’ and (2) ‘Please help me; I feel very vulnerable.’ Which message will you listen to?”

In the second chapter, Hunt talks briefly about imagination and the screens and electronics that compete for our teens’ attention before moving on to what makes a good book in chapter three.

“Fiction is not untrue just because it is called fiction. Good fiction contains truth. It is not the Truth, but it serves as a signpost to the Truth, to the reality of God, and of our need for redemption.”

“The story may take us on adventures or introduce us to people not remotely related to our lives. Nevertheless, because people are the same on the inside and have to make the same kind of choices, the story teaches us truth, both about the differences in God’s created world and the commonalities of human experience. Good fiction does not always have a happy ending, but it always shows possibilities of how to act or resolve the conflict. It ends with hope, with some possible good in sight, some redeeming vision.”

“A story of despair is different from a tragedy. Some facet of human values, some meaning is always present in the great tragedies of literature…And, in contrast to the literature of despair, people in tragedies are ‘choosers,’ not hapless victims.”

And she quotes Katherine Paterson:

“Hope is a yearning, rooted in reality, that pulls us toward the radical biblical vision of a world where truth and justice and peace do prevail, a time in which the knowledge of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea, a scene which finds humanity…walking together by the light of God’s glory. Now there’s a happy ending for you. The only purely happy ending I know of.”

She ties in what we’ve been talking about the past few months with The Lost Tools of Writing:

“Good fiction can’t help having an ethical dimension. Everything we do means something. Fiction should teach us on many levels. At least it should help us evaluate truth in the context of life.”

And she speaks out against poorly-written “safe” books.

“[L]iterature…should be unconsciously, rather than deliberately and defiantly, Christian…Too often the Christian worldview is packaged as propaganda, rather than a well-written story that engages the mind and asks questions rather than giving answers. Sometimes our standards are not high enough; we are content with books that don’t say anything really important but seem safe.”

Chapter four covers how to use books to talk about values and touches on the concept we cover with Deconstructing Penguins and Teaching the Classics—there is a mystery in every book, the hidden ideas that the author is trying to convey.

“The story demands a question. As more complex novels and stories are read, the reading demands a question so that it can make sense…You have the enjoyment of a good story, plus the inner delight of understanding what it is about…No one will really be a good reader without learning how to ask questions about what has been read. A young person may read the words flawlessly, but reading is getting the meaning behind the words. It is not so much learning to read as it is learning to think.”


“A book is a story about someone else. If it is a good book it gives perspective on what life is all about, about ways to act, ways to think, choices to make. What we are looking for is the ability to ask questions about what we read to discover what is true.”

Hunt follows this with specific questions to ask of the story that fall under three categories: let the story answer questions, question the story with your theology or belief system, and question the writing style of the book.

“A story tells the truth when we understand that this is the way things may happen, when it exposes the consequences of choices. It tells a greater truth when it gives us new insights into why things happen that way and shows us what we may have believed to be vaguely true but had never put into words. Then the story qualifies as great literature and helps us clarify and interpret life.”

Censoring books is the next topic, and I think this is an important one.

“No book will hurt you if you know how to evaluate it and have developed a principled and moral life view. If teens lack the principles to protect themselves, then no rules can keep them safe, because there is too much “out there” with destructive potential. Rules like ‘Don’t read that; don’t go there; don’t do that’—are never as effective in guarding life as an inner decision to choose what is good. In the end, the only discipline that really works is self-discipline.”

A reader also needs to be willing to see layers in a story.

“Many well-intentioned people want to protect their children by giving them only books in which the message is flatly and firmly evident…In good writing, the morality of a story is not laid on top of the narrative; it is woven into the fabric of the story so that whatever is true comes out of the characters’ actions and the plot of the story. In a fallen world, people are mixtures of good and evil, not one or the other, and the plot of any story should reveal this complexity.”

Chapter five briefly covers profanity and crude speech in books.

Chapter six is my most favorite chapter of all, alone worth the price of the book. Hunt discusses building a Christian world/life view in the context of literature. This is what was missing in my other resources (though Center for Lit does publish a Worldview Detective curriculum that looks fantastic). We know how to plot the elements of a story and discover a theme. We know how to ask questions about a character’s actions. But I have no experience with or talent for asking the right questions about a book’s worldview, nor am I well-versed in the different worldview possibilities. Hunt covers it all in this comprehensive chapter.

On a “Christian Veneer” and the difference between indoctrination and life-building:

“[B]uilding a life is different from being indoctrinated. Indoctrination is instruction in the fundamentals of a certain point of view. It does not necessarily mean learning how to think or even how to act. Instead it may mean conforming to a standard. What happens on the outside is not necessarily what is happening on the inside…Smugness is one of the ugly fruits of indoctrination.”

“[The Pharisees] didn’t like questions; they already had all the answers. Nor were they seeking truth; they lived by their traditions. When Jesus asked questions about their beliefs, they ran him out of town.”

“Truth is strengthened, not weakened, by asking questions about it.”

The author begins in Genesis and shares ideas and questions for discussion. She also gives seven specific questions that a worldview should answer before summarizing seven popular worldviews including Deism, Existentialism, and Nihilism and listing examples of books with those worldviews. This is a meaty section of the book, and worthy reading.

Hunt spends a full chapter (seven) on the topic of fantasy, which I obviously appreciate. She quotes Susan Cooper:

“There are no longer any sacred festivals in the American calendar, religious or otherwise; there are only celebrations of commerce. We don’t have heroes; we have celebrities.”

And more…

“Imagination is one of the chief glories of being created human, in the image of God. No other created being can imagine things that can’t be seen and then make connections between what is visible and what is invisible. For Christians, whose most important investment is in the invisible, the imagination is of greatest importance.”

“Good writers define reality; bad ones merely restate it. A good writer writes what he believes to be true; a bad writer puts down what he believes that his readers should believe to be true. Good writers write about the eternal questions; inferior writers deny the eternal.”

Hunt doesn’t stop there. Chapter eight covers how to read the Bible with teens, beginning with helping them to see the overall structure of the Bible.

In chapter nine, she briefly introduces readers to various genres of books and shares a small handful of her favorites in each category, expanding a bit on the category of Poetry.

Chapter ten addresses the college-bound teen. Hunt includes a list of twenty important books that should be in a teen’s “reservoir” and make an ideal starting place for a “catch-up” list. Cultural literacy plays a big part in a student’s ability to understand what he or she reads.

“In urging teens to read books, it is not that books are so important that they must read them. It is rather because they are so important that they must read them, because we want to make their lives as rich as possible.”

The second half of the book contains the book lists. I am thrilled that the author has labeled each book to indicate the age for which it is intended (early teens, mid teens, late teens, and all ages). There is a huge difference between thirteen year olds and eighteen year olds, so I’m grateful that she has made those distinctions.

There are four hundred books listed with full paragraph+ descriptions and notes of recommendation (including themes, questions to ask, and worldview comments). The lists are divided into genres of adventure and suspense, contemporary, fantasy, historical, mystery, nonfiction, science fiction, sports, and “tried and true” (classics and modern classics).

Longer author reviews are sprinkled throughout the annotations. Hunt has chosen significant authors that readers are less likely to be familiar with and gives us more extensive information about their lives, books, and worldviews.

The book ends with a chapter listing a few books by theme for quick reference (romance, geographical region, racial issues, laughter, death and grief, when life isn’t perfect, and more). The back of the book contains a glossary of literary and worldview terms as well as an index for both authors and book titles for easy reference.

I don’t know what more I could have asked for. I’ve already purchased several books on her list, many of which I was not familiar with, which surprised and excited me.

Five stars.


Sarah said...

Thank you so much for this review. Our oldest son is almost nine & a voracious reader. He's currently devouring the Redwall series. So thankful to know this resource is available for down the road. What a gift for us parents as we disciple the next generation of Christ followers in this age of screens.
Will put it on my wish list for sure! ;-)

Unknown said...

I loved hearing that your connection with Honey for a Child's Heart goes so far back!

I only stumbled across the riches and wisdom of Gladys Hunt a few years ago, but so many of her phrases have become touchstones for me:

"If you must make a fresh decision each day whether you will read the Scriptures and when you will read them, the Bible will probably not be read very often."

I love what you shared about her opinion of censoring and of weak "Christian fiction."

"Building a life is different from being indoctrinated."

Thanks for this review, Heidi!

Mahers Hill Academy said...

Oh, wow, this looks fabulous - thanks for this thorough review! I have an almost 13 year old, so I will be buying this soon!

Cy Fischer said...

I've never heard of these books before! On my way online to buy the kids' one.