Should Young Readers Be Forced to Read “The Classics”?

When you read, talk about, and immerse yourself in children’s and young adult literature as much as I do, you’re bound to run into an array of thoughts on what makes “good” literature. Some people out there (librarians, teachers, bloggers, and parents alike) believe that young and impressionable readers should only read the “classics” and literary texts. I’m talking about pushers of everything from King Lear and Gone With the Wind, to Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice.  

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that these books are bad or even that they shouldn’t be encouraged. For the most part, I agree with the role of these texts in the classroom. But when it comes to free reading, to the one time when kids can finally chose for themselves,  I think that readers should simply be encouraged to read.

So what if Suzie wants to read a book about prep school girls, or if Thomas wants to read the latest skating graphic novel? Who cares if Heather enjoys the popular weekly magazine, or if Jordan inhales detective mysteries? If they’re excited about reading, why should it matter that the literary value (whatever that actually is!) is not up to some elitist standard? 

Afterall, shouldn’t we encourage children to read what excites them? Shouldn’t we foster a love for reading? We should be pushing young readers to try new genres, to explore a variety of authors. To use their imaginations to build worlds in their minds.  Not stunting their comfort in reading through literary texts that might not be relatable to them yet. 

All that should matter is that these kids are in fact reading!  Whether it’s a magazine, a nonfiction biography, a chick-lit series, or a graphic novel, all reading should be seen as productive reading!  

*What do you think? Should children be encouraged (or forced) to read only certain types of books?*

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21 comments on “Should Young Readers Be Forced to Read “The Classics”?

  1. StuckInBooks on said:

    I would say not at first. If you foster a love of reading the classics will come.

  2. moirae book reviews on said:

    I say no. As an avid reader myself, I find a lot of the classics boring. For me the only classics I enjoy are Dickens and Bram Stoker.

    I find Austen the the Bronte sisters to be very odious, but that is just me.

    I think if a child is forced to read something they hate, it could make them not want to read at all.

    In my English class in HS, I was the only one who enjoyed “Catcher in the Rye”. I read it in a day, I love that book. Most people I know hate it.

  3. Kelly Andrews (@kellyandrewsPA) on said:

    I think there’s a false choice in there. ONLY the classics? Why, no. Some of the classics? Yes. It’s good to try to understand other voices, times, and stories outside one’s experience, comfort, and preference. If readers only read what “speaks” directly to them, they’re missing out.

  4. I grew up reading more of the Classics than I did books marketed towards children. I am in no way bragging–I definitely understand them a lot better now that I’m older–but I enjoyed quite a few of them as a child. My mom didn’t “force” me to read them in any way. She just made them available. If I wanted to read Shakespeare, I could take the plays down from her shelf. If I preferred Shel Silverstein, that was fine too. I think her approach was far more encouraging than a lot of my teachers’ methods, so I agree with what you said about simply encouraging reading in all forms.

  5. I agree. Who cares if kids prefer to read chick lit / comics, etc? We should be happy they are reading!

    I also agree that classics are great. I even love some classics, like Jane Eyre, for example. But why force children to read them? I hated to read classics at school…I don’t think it’s the right age to enjoy them or understand them, or at least not every kid / teen is interested in them.

    But I can’t complain a lot because I also had great teachers, who made me read books as Harry Potter ;)

  6. Marg @ Clockwork Reverie on said:

    I agree with what others before me have stated. I definitely think that the classics should be introduced to young readers (preferably in high school when they are better suited to understand them), but they should not be forced to read them. Forcing children to read books they are bored by or are not capable of comprehending just ends ups turning them off of reading. I think the best thing for teachers and parents to do is mix it up–expose children to a variety of categories and genres of books by presenting them with choices instead of requirements.

  7. Danica Page on said:

    I am an English major and as such love the classics. I devoured them in my earlier years.

    However, in children’s free time I don’t think we should force them to read classics. If they like graphic comic books or teen prep books that’s great. It’s important for people to read a wide variety of books.

    But I do think it is important that children are introduced to the classics, especially in the classroom. Many students don’t realize they enjoy these books until instructed to read them for a class and then say they wish they had read more classics.

    I think encouraging children to read classics is good, but if they don’t like them then don’t fore the issue.

    But that’s just my thoughts!

  8. Alexis @ Reflections of a Bookaholic on said:

    I think students should be encouraged to read all kinds of books.

    However, I think certain books lend itself to teaching literary elements and the such. While you can find something important in all books. Some books have A LOT of great teaching moments in them.

    However, I think there are more relevant books than the classics that could get this done. Students may not want to read those either but there are better.

    As a compromise, I don’t think students should be forced to read only classics. Maybe there can be more options.

  9. sheryl Sarnak on said:

    I think that the Classics should be read… perhaps the school environment is the best place for them to be read, where discussion and conversation can expose children to a high standard of what good literature looks like. Many classics may be lost on the reader without the guidance of a teacher or librarian. Reading for pleasure should be encouraged, but generation text should be exposed to classics, which are classic for a reason.

  10. I think free reading should be free, but I am all for classics being assigned reading or even bedtime family reading. Where the Red Fern Grows is one of my daughter’s favorite books and was a bedtime book for us.

  11. Donna Hole on said:

    What makes a classic anyway? Is it a book that is over so many years old? Or is it something depicts the culture of a specific era so completely it stands the test of time? Look what’s happening to the classic Tom Sawyer and other novels that are not politically correct by today’s standards but were excellent depictions of of a rich southern culture at the time it was written.

    Who knows which of today’s books will become classics to future generations, but because they were written now, in the modern era, our children are not encouraged to read them.

    I have a variety of books on my shelves for my children to read. I encourage them to pick up any one and see if they like it. If they find books they enjoy through school or public libraries, I buy it for our shelves at home.

    I don’t believe children should be forced to read anything – except for class assignments. Stretching a child’s awareness of the larger world (both past and present) is good for them.


  12. loves to dive on said:

    I grew up reading the classics, I don’t think I was forced to do so. They were just what was available in the house so I read them. I would go to the library and get my fix of Nancy Drew or whatever the popular young adult fiction was at the time as well. I started reading very young and have not put books down since then. My son also has a love of reading and I think that is because I read to him before he could read and always encouraged him to read, whatever he wanted was fine with me.

  13. Beverly @ The Wormhole on said:

    I have started a reading club at the high school where I work and I encourage the students to read EVERYTHING! Read ANYTHING! The love of reading isn’t something that children are born with, it has to be cultivated and to do that they must first LOVE stories! If they can learn to love stories, most will learn to enjoy reading. To get them to LOVE to read they must be offered the opportunity to read whatever they want to. I think the classics are fine, but really – who decides what is classic and what is not? I don’t love every book that has been deemed a classic, but I truly love to read. I think that as society changes, children need to be exposed to all types of literature, but forcing someone to read a specific book – no matter what book it is – during free reading is counterproductive to the overall goal of life long readers.

  14. Keturah Ollie-Hayes on said:

    I think children should be able to read whatever they like. Of course, there are books that aren’t child-proofed, but if a child wants to read a comic book and a person continually tries to force them to read a certain type of book, they might forever associate reading and books with the forceful teacher/parent.

  15. Jane Isfeld Still on said:

    I love most of the classics and want my granchildren to love them too. So-o-o I read them to them. I try to help them find books they enjoy and then I gather them around and read to them. We are currently reading Tom Sawyer. The original, not a watered down chapter book for their 9 and 10 ages that can be found in the library.
    They love it. We stop and discuss the old slang, the history of the time, slavery etc. I think that by reading this way they will embrace the books later. Worked for Little House on the Prairie Series. (That and the fact that when they finish reading one of the books we have a Little House on the Prairie type dinner like stew, chicken noodle soup, bisquets or cornbread and apple pie for dessert. Served of course by oil lamp. :)

  16. christa @ mental foodie on said:

    I love to read, but I hardly liked any of the books the teachers chose back in school… classic or literature or whatever. So I think kids should just be encouraged to read what they like, and once they have developed an interest, they can expand to other genre.

  17. I agree with you. So many children get discouraged because they’re forced to read something that doesn’t interest them, or because they’re forced to read above their level. Isn’t it better to just let them read and learn that way?

    To be honest, I’ve mostly found school English lit to be a useless subject, because every book means different things to every reader. I’d just give it a reading hour and let kids read what they want. They’ll learn much more that way than just struggling to grasp the so-called intentions of writers that died years ago…

  18. I totally agree… obivously the classics should be read in school, however I would like to see a larger range of classics and modern texts! But in their spare time, kids should just be allowed to read their own choices. I know so many people who hate reading because it reminds them of being forced to read the classics and its really sad!

  19. Genna Sarnak on said:

    Wow, what great comments! Thanks everyone for adding your two cents. It’s very interesting to hear all the varying opinions!

    Funnily enough, I found a bookmark yesterday that has a quote from William Faulkner that says, “Read, read, read. Read everything–trash, classics, good and bad–Read!”

    @StuckInBooks–I agree with you 100%: if you can build a positive relationship with reading, the classics will follow in due time!

    @Moirae–I love Catcher in the Rye, it’s truly one of my favorite books ever, but I’ll admit, I missed that Holden’s in an asylum the first time I read it. There is a certain amount of adult experience that adds to the reading experience with that title. For me, classics tend to bore me as well. To each their own, I suppose!

    @Kelly–Good point, Kelly. I think it should be up to the reader to decide what they’d like to read, though. If you think back to when you were a young, fostering reader, I think you’ll remember wanting to read certain titles because they appealed to your interests and reading levels. I don’t think any certain type of title should be forced, “classics” or “non-classics” alike! With the abundance of books for young readers nowadays, I think there are plenty of diverse voices, stories, and lessons to be learned.

    @Angel–That’s great, Angel. I think the key to what you said is that your mom made those books available to you (not forced you!). The distinction is huge and very important. The approach of encouraging reading in any form seems more productive to me.

    @Gaby–Thanks for the comments, Gaby. Yes, I agree with you that classics can offer a lot, but then again, so can comics! You’re lucky that you had great teachers and I only hope that others can take from that and encourage kids to foster a positive love and enjoyment of books and reading.

    @Marg–A mix up is a great compromise between reading only one type of book over the other. I agree that the key is presenting these young readers with choices and giving them the authority over their own reading pleasures.

    @Danica–I was also an English Major, Danica! I’ll agree that classics can play a role in the classroom, but I was more referring to “Free time” or “Independent” reading, where kids have the ability to choose their own books. Encouraging all kinds of books is certainly important, though, so if someone picks a classic, then by all means, I’d encourage them to enjoy it! Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us! :)

    @Alexis–I agree with you that there are sometimes more “teachable” moments evident in the classics than in “modern” stories, but I’m not sure what you mean by “better”? Better in the sense of teaching morals and values? Or better in terms of literary styles? I don’t think students should be forced to read anything in their own free time. The classics can good teaching tools, but forcing them on kids with the sentiment that they’re “better” than other options could be problematic, don’t you think?

    @Sheryl–Good point about classics being lost on readers without guidance from teachers. I can personally think of quite a few examples (namely Shakespeare) where I would have missed half of the jokes and puns had it not been for a thorough explanation. While I agree that they should be read at some point, perhaps the classroom is the place for them, unless, of course, the reader wants to read them on their own time!

    @Budd–Totally with you on that one! Aw, I love that book and it’s so awesome that it’s one of your daughter’s favorites!

    @Donna–Well said, Donna! I guess what I was thinking of as classics would be anything that Penguin has in their classic collection! LoL. No, but seriously, it’s a great question and it’s worthwhile to explore that in the course of this discussion. I am also totally against the “updating” of classic texts (like in the case of Tom Sawyer) as it completely ruins and destroys them. I love your philosophy of allowing children to pick up anything from your shelves. Children have the most uninhibited imaginations and we shouldn’t stunt them or limit them to only literary classics!

    @Loves to dive–I think you have the right frame of mind! Making everything available to children is what’s key. Thanks for sharing!

    @Beverly–Great point, Beverly! A love for reading absolutely needs to be nurtured and cultivated! Also, what an awesome idea to start a reading club at your high school. I would have loved something like that when I was a student! I totally agree with everything that you said!

    @Keturah-What you said is very true. Forcing children to read books that they don’t enjoy will often backfire and cause a hate for reading, rather than a love!

    @Jane–You make a good point, Jane. There are some historical teaching opportunities with the classics that don’t exist with the modern novels now available to young readers. It’s so great that your grandchildren love them too! It seems like it’s a great environment to introduce them to the world of reading. But maybe the point is that on their own, if they were reading these books on their own, that they would miss and completely pass over all those historical importances and meanings that you’re bringing to the table. Does that make sense? I think these classics are great in certain settings, but when it comes to free reading, they shouldn’t be the only choice.

    @Christa–Well said indeed! If you build it, they will come, right? ;)

    @Misha–Exactly my point! Interesting point you raise about English classes. I distinctly remember hating 80% of the books chosen by my teachers in these classes, even though I’ve always loved to read and explore new worlds. For some reason, though, forcing a child to read a book that they really don’t want to may make them hate reading, AND it can ruin their entire understanding of that book. For example, my 8th grade teacher totally ruined To Kill a Mockingbird for me because I really didn’t like her teaching style. It was truly a shame!

    @Raimy–I agree! The wider the range, the more chance the books have at really touching and changing these kids lives! It really is sad that the forcing of classics has ruined many readers feelings towards literature in general!

    Thanks again everyone! Keep the love of reading alive! :)

  20. I think that especially when children are young it’s great just to encourage them to read. But I think that kids who do love to read should be challenged to try something that they wouldn’t have picked out themselves. While I didn’t exactly love every book I read in middle school and high school, I’m glad that some teachers pushed certain books to me. I actually enjoyed reading Great Expectations and Lord of the Flies, and never in a million years – to this day- would I have picked that out on my own!

  21. Kris (Words That Fly) on said:

    I don’t think children should be forced to read any particular books because they’ll only remember being forced, they might not develop any positive feelings towards it. I think parents, teachers, etc. should encourage children to read, to explore, and to even make recommendations but they should let a love develop naturally not push it.

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