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Kids need to read more than the internet for self-reflection, author says

An author who embedded himself in several classrooms over a year says kids are missing something when they read only their screens and not printed pages.

New Yorker writer David Denby embedded himself in public schools to see what kids are reading

Author David Denby says just because kids are reading more words online it doesn't mean they're getting the benefits of reading books. (Pressmaster/Shutterstock)

The kids aren't all right when it comes to reading, a speaker at this year's Vancouver Writers Festival says.

New Yorker staff writer and former film critic David Denby's latest book, Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. 24 Books That Can Change Lives, explores whether or not screen-obsessed teenagers can be turned on to serious reading.

Denby spent a year embedded in one Manhattan school and become a frequent visitor to two others in Connecticut and one in New York's Westchester County.

Denby told On The Coast host Stephen Quinn about his experiences in an interview before addressing the festival Wednesday.

Why did you want to embed yourself in these schools?

I was obsessed with what kids are reading in school. It's very hard to get statistics and reading lists. So I found a school in Manhattan and spent an entire year in one section of tenth grade, reasoning that 15 year olds were engaged in those sort of basic identity questions.

[It was] a public school, competitive entry. Not at the top rung of Manhattan schools, but maybe one rung down. Mixed ethnically and [in] family income.

Tell me about Sean Leon, the teacher you met at that school.

He gives them a challenging reading list. They read stories by Hawthorne, Faulkner. We read the dystopian classics by Huxley and Orwell. They read books that posed the largest sort of questions. Who are you? How are you going to live your life? What are you going to live for?

He would ask them to yield up some part of themselves personally, to discuss their own lives. It didn't stay strictly on the plane of story, narrative, structure, metaphor and so on. The kids loved it.

New Yorker staff writer and former film critic David Denby’s latest book is Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. 24 Books That Can Change Lives. (CBC)

Tell me about the second school, James Hillhouse High School in New Haven. What was Jessica Zalenski's classroom like?

Totally different school population. Largely poor African-American students in a depressed, post-industrial American city. Most of the students, for the record, were terribly nice, but they didn't see the point of reading. So she sort of had to pull them into it.

We read To Kill A Mockingbird in class and analyzed passages. She got them to see and talk about how people lived in the South and then to apply that to their own lives. Poor kids are often extremely knowledgeable about their own neighbourhoods and family, but have very little information about the social forces outside their immediate neighbourhood that are shaping their lives.

By the end of the year, they were much better. They read Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone, and then Ishmael Beah showed up, miraculously, at the end of the year to do a talk, and a lot of them could see writing something and making sense of your own life could be a wonderful thing to do.

You've said that with the web and mobile devices and so on, kids are reading more words than they even have and yet the idea of tackling a serious book is daunting for them.

They're reading fragments of things on the Internet — pieces of articles, pieces of fiction. There's no center anymore, what is fact and what isn't. It's not educational, a lot of the reading kids do.

So I'm really arguing that you learn about something, especially about yourself, when you sit down and read a novel or a biography or a historical work.

It's a self-reflective experience. You're not just going out of yourself, you're going inside.

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview, click the audio labelled: Kids need to read more than the internet for self-reflection, author says