A Southern California Story

I just lent most of my young-adult novels to a very-grateful twelve-year-old named Maralida.

Maralida showed up at my house at 7 am, because she was visiting her aunt, who cleans my house twice a month. Her aunt works long hours so she starts early in the morning. I didn’t ask why Maralida wasn’t in school. It didn’t seem like any of my business. Instead, I just gave her a pile of books she might like to read while her aunt scrubbed the mold from my bathtub. Maralida started reading Pippi Longstocking and grew so absorbed that she was ignoring all the other family-morning stuff all around her, including Sophie dancing a jig at her feet. She sweetly stopped to tie Sophie’s shoes for her, then went back to full absorption in the novel. Maralida looked up once to say, quietly, “Can I borrow this book if I don’t finish it today? My uncle can bring it back to you.”

So I loaned her some more books. Mostly, my YA collection is classics that I pick up at my neighbor’s garage sales. Charlotte’s Web; Phantom Tollbooth; Little House on the Prairie; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. There’s only a couple newer ones in the mix — Love that Dog and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (thanks to a fabulous former student who is an editor at Henry Holt books) — but mostly my YA shelf is filled with whatever I see for sale for fifty cents and know that Sophie will eventually want to read. I told Maralida that I knew she’d probably already read many of these, but she looked at me with her huge eyes and said, “No. I haven’t read any of these.”

It broke my heart. What do kids like Maralida read?

I’m afraid that the schools of Southern California tend to assign textbooks, not books. Kids get some short-stories & poems, and they get lots of practice answering multiple-choice test questions about literature, but I think that they don’t get the experience of being absorbed in the alternate world of a novel, diving in deeply for a long time, that is, to me, the strongest feeling of childhood.
Maralida’s family values education, but they are from a tiny village in southern Mexico, the kind of place where they had to walk 20 minutes just to get water, so I’m not sure they know how to navigate the U.S. school-system. Last month, Rosa, my housecleaner asked me, “What does it mean to get an F on a report-card?” A heartbreaking question for someone to have to wait to ask her twice-a-month employer. The month before that, Rosa told me that the police had shot her upstairs-neighbor, so now her kids were scared to sleep. Rosa is one of the smartest people I know. Her kids are fabulous, too (they’re not the ones getting the Fs), but her nieces & nephews are struggling, and all I know how to do (other than encouraging Rosa to report abusive police, and helping Rosa with educational questions), really all I know how to do is to lend these kids young adult novels.
As if Little House on the Prairie may help. But how can you grow up without it, without any of the classics of English-language literature?

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