Young Readers Day at Emery Elementary School

Young Readers Day at Emery Elementary School

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation.

We had some fun yesterday here in DC. A couple of us from XM were invited over to Emery Elementary school by the principal, Mr Taylor, for Young Readers Day. I’ve done this sort of thing before and it’s always a blast for me, and hopefully fun for the kids. The children I’ve read to in the past were really little ones — like 6 and 7 year olds — easily impressed. This time, I got assigned a class of 6th grade girls. Instantly, I plunged into panic mode. I remember — barely — being a 6th grade girl. At the age of I guess about 11, we had  just perfected the art of eye rolling and began to understand the true depth of the uncoolness of anyone who was not in fact a 6th grade girl. These kids were going to eat me alive.

Fortunately, my panic was for nothing. The class was full of graceful, well mannered, highly intelligent supermodels. I am not kidding. First of all, kids are twice as tall these days. I think it’s in the milk. They are either really grown up or I am just really elderly. Must be the first. Also, they are startlingly bright and self possessed. We went around the room and talked about what they wanted to be when they grew up — we had caterers, pediatricians, a brain surgeon — when I was that age, I think I wanted to be a pony. We read a book about an apprentice shaman in the Amazon, written by Mark Plotkin, which was in fact a children’s version of his work as an ethnobotanist. Were the girls hip to ethnobotany? Oh, you better believe it. They wanted to know if they could find all those interesting plants locally. I thought about the law suits and advised against boiling and drinking what they found in the backyard.

At any rate, if these young ladies from Emery are the future of this country, we have nothing to worry about. They could run it now.

We talked about my job — this job — reading and writing about books. I was asked, “What makes a good book?” I gave a sort of lame answer about what I like to read, but that doesn’t really answer the question. I have to say I was really hard put to come up with a quick answer, but I’ve been giving it a lot of thought.

So, what does make a good book? In a world where there’s room for Danielle Steele and James Joyce, clearly a good book has got to be a lot of different things. I can only answer for myself, your mileage, as they say, may vary. The first thing I look for is characters I want to spend some time with. I don’t have to fall in love with every single one — some of the most memorable characters are downright dastardly. I know I’m not the only one with a little ‘thing’ for Professor Snape.  Then, take me places I’ve never been. The best books I’ve read recently took me to Alaska and Bangkok. I’ve always favored richly textured characters and elaborate settings over whiz bang plots, but plenty of fans of Clive Cussler and Dan Brown would disagree. A good book can be grounded in the most mundane reality, but told in a way that makes you look at that world in a new way, or it can be made up wholly and make you believe it. So I guess that would have to be my answer, delivered a few days late to the young ladies currently of Emery Elementary School, soon to conquer the world.  That’s the main job of a good book — to make you believe it.

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation on Take Five, XM 155. Want to talk about books? Email me at Kim dot Alexander at