Superman comic books may not generally be considered advanced literary material, but the childhood hours I spent reading them did help me do well on my SATs. While I didn’t read the comics for vocabulary lessons, years later the spurious documents that one criminal used served me admirably when I needed to pick the correct multiple choice synonym for that word.
This recently came to mind when I was shown an original Nancy Drew volume and one of the newer Nancy Drew: Girl Detective books. The “titian-haired girl” had transformed into a “strawberry blond,” she no longer “chafed at delays” and the sentence structure and plot were watered down. Even worse, her personality, character and intelligence had reverted to the median. Instead of Nancy Drew, role model, she had turned into Nancy Drew, one of today’s crowd.
How unfortunate. A story is told about one of the great 20th century rabbis and one of my husband’s teachers, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky, whose portrait hangs in the entrance hallway to our home. He was visiting a pre-school and noticed that there were mezuzot (scrolls with specific Biblical verses written on them) on the doorposts, in accordance with Deuteronomy 6:9. However, they were placed lower than mandated. When he asked why, the teachers responded that they were low so that they would be accessible from the children’s heights. The rabbi commented, “What we must do is put a stepstool in order for the children to reach higher — to the proper level of the mezuzah (singular)! Raise the child at an early age to reach the height of the mitzvah (commandment), instead of lowering the mitzvah to the child!”
I am certainly not comparing Nancy Drew to the mitzvah of affixing a mezuzah to one’s doorposts. But I do believe in parents strongly supervising what their children read. Rather than thinking, “Well, at least they’re reading,” my husband and I were acutely aware that what our children were reading would help form their characters, attitudes and intelligence. While we didn’t always manage to apply the supervision we knew was needed (our children were voracious readers), our goal was for everything they read to make them greater, not lesser people. That didn’t mean filling our home with uninteresting, pious tracts. It did mean hands-on library visits, occasionally not allowing a popular book or series into our home, and a great deal of children’s literature on our own bedside tables. It frequently meant using the books the children were reading, or that we read aloud as a family, as a launching pad for discussion.
I discovered the changes in the Nancy Drew series because one of my daughters showed me her ‘rejection’ pile after her children’s visit to the library. Her family’s shelves are filled with many of the books that she and her siblings loved as well as more recently written ones that she has discovered. There is little that can fill a grandmother’s heart with as much joy as knowing that her children are making sure that their own children reject the spurious values and prevalent trends surrounding them, for a greater goal than SAT scores.