Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on the balance of presenting big ideas to young readers through literature:
"I've recently been pondering the books that many 9th graders read and whether or not it's wise for them to read them. I vacillate back and forth between believing it serves a valuable purpose that they read books which are filled with complicated, consequential, and important ideas so they're introduced to the ideas that matter most and believing they're reading and comprehension skills, to say nothing of their maturity, are not sufficient to actually provide them the ability to appreciate those important ideas. Although I wander between those standpoints I've never felt confident in either.
I think of books like Animal Farm by George Orwell or his darker work 1984. I think about The Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I especially think about a book like Night by Elie Wiesel and wonder what good is being served by having a 14-year old read it, if they fulfill the assignment to read it at all. These are very mature books that deal with some very mature ideas. Most importantly, they include ideas which require a significant amount of context and established knowledge to fully comprehend. Ideas like totalitarianism, communism, atavism, and atheism don't exist in a vacuum and if students don't have some kind of a grasp on these ideas what are they actually gleaning from reading books that have such advanced ideas? Will a 9th grader really be able to appreciate the nuances of Snowball's and Napoleon's machinations?
On the other hand, how can a student ever become familiar with important ideas unless they're exposed to them? I would feel comfortable with a 9th grader reading a book like To Kill a Mockingbird, which deals with some very sensitive issues of race and justice. Is not part of an education being challenged and thinking critically about the ideas that matter most? What better way to accomplish this than through some of our most revered works of literature? With a guide, the teacher, to express the details of those important ideas a student can come to be conscious of and grasp on a higher intellectual level those critical ideas. Is this not exactly the purpose of a 9th grader or even younger students, middle schoolers, reading pretty heady and emotional books like The Giver by Lois Lowry?
And perhaps that's where my lack of belief becomes apparent. I don't trust the guides, the teachers, all that much. Furthermore, I don't trust that students, even seniors in high school, have the reading comprehension skills to understand anything much more complicated than the most basic young adult fiction. No doubt some of my cynicism toward public education is bleeding through here, but I worry that not only are students not learning the important lessons from these important books but I'm especially afraid they're learning the wrong lessons. At the end of the day, however, when it comes to presenting young minds with big ideas through literature, I'm willing to be persuaded in either direction."