Mary Pope Osborne, I hope you’re reading this
Evan McKenna | Thursday, January 23, 2020
If you were to ask my parents to recount any memories they have of my second grade experience, they might have a tough time digging up any stories. Why, you ask? Holding back tears, my mother might explain to you why I went off the grid that year: “When Evan was seven, he locked himself in his room and dedicated his entire being to finishing all 38 entries of Mary Pope Osborne’s ‘Magic Tree House’ series. He disappeared for the entirety of 2007.”
In all seriousness, while my Mary Pope Osborne obsession did not quite drive me to hermitry, it was no question that I was absolutely enamored with books in early elementary school. Wrapped up in the worlds of “Judy Moody,” “The Boxcar Children” and the “Magic Tree House,” I tore through my 90-page novels at breakneck speed. As soon as my eyes scanned across a book’s last lines, I immediately felt compelled to start another — but not before briefly reflecting on the beautiful, poignant story that was “Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus.” I pulled another book from my bright red shelf, returned to my racecar bed, and began to peruse another set of magical pages. Life was simple. I read books — many books — simply because they made me happy.
In the fourth grade, as we walked wide-eyed through the “big kid hallways,” our budding minds reached for higher shelves — the thick spines and lengthy words of the “Harry Potter” series were still daunting but newly conquerable; the sprawling world and mature mythologies of “Percy Jackson” seemed epic and adult; even whispers of the bloody, gritty “Hunger Games” series began to make their way through our English classroom. With this mass influx of new literary options came a new reading incentive: Book Adventure. Akin to Accelerated Reading programs, Book Adventure asked students to take online quizzes on recently-read books, rewarding reading comprehension with points to be exchanged in the website’s gift shop. The fourth grade was floored — this was the future, right in front of our eyes.
But alas, Book Adventure and its shiny virtual prizes corrupted me. While I maintained my love of reading throughout the rest of middle school, no longer was literature exclusively a source of intrinsic enjoyment — with pages came points, and with points came cool new outfits for my online avatar. Books became the means to an end, not an end in itself. Book Adventure was, in fact, an adventure, but one that seemed to value the destination above the journey.
And while my Book Adventure avatar, sadly, did not make the journey to ninth grade with me, high school literature classes fundamentally changed the way I read books with the help of another point system: GPA. As grades became a considerable incentive, books became merely sources of hollow knowledge, collections of plot points to be spouted in the direction of my English teachers in exchange for potential participation points. And as required reading lists grew longer, I rarely found myself reading “for fun.” College was just around the corner — what was the point of engaging in literature that didn’t boost my GPA or bolster my resume?
Today, believe it or not, I’m navigating my sophomore year of college as a newly-declared English major and a recovering Book Adventure addict. I am slowly rediscovering my once-lost intrinsic love for literature, with the help of great professors and great books. My heart hurts, however, for other former bookworms — the children who tore through colorful paperbacks as if their lives depended on it — who aren’t provided a platform to renew their passion for reading. My heart hurts for an educational system that turns literature into intellectual currency, merely a means to an end, and thus turns reading into labor. My heart yearns for the great year of 2007, when reading was fun and Mary Pope Osborne was my mom. Mary, if you’re reading this, I have to know — does the Magic Tree House really exist, and can it take me back to the second grade, when life was simple and your books helped me fall in love with reading?
Thank you in advance for your response.
You can contact Evan at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.