My littlest daughter and I just started the 8th book in the Little House on the Prairie series. She loves that series- just as her older sister did. In fact their shared love of Little House led to a useful realization last week.. My mom was in town and had just finished telling us that her book club had read Willa Cather’s My Antonia. I’ve never read My Antonia and have always felt guilty about that. I’d bought a copy a few years back so I grabbed it and I convinced my older daughter to read a bit of it aloud with me- it’s such and important text and the writing is so complex and archaic that I was keen for her to have read at least some of it.
So we started reading. And lo and behold my littlest plopped down too. It’s a very challenging book for an 8 year old to follow but she stuck with it and understood almost all of it. She was helped along by the synergies between it and Little House… she instantly understood allusions to prairie wind and blowing grasses and knew what the sod house some of the characters live was probably like, why the women were wearing bonnets etc. With strong background knowledge and an interest in the topic from reading Little House she was engaged in and able to enjoy a book that might otherwise have been beyond her. And this success following such a complex text prepared her even more difficult texts later on- even if she only reads a bit of My Antonia.
I realized i was adapting the idea of embedded nonfiction and applying it instead to complex fiction. In other words one great way to give kids exposure to and experience with very difficult and archaic texts is to embed them bit of them in an easier text they’re already reading on a similar topic. This would be a great way to bring short doses of very challenging fiction into classrooms and allow students to read them at high levels of engagement (and at low risk to the teacher… committing to 5 pages of risk and challenging fiction from a previous century is very different from committing to the whole book.)
And you could apply this in a hundred ways: When students are reading The Giver you could give them a few pages of 1984 or Brave New World. When they are reading War Horse you could give them a few pages of All Quiet on the Western Front. Reading I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings you could give students a few pages of Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Reading The Pearl you could give them a few pages of The Old Man and the Sea.