I Know What You Did in Middle School

When I got home from work on Friday, on my coffee table were two paperbacks. Like most orphaned books that end up thrown around the living room of our house, these (I figured) were from the kids. But their covers…surprised me. I opened them up, saw the middle school's name stamped in the back, and figured they were part of the "personal reading" or whatever the name of the program the school runs, where you are told to select a book, any book, from the book bins, and read it over the week, then bring it back and take the next one.

The books? I Know What You Did Last Summer, and (maybe?) Summer of Fear (another novel by Lois Duncan).

Well.

I mean, I let Diana read pretty much anything she wants (though not watch anything she wants; somehow movies feel more perilous than books). Sure, I hid America: the Book a few times when it was briefly her 9-year-old obsession, but I didn't ban it exactly. I just made it…harder to find. A writer friend of mine made a convincing case to me that having full, unchecked access to his parents' library had been the great joy, comfort, and inspiration of his childhood, so I let them have their pick (though there was a period of banning the Metro section of the New York Times early on, because that's going to scar anyone's psyche).

But these? It's not that I would ban these books, it's more that I felt weird about having her bringing it home from school. Of having her maybe think it's the same as, say, Animal Farm.

I'd heard about I Know What You Did Last Summer, but more about the movie than about the book (subsequent investigation, [ie: reading Wikipedia] reveals that they are very far apart, with the exception of the characters' names and a bit of death). It made me….uncomfortable to see my 11-year-old bringing it home from school. So what's a mother to do? Well, I read it.

It didn't take long. There were a few hairy scenes for me, "We were smoking a little grass, we were a little drunk, none of us was driving well…" sorts of things (did I mention how amazingly dated it was?). It was not gracefully written. The story was compelling and essentially moral at its core. It's like a tawdry girl-centric teen version of On My Honor really: a plea for taking responsibility in this topsy turvy world (more or less), even when you do something more terrible than you can live with.

So I am OK with her reading it, in general. But as a school book? I am conflicted. Here is what I tell myself: I like to read junk as much as the next person. And the more kids read, the more they read. It's not like they're going to tear it apart in English class, they're just trying to keep them involved in the life of the book. If they put Animal Farm in there, or The Mill on the Floss, or Jane Eyre, kids might not read them at all. This is the fun book assignment, the one where it's more like an enforced library selection rather than an assignment.

OK. There, I made myself feel better about it. I would have taken this out of my school library in a heartbeat. It's just we didn't have a formalized program for doing that. So this is good. Right? Maybe? I think so. I sure hope so.

Also? The daughter in question seems to have passed on it in favor of Cirque de Freak. Gee. Wholesomeness is getting farther and farther away. Will someone just tell me that wholesomeness is overrated? I'm going to crawl in a hole and read Caddie Woodlawn or something.

 

24 thoughts on “I Know What You Did in Middle School

  1. When I was Diana’s age – or maybe a little older? 12 or 13? – I completely *adored* Lois Duncan and read everything I could get my hands on that she had written. I still remember certain key bits all these years later. They weren’t nearly as trashy as the Sidney Sheldons and Danielle Steeles and whatnot that my friends were passing around. 🙂 I recently re-read Daughters of Eve – that one is very very creepy and still gives me the shivers.

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  2. It’s funny you mention Animal Farm: my sixth-grade teacher gave me that to read, and I was completely traumatized by it.
    That said, I get why you’re a little sketched out about the book coming home via the school, and I would be too. Out of all the books to send home, there are so many better ones. On the other hand, I’d bet this one is in the book bins because kids love to read it, and they want to keep kids reading, and don’t want to “ban” anything. (Just like the Berenstein Bears all over again, sort of!)

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  3. Yeah. All true. And yes, I kind of want to ban banning (even though there are things I want to ban) and also, trauma via Orwell? Sure. Though maybe trauma is good? It was Kafka (was it?) who said “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” (possibly inaccurate translation via Wikipedia, as is all my information in the world). But that’s an OK definition for trauma sort of, too?

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  4. Dude, Lois Duncan is NOT junk! I’ve always thought (even when I was a kid) that I Know What You Did Last Summer was her “lowest” book (i.e. closest to junky), but most of her books are very well-written and thought-provoking; they deal primarily with the nature of self-identity and with a teenager’s relationship to family. I recommend: Summer of Fear, Stranger With My Face, Down a Dark Hall. These books are all dated (I heard there’s going to be an updating, meh), but junior VC Andrews they’re not. More like junior Daphne Du Maurier or even junior Bronte.

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  5. Yes, it’s slightly disturbing that these books are from school. But I bet they’re there to appeal to the kids who don’t do a lot of reading otherwise, never mind Animal Farm.
    It’s probably a phase, where Diana wants 1.to see your reaction and 2. to see what the rest of the kids read.
    This too shall pass!

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  6. That’s a wonderful quote from Kafka! And yes, I get your point, but no, it was not a healthy kind of trauma. Of course using the word “trauma” is hyperbole on my part, but basically it exposed me to more of man’s inhumanity to man when all I needed was–to bring up a past blog post–solace and comfort. I was bullied and miserable and not interested in or old enough for the political allegory, even if I’d had the wherewithal to detach myself enough to read the book more intellectually than emotionally.
    (I’m still the same sort of reader now: I avoid whole swathes of literature because they are too upsetting to me. I don’t mean that to be “oh I am all a delicate flower” but it’s just something I’ve come to accept.)
    Anyway, one nice thing about those “junky” kinds of books (and I’ve never read this one) is the way they slot things into a neatly organized story. Moral consequences, obvious structure, an ending that ties up cleanly, a feeling of resolution. I love that in my literature precisely because we get so little of it in real life!

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  7. I loved Lois Duncan, although it was closed to middle school, so I understand your hesitation. (Also, I totally agree with the separation between movies and books…)
    On the subject of library books, as a elementary school librarian, we look for any books that will interest our unmotivated kids. And if it’s Hannah Montana or Diary of a Wimpy Kid, we buy them for the library. No remorse here.

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  8. I think that ten or eleven or twelve years of wholesomeness…that is, good and thoughtful reading of well-written good books, builds a solid foundation on which one can lay down some junky reading and some disturbing reading and some “Mom-wishes-I-wasn’t-reading-that” reading without doing any harm to the reader. She’s internalized what good books are…that will hold her in good stead.

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  9. Interesting. I’ve been struggling with the almost opposite wish for my daughter’s home-from-school-books. I wish the school would promote pleasure reading, not just school reading. I wish they would reinforce the message that reading is fun, and can be just for fun, sometimes! She’s much younger, so all that comes home are these tiny little leveled-reader type books. Books with a set group of words used, in sentences, that don’t really amount to much of anything except random declarative statements on each page. No plot, sentences that don’t even really relate to each other, etc. Which she HATES. And I get that at her age it’s all about teaching them to read, but they also need to learn to love reading. And to watch a first grader decide that school reading = drudgery (that any reading = drudgery) makes me sad. Sure, we have lots of books at home, and we go to the library all the time, and she loves reading and I believe will continue to do so. But it shouldn’t be in spite of what’s happening with school books. Because what about the kids who aren’t getting the fun reading elsewhere?

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  10. Interesting indeed, Jen L. For the small person not able to read anything fun on her own yet, the only cure is to take a whole bunch of the homework time that was supposed to be used reading “I Can Make a Sandwich” or whatever, and use it to read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” aloud to her, or something equally thrilling. The source for this delightful subversion? Chestnut’s former reading specialist.

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  11. This is probably easier to say since it’s not my kid, but I think I’m voting with Katie D, the librarian above, who pretty much said anything a kid’s excited to read, they’re happy to bring in. Then again, Chestnut’s not unmotivated, but the blanket policy of letting kids pick what they want sounds, well, sound.
    Also: thanks to you and your readers for suggestions about books to read with my daughter regarding our soon to be late pet. Got Cat Heaven and some others from the library and when my daughter saw them, we had a good conversation.
    But she decided to read the Olivia book she was given free reign to pick from school because it was due back sooner. Pragmatic. (But Cat Heaven’s really great.)

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  12. Totally not answering your question, but: In my 7th grade (or 8th?) reading class we had to read I Know What You Did Last Summer and Killing Mr Griffiths. I was an excellent reader and HAAAAAAAAATED those books. I swear I am still scarred by them. I think the teacher was hoping to convince the kids who didn’t read that reading was cool or something. I was so pissed I had to read those books.

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  13. In my opinion, wholesomeness is totally overrated. I loved these books, starting at about 9. By 12, I was on to Stephen King. As of yet (32) I am still not a serial killer

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  14. Wholesomeness is *way* overrated. The kid who’s reading books from the dark side is the kid who is living a safe and secure life. Most of us don’t choose to escape into a book that’s just like our life, do we?

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  15. I am an admittedly overprotective, sheltering parent and I think 11 is too young for grass-smoking, drunk-driving books!
    However, I see that I am outvoted by the most excellent commenters here. Luckily I have 5 more years to gird my loins.

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  16. I loved Caddie Woodlawn too, but now I cringe at the depiction of the pathetic “halfbreed” children. Imagine being a biracial child and having to read that in school. Also, a young girl “saving” an entire tribe of Indians is pretty unrealistic and condescending, and the entire novel is a ringing endorsement of manifest destiny. Being a Native child and reading CW might be a bit difficult, especially since the book, like the Little House Books, is often viewed and taught as history rather than straight fiction. I guess what I’m saying is that “wholesomeness” varies greatly based on who you are and where you’re coming from. I certainly would not want Caddie Woodlawn banned and will read it to my own children (with appropriate questions and discussion), but I think the case could be made that it is much more potentially harmful than a Lois Duncan book.

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  17. Wow Sarah C., wise words. How distinctly unwholesome it all seems now. Fiction is so strangely powerful and powerless at the same time—it convinces you of a certain reality, but it is unable to shift (of itself—our view of it shifts all the time).

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  18. My take on Caddie Woodlawn is indebted to Debbie Reese of the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature. Until I read her analysis I was blithely giving the book to every nine-year old I knew, donating copies of it at the holidays, etc.
    It can be so difficult to challenge the order and beauty of that fictional reality you refer to. And when it’s an important and formative children’s book that is criticized, it’s doubly hard. I was initially very defensive regarding any anti-racist criticism of beloved children’s classics. I was receptive to a lot of critiques regarding privilege, but if anyone dared comment on the fact that C.S. Lewis’s villains are a little. . . swarthy, I would lose it.

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  19. Just found your blog… LOVE IT. My daughter is 13 and yes, I read the books that she brings home too. I have to admit, I loved Caddie Woodlawn as a child but never thought twice about the ‘half-breed’ child either.
    On the other hand, I’m just old enough to remember reading I know what you did last summer, and Summer of Fear. My mother wasn’t thrilled with them either, (however, she didn’t read them!) but we struck a deal for every book that I wanted to read, she got to pick one in return. She stuck me with CS Lewis, Jane Langton, and then realized I needed ‘older’ books. Then came Gone with the Wind. That one took awhile!

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  20. And boy are they swarthy! Yes, there is a whole problem of racism so deeply rooted in the heart of fantasy that it’s hard to bear. My husband’s great disappointment in The Lord of the Rings movies is that Peter Jackson had an opportunity of rectifying the immediate recourse to race that the orcs are, and he didn’t do it. It’s greatly troubling.

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  21. I have to admit I never read Caddie Woodlawn as a kid, nor the Little House books. Because they were a touchstone for so many people I know, I started to read the first Little House book to my then 5 year old but I found I just couldn’t soldier through.
    How to explain that everyone else to that point in the book had a name, but the Indian child was just a “brown baby”? Hard to talk about that to your own brown baby.
    Now that my kids are a little older, I am not as shy in these dilemmas because I finally feel I can have rudimentary conversations with them about these things. But other books have intervened and we just haven’t gotten back to Little House.

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  22. I remember my 8th grade teacher talking about this issue; we talked a lot about how we made our reading choices in that class. She said she had no problem with us reading VC Andrews (for example) because over the years she’d seen so many kids read a lot of it, get it out of their system and then move on to more challenging texts. It’s the whole not allowing candy makes people obsess about having candy thing.
    Will I still agree when the toddlers I know are nearing 12? Only time will tell.

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  23. I think if your child has been grounded in good books, and that you spend time talking about what they’re reading, the occasional junk is no big deal (though I don’t have kids, so what do I know). But as kid, I read junk for the same reason I do now: I get different things out of different types of books, and sometimes what I need is a quick, easy read that doesn’t require me to think too much.
    As for the subject matter, I was reading books like Roots as a 7th or 8th grader. My parents gave me free rein as to the books I read, and I think it made me a well-rounded person who was interested in all sorts of reading. I think if I had been told what I could or couldn’t read, I would have felt really stifled and resented it.

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