I just saw something from author/teacher Andrew Smith about how he answered a letter from a kid asking him to explain his book to him. Smith replied that the book stood on its own and that that the kid should trust himself to figure it out for himself. Here’s what I wrote in response (slightly edited for clarity and such).
Thank you, teacher Andrew Smith. And I hope somehow you can keep teaching as there aren’t too many high-visibility authors like you who can also speak from the POV of a currently practicing teacher. I’m one for much younger kids (private school 4th grade) and I think some of what happens at these younger grades can create the sort of older readers such as the one who wrote you.
First of all, I think there can be a tendency to broaden our already over-fixated celebrity culture to authors. Teachers are often eager for kids to know that books are written, that authors go through the same trials that they do when writing. But by doing that they can sometimes make the focus be on the creator more than on the thing created.
Secondly, I think teachers at the younger grades such as mine can be so worried about kids’ “getting it” (comprehending on a basic level) that they can be rigid about the “correct” interpretation and aren’t always as open to varied ones as would be preferable.
Thirdly, not all teachers have had positive experiences themselves in being honored for their own interpretation of a book and so if they don’t truly believe themselves in this approach (having found it challenging for one reason or another themselves when they were students) it is hard for them to trust the wide range of what kids say. No doubt many kids who write these sorts of letters to authors are just lazy, but some may be legitimately terrified of being wrong for good reason.
Then, there are those teachers that encourage kids to write authors. I do get that this is to encourage the kids to be inspired, etc. But it also relates to our current focus on celebrities in general and the ease of online fan culture these days (as evidenced by Michael’s post). In my experience (admittedly with high end learners, by and large) the most intense readers tend to care very little about the author, it is the book that matters to them. Those that are curious about the author tend to be those who are passionate writers themselves.
Finally, I just have to voice a personal grip — the generalizing about teachers and students that I often see. We teachers are not all the same nor are our students. A bad experience with one shouldn’t tar all. (PS In addition to being a teacher, I’m a blogger and reviewer and last year became a published author myself of a book for kids so I’ve been on many sides of this situation.)