Over the past five years, I’ve returned to the New York neighborhood in which I met the children whom I first described in Savage Inequalities, Amazing Grace, and other books I published in the 1990s. The neighborhood is called Mott Haven. It’s the poorest section in all of the South Bronx, which is the poorest Congressional district in America.
I wanted to answer the questions many readers ask: What happened to these children? How many were unable to prevail against the obstacles they faced? How many have survived? And, among the ones who did survive, what were the ingredients of character—and what were the opportunities provided by their schools—that made it possible for them to win some glorious and unexpected victories?
Not surprisingly, easy access to good books—and, more to the point, a plentitude of books to satisfy the curiosities and stir the latent interests of the very wide variety of children that I met—turned out to be decisive. And this, of course, is where libraries come in.
In my new book, Fire in the Ashes, I catch up with all those kids, many of whom I came to know when they were only six or eight years old. They talked to me about the struggles they went through, which were often hardest in their adolescent years. Most are in their twenties now. As they look back on their formative years, they speak repeatedly of books that first awakened their appetite for reading—by which I mean real books, books that children read for pleasure, as opposed to the mind-dulling textbooks and those dreadful pit-pat phonics books, “aligned,” as the experts compulsively remind us, with state examinations. Most of the kids found those books immaculately boring.
No matter their level of education, the most successful of these children had, I think, much better taste than those adults who set the rigid standards that have been imposed upon our public schools (and with the most severity, upon our inner-city schools)—standards that require emotionless and robotic modes of learning but don’t open children’s minds to our culture’s treasures.
These kids instinctively rebelled against the narrow test-prep regimen that, even before No Child Left Behind, had started crowding out a love of learning for its own sake. Few of them did well on state-imposed exams, but many read voraciously, and became proficient writers as a consequence; the books they loved, however, weren’t the ones mandated by the number crunchers who were caught up in the labyrinth of the testing mania.
In their early years, many tell me, they were drawn into a love of reading by the soft and tender writings and lovely drawings, so much like pastel tapestries, of one of the greatest and most subtle children’s authors of our time, Eric Carle. (They weren’t attracted to Dr. Seuss. Their preference was for beauty over cleverness.) Before long, those kids who were the most exploratory started reading charmingly enticing books like Kevin Henkes’s Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse and, a few years after that, Lois Lowry’s beautifully transcendent works, including Gathering Blue, which remains a favorite among many of those children to this day.
One of the kids who captured my attention from the start, to whom I’ve given the pseudonym of Jeremy in my latest book, told me he was writing his “first novel” at 13, and that he was “circling” Charles Dickens, but wasn’t certain he was “ready for him yet.” I thought he was. So he made a deal with me. He would read A Tale of Two Cities if I would read Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. We both kept our promises. He conceded later that he got the best part of that bargain.
His favorite author at that age was Edgar Allan Poe. He loved the narrative poem “The Raven” and quoted from it whimsically and playfully. When a large bird flew above our heads one day, he pretended to be frightened. “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore,’” he solemnly intoned. He also liked Poe’s stories. He told me the plot of “The Tell-tale Heart” and was astonished to hear I’d never read it.
Where did Jeremy find these books? I wish I could say he found them in his middle school’s library, but this, alas, was not the case. His middle school, underfunded as many inner-city schools are, had nothing that a good suburban school would consider a real library. (This governmental parsimony at the cost of libraries is even more the case today, in the wake of two recessions, when one of the first steps taken by our cash-strapped inner-city schools is to lay off school librarians.)
Jeremy found the books he loved, not in a school library, but—he was blessed in this respect—in the private library of a neighborhood poet, who recognized his special gifts and let him dig into the books that filled his living-room shelves, from floor to ceiling. The poet tempted Jeremy, moreover, to go beyond what his school, on the basis of his test results alone, regarded as his “modest reading level” by introducing him to snippets of the poet’s favorite writers, which included British authors as imposing as John Milton.
Most of the other kids weren’t so lucky. A few of them attended schools that had decent libraries and full-time librarians. Others were fortunate enough, after slogging through the literary wastelands of their mediocre middle schools, to win scholarships to good New England boarding schools in their later secondary years. These were schools where rich and ample libraries were viewed as indispensable and were also pleasant and inviting places with soft lighting, comfortable chairs, and little nooks and crannies where a student might curl up at one end of a sofa and delve into a book he liked for hours.
Jeremy was one of those who got into this kind of school in his 10th-grade year. The first close friend he made there, a talented woman with a gift for reaching out to adolescents, was the school librarian. Before long, he was working part time as one of her assistants.
By this point, he was reading works by John Keats and William Wordsworth, Robert Browning, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, and the 17th-century metaphysical poets. In the following years, he read the plays of Strindberg, Ibsen, and O’Neill, after having read O’Neill’s great predecessors in the Greek tragedians. In his senior year, he galloped through Shakespeare’s plays, and he questioned me a lot and teased me when he came upon a character I’d forgotten.
“You wrote your college thesis about Shakespeare, and you don’t remember Bolingbroke?”—or Falstaff, or whomever it might be.
He went on to a first-rate college, not the kind that has now replaced the arts and letters with “practical” job training, which is too often deemed to be appropriate for youngsters who have grown up in the ghetto. He immersed himself, not in the utilitarian, but in what he loved the most. Literature and the modern theater was his field of concentration.
This was a boy who hated tests in public school and managed to fail most of them. A neighborhood poet and a school librarian and, later, the Barnes & Noble in New York’s Union Square, which he liked to frequent, were Jeremy’s salvation.
What does this story and the others in my new book tell us about libraries and, in particular, those within our public schools?
First of all, no matter what the economic ups and downs may be at any given moment, public school libraries in destitute communities need not just sufficient but extravagant funding. If there’s a single thing our state and federal governments could do to stir up a love of learning in our poorest children, it would be to take a good big chunk of the massive sum of money that’s now being wasted on the testing industry and use it, instead, to flood our students’ lives with the joys and mysteries of authentic culture—and not only Western culture but, in the case of, for instance, Hispanic children, their culture, too.
I don’t mean to suggest that history or science should be shortchanged, or books of practicality, or writings that are simply fun for kids to read even if they have no literary value. But if we care about the children of the poor as much as our own children, we ought to emphasize the highest possible aesthetics. Kids who live in grim and dreary neighborhoods have an even greater need for all that can endow their minds with grandeur than children who are privileged enough to live in grand and lovely places. Exalt their minds. Don’t cheat them with banalities that simply “keep them reading.” I can hear a lot of little girls in fifth grade screaming at me when I say this, but I still feel a pang of sadness about kids who grew up on “The Baby-Sitters Club” series but to whom no one ever introduced The Secret Garden.
This brings me to librarians again. If I had the power, I’d redirect another big chunk of the money that’s now enriching testing corporations and make certain that every inner-city school has its own full-time librarian, and one whose passion about books is contagiously exciting to young people. Jeremy shouldn’t have had to go to an affluent school to find a sensitive librarian who was paid enough and given the resources to spend hours of her time leading him to books, and tempting him with others, that didn’t simply give him data for his assignments, but expanded his horizons by nourishing his literary yearnings. School librarians like that woman would be celebrated in a wise society, and no myopic politician with a fiscal knife in hand would dare say they’re extraneous to learning.
Finally, I think school libraries ought to be delightful and congenial places. I wish that we could get rid of those plastic chairs and overhead fluorescent lights that make too many of these rooms in low-funded schools about as intimate as Walmart. School libraries for wealthy children frequently resemble living rooms. When I walk into the libraries of inner-city schools and see a group of children filing in beside me, I often get the sense of something “dutiful” about it all instead of something joyful and exalting. I wish the kids could sit at maple tables with reading lamps that have lampshades made from handsome fabrics. I wish the space were beautiful. If we think of libraries as places where we give our kids a feast of learning, the place we serve that feast should be worthy of our offerings.
I’ve said this before to school librarians, and recently to a convocation of school architects: aesthetics count. Beautiful surroundings refine the tastes of children. Flat and mechanistic settings bleach out their mentalities.
“Well, of course,” the bureaucrats will say (they’ve said this of me many times before), “Jonathan’s a dreamer. He thinks that poor kids ought to get what the sons of presidents and daughters of important business leaders get when they go to private schools like Andover and Exeter. He thinks that inner-city kids deserve that kind of money. He thinks that they’ll be grateful for those maple tables. He thinks they’ll dig into those books and be excited by the opportunity to read them.”
It’s true. That’s exactly what I feel. I don’t think this nation plans to give that kind of opportunity to more than a handful of the children of poor people at any time in the near future. It would take a sweeping change of attitude about potential, and too easily unobserved precocity, among the children who are viewed today as outcasts of American society. It’s just a dream, and I frankly doubt that I will see it realized in my lifetime. Still, I like to fantasize that someday we will turn that dream into reality.
Jonathan Kozol’s new book , Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America, will be published by Crown on August 28 .