Book Review: Deconstructing Penguins

Deconstructing Penguins: Parents, Kids, and the Bond of Reading

I read this book by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone a few years ago and loved it so much I went out and bought a copy so I’d have it as a reference. The Goldstones led a parent-child book discussion group in their town for several years. In this book they use discussions from that group to show how they did it. Through classics such as Charlotte’s Web, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Animal Farm, they lead kids (and parents) in conversations designed to discover the deeper meanings hidden in books. They focus on key elements like setting, character, point of view and climax and heavily depend on the identification of protagonist and antagonist.

I’m pondering the idea of starting a parent-child book group next year myself so I picked up this book for inspiration and ideas. I came away still liking it but finding parts of it troublesome to me. I like the way the Goldstones get the kids to think, but at times I felt like they lead the kids to what they feel is the one interpretation of a book rather than just encouraging them to think. In their defense, in the beginning of the book they talk about the idea that multiple interpretations may be valid as long as they can be backed up in with the text. However, in the discussions they include they always end with one “message” for each book.

I also disagreed somewhat with what they seemed to be saying about how an author writes a book. They seemed to imply that authors think of a message they want to get out and then find a story that fits the message. I think that might happen sometimes. But I also think the story is equally important as the message. From what I’ve read about authors and writing, the story is often the first thing and any message or meaning is there because of the author’s worldview or morals or experiences. Probably in reality, the two are intertwined and like the chicken and egg, it’s impossible to say which came first.

Overall, I still liked so much of what the Goldstones have to say.

The theory, still in vogue that says that it doesn’t matter what your child reads as long as he or she reads something is just plain wrong. If anyone tries to convince you otherwise, don’t believe it. This notion springs from the assumption that kids need success-any success-to bolster their self-esteem, and if they have to struggle a little it might leave them feeling bad about themselves. Nothing could be more wrongheaded or insulting to children. Kids’ self-esteem comes from the same source as adults’ self-esteem: taking on something that seems hard at first and then doing better at it than you ever thought possible.

I still found much in this book to inspire me. I’m not totally sure I like the idea of doing literary criticism the way they do with 2nd and 3rd graders. I think there is something to be said for just wallowing in the stories. For just enjoying and loving books and words and language. And then later learning how to think and discuss and write about books.

This book isn’t a great how-to book. Even if you agree with the authors’ ideas and want to implement them they give you the general idea but not much in the way of nuts and bolts. But if you are looking for a book that might encourage and inspire you to talk about books with your kids, this is a great one. In that sense, it tells a great story.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Deconstructing Penguins

  1. I’ve had this book on my radar for a while but still haven’t read it. I agree with you about story being as important as message, especially for children. I, too, have thought about starting up a book club when my girls are a wee bit older. Too bad we don’t live near each other– we could make it a joint venture!

  2. I haven’t read this book and I am intrigued by your description of it, but I’d say that treating interpretation as a hunt for hidden meaning or moral messages (as you describe the Goldstones doing) profoundly limits the value of reading. We read for a wide and rich range of reasons, including wallowing in the story, connecting imaginatively with other people, places, experiences, emotions, ideas, not to mention enjoying the artistry of beautiful phrases and images. I see so many college students in my classes whose ability to engage with literature is limited by their hunt for a text’s “message.”

  3. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: May 7, 2011 | Semicolon

  4. Pingback: Welcome to Chez Smiffy » Blog Archive » 20 July 2013

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