Deconstructing Penguins

Categories Education, Literary Study

I learned about Deconstructing Penguins: Parents, Kids, and the Bond of Reading in the blogosphere, where some homeschoolers have used it to great benefit as a springboard for literary study. It offers the detective as a metaphor for the attentive reader. In the same way detectives strive to solve mysteries, students of literature investigate books. Instead of focusing on suspects and a crime scene, readers piece together the basic clues of a book: protagonists and antagonists, setting and plot. After figuring out the basic structure of the work, they can puzzle out the question of meaning.

This notion of meaning is where one of my struggles with the book began. I was bothered by the Goldstones’ repeated assertion that “the author’s ideas are hidden and it is up to all of us to figure them out. Whenever you read a book you want to know what the book is really about, not what it’s about on the surface, not the story, but what’s underneath the story…” This idea that books are really secret code that only the experts understand has figured prominently in several discussions lately with people who’ve confessed their detestation of English class in school. What destroys the joy of reading more completely than announcing books are not really about what they say?

Although Deconstructing Penguins is based on the authors’ experiences leading book groups with elementary school children — so they can hardly be accused of being elitist about literature — there was enough of a “sage on the stage” tone throughout the account to register with me. It’s probably partly because of this focus on younger children that the authors speak with such finality about their interpretations; they have to be clear and confident. But at times I found it wearing.

Similarly, the book’s refrain that figuring out what the author “really meant” is the ultimate goal of literary study seemed reductive of the multifaceted quality literature can have. The idea of evaluating a book based on how well it fulfills the author’s purpose — the “intentional fallacy” — doesn’t take into account either our inability (usually) to know the author’s intention, or the tendency of a story to take on a life of its own quite separate from its origins.

But moving beyond these reservations, there were a lot of things I really liked here. The strategy of mapping out the basic literary components of a book using a “crime scene” metaphor is actually kind of fun. I tried it with my daughters (both teens) using Wendell Berry’s “Fidelity.” The simple process of discussing what should go where on our diagram, remembering key moments in the story, and thinking of how all the parts work together to suggest different themes was deeply satisfying to me. I love that it gives readers some basic literary concepts and terms to work with in thinking through a story, and it would be hard to go through that process without considering multiple possibilities for the book’s meaning.

I also loved the Goldstones’ insistence that the “what” of reading matters. A lot. They challenge the notion that it doesn’t matter what kids read as long as they’re reading. There is a huge difference between what Charlotte Mason calls “twaddle” and the type of reading that makes kids think and puzzle and grow. They explain,

If you start your children off with books that are well-written, whose plots demand attention, with characters drawn with depth and wit, that is the type of reading they will come to enjoy. On the other hand, kids who are exposed to nothing but pop fiction or joke books or superficial biographies of sports heroes will become used to those and are unlikely to move to anything more challenging.

This forced me to pause and recognize a degree of drift in my own approach to reading. I started my children with simplified classics, as recommended by The Well-Trained Mind, on the theory that when faced with the original works in later years they would find them less intimidating. To a degree, this has worked. Partly from their own reading, and partly from listening to numerous classics via audiobook or Librivox, they allude often to passages from Jane Austen, Dickens, Mark Twain, and of course Tolkien and Lewis. We have a tremendous shared literary territory.

But one of my daughters has developed a taste for fantasy fiction as well, so she often checks out — and reads in a gulp — books about dragons and mermaids and fantasy lands. I’ve tried to use these as opportunities to teach reading discernment, and although I maintain an awareness of what she’s reading and occasionally make her return a book to the library shelf before checkout, for the most part, she is learning to make these choices for herself. Still, I wonder if it’s scorching her palate for the classics — if that makes sense. If you can rip through a novel in a day, there can’t be much there beyond thrills. How does this affect the patience and reflectiveness required for a longer, tougher work?

I’m not sure. In any case, I’ve been demanding more of both daughters in recent weeks in the reading department, as well as reading more aloud. This way I can both model reading thoughtfully, and better gauge how they’re doing in the “detective” habits of mind the Goldstones recommend in Deconstructing Penguins.

One other fantastic feature of this book is the selection of book lists for different grade levels compiled at the end. If you have children in the elementary grades, this will be a valuable resource in developing reading plans as well as in teaching the skills required for reading books well. The book would be relevant for any age, though. It provides a basic plan for how to approach literature with your children that’s sure to be worth the read.