When I was in fourth grade I was invited to join a new program at school called Junior Great Books. The top readers from each grade were put in the program, which was designed to get young readers looking deeper into short stories.
According to an article about the program, it was actually developed and put into use in 1962, and is a program “designed to help teachers develop inquiry-based instructional strategies in reading, literary analysis and critical thinking. The shared-inquiry method of discussion about the stories was supposed to develop a student’s reading, communication and thinking skills.”
I didn’t know any of that at age 10, but I knew I loved the books full of short stories. I developed a love of reading at a very young age, and it is still a passion of mine.
Anyway, in fourth grade I was handed a shiny tan book and told to read the first story so we could discuss it the following week. It was like being ordered to eat chocolate and sleep in.
I was finally able to sit with a few classmates and talk about what we had read, what we thought of it, the kind of pictures that popped into our heads as we read descriptions of rooms and people and scenes. It was heaven! As much as my folks encouraged my reading, they certainly didn’t have time to read all the same books and discuss them. And talking to my three brothers about a book was likely to get me a “Shut up, Sis” response.
One story especially just stuck in my head. It was “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury, about a house that held the latest technology. That house did everything for the family. It clothed them, fed them, rocked them to sleep at night. There were descriptions of futuristic robotic stuff that challenged my imagination. As a child, I know it was all made-up stuff and would never really exist, but it was so intriguing!
In the house was a nursery for the two children. It was a virtual reality room, and produced any setting the children asked for, using the walls and floor and ceiling. The parents, who are portrayed as selfish blobs who are glad the children are so preoccupied with the nursery, eventually realize the room seems to be stuck on an African setting and decide half-heartedly they should do something about it.
SPOILER ALERT: The room eventually becomes more real than anyone ever expected. Long story short, the lions on the African veldt eat the parents. The story ends with their psychologist being given a cup of tea by the children as they sit under a hot African sun. The man notes several lions sprawled in the distance gnawing on something and looking his way as the children tell him they will be back in a few moments and exit the room.
Oh, great story.
Our school district carried the program through sixth grade, and I missed it terribly when I started junior high, but by then I was being placed in classes where book discussion was part of the curriculum. I was introduced to my favorite book ever – “To Kill a Mockingbird” – and that same year read a book that also remains to this day on my top 10 list – “A Day No Pigs Would Die.”
So, fast forward a few years. OK, a lot of years. I ended up with a small child who swallowed books whole. I couldn’t keep Nick in books. He had a high school reading average by the time he was in first grade. He had out-grown our beloved Berenstein Bears by the time he was about five, had ripped through Goosebumps books like they were nothing. By the time he was in 7 years old I had purchased abridged copies of Mockingbird, Flowers for Algernon and any other classic I could think of.
Then one day I got a call from Murray County Central West Elementary. They were starting the Junior Great Books program and wondered if I was interested in leading one of the grades.
Boy, howdy! Was I ever!
I attended a training session led by principal Sally Berg, then I was on my own, facing nine inquisitive second graders, one of whom was my son. Looking back on the next couple of years of leading a group, I can only hope the children enjoyed it as much as I did.
I was thrilled when my group (I moved up a grade each year with the group) came across the story “The Veldt.”
A few of the discussion questions were still the same, but what grabbed my attention from the first was that the inventions that had seemed a total impossibility when I was a child were now either being used or right around the corner. The kids, although they loved the mysterious room and were intrigued by the naughty children who fed their parents to lions, were not at all fazed by the technology. Big screen TVs, computer games and Internet access have gone a long ways toward dulling down that part of “The Veldt.”
It is still a great story, though. And a great program. Check it out!