ORONO — Bryan Barker hated reading. As a high school student in the Midwest, he couldn’t get into the classics that were routinely assigned in English classes.
During his junior year, Barker had a revelation: He discovered he loved reading — Stephen King books.
While King’s horror novels are often maligned and ignored by teachers, Barker credits the Bangor author with helping him gain an appreciation of writing. He now is working on a graduate degree in film studies at a college in California.
Despite such stories of reading redemption, many teachers are still loath to allow King’s writing into their classrooms. A new book, edited by two University of Maine College of Education faculty members and a graduate student, aims to change that.
“I wouldn’t recommend endorsing King full scale … but I would want to have King around as a bridge to introduce students to other authors,” says Jeffrey Wilhelm, an assistant professor of literacy education and one of the editors of “Reading Stephen King: Issues of Censorship, Student Choice, and Popular Literature.” The book is a compilation of presentations given at the “Reading Stephen King” conference held in October 1996 at the University of Maine and essays written later.
Wilhelm, who taught high school and junior high school in Wisconsin, said he is not suggesting that teachers use King’s books as class textbooks. Teachers nevertheless, he said, should recognize students will read books by popular authors such as King and advise them in their choices, but not dictate. He suggested King’s works are appropriate for free reading periods or book reports.
Wilhelm and Brenda Miller Power, an associate professor of literacy education who also edited the new book, are concerned that many high school English teachers are using the same texts with their students that they read in high school. Because students sometimes are forced to read texts they find distant and uninteresting, adolescents come to view reading as a “boring, impoverished task,” Wilhelm said.
This is a needless tragedy, he said, because too many students can be turned off from reading. Students should be encouraged to read whatever literature interests them.
Wilhelm has undertaken a survey of the reading habits of 500 adults. All reported having a period of intense interest in popular literature. For example, many young readers devour Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mysteries before moving on to more sophisticated literature.
Reading, in effect, leads to more reading, Power said.
“The quality of the text is almost irrelevant,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s comic books or Shakespeare, as long as they’re engaged.”
And, for whatever the reason, adolescent readers are engaged by King’s writing.
Perhaps even more than adults, teen-agers need to deal with inner demons, Wilhelm said. He said King writes about things that are unspeakably difficult, such as alcoholism, sexual abuse and domestic violence, in a fictional way that makes them easier to talk and write about.
Although he deals in the realm of horror, Wilhelm said, King is a very moral writer. In his writing, bad things happen to people, but they overcome demons by banding together as a community. This is a good lesson for adolescents to learn, the UM education professor said.
One disturbing trend the book editors found was that English teachers who were vehemently opposed to King’s work frequently had never read it.
“It’s not about King’s books if they haven’t read them,” said Power. “It’s about control.”
Control over what students — and teachers — read was a major issue in one western Maine school district last year. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled in November that the SAD 58 (Kingfield) board had the right to set conditions on how the controversial book “Bastard Out of Carolina” was used in the classroom.
The novel, by Dorothy Allison, tells the story of a 12-year-old girl in a poor, rural South Carolina family who is abused and raped by her stepfather.
After the book was approved for use in a 10th-grade English class, several parents complained about the book’s sexual content. The SAD 58 school board then placed restrictions on how the book could be used in the classroom. It was eventually banned from Mount Abram High School.
Shortly after the court’s November decision, a Richmond man gave out free copies of the book to students in Augusta, Portland, Lewiston and Brunswick. He bought the books with $500 of his own money and an equal amount from Tabitha King, novelist wife of Stephen King.
While books have periodically been banned from schools and classrooms in Maine, the state has not been the hotbed of censorship that others have been.
One reason King’s books may not be so controversial here, Power said, is that the world’s best-selling author has chosen to stay in his home state and has become well known for his local philanthropy.
“He’s a supporter of Maine. He’s a supporter of the people of Maine. He’s a supporter of the arts and literature of Maine,” Wilhelm said. “He’s a cultural treasure.”
Teachers should be able to use King’s appeal to their benefit, the book, published by the National Council of Teachers of English, argues. For example, students like to read about things they are familiar with, and King writes about the landscape and people of Maine. In addition, King, who draws material from well-known literature yet appeals to adolescent readers, can be used to guide readers to classic literature.
King, however, does not like being pegged solely as a bridge; he’d rather his books be read simply for what they are.
“I don’t want to be the ramp that kids tromp over from the dirty docklands of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys to the great ship of literature where the Dorthy Parkers and Norman Mailers are holding court in first class,” King said during an address at the 1996 conference that is reprinted in the book. “I just want to be me, and to tell you the truth, I feel happiest when I see some kid reading one of my books not in the classroom but on a schoolbus headed away for a soccer game or flopped out on a beach somewhere during summer vacation.”