A Jane Austen Education


I don’t know how I came across William Deresiewicz’s book on Jane Austen (A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter), but I think it was on an Austen fan page. I’ve been trying to find middle school friendly adaptations to spark an interest in the kids and, okay, fine, I was also looking for a Persuasion adaptation for me because one can never have too much Captain Wentworth.

I do know the first person I thought of when I saw Deresiewicz’s book was a 7th grade boy who is exceptionally bright and an avid reader. Until recently, he only read Star Wars books–the adult ones. He was stuck in the genre (I totally get that) and wouldn’t try anything new. Since I’m an avid reader and tend to fixate on things, I let him read his Star Wars and did nothing more than tease him about books I was going to sneak into his backpack. “It’s your lucky day,” I’d call out in front of the class when he sat down. “That limited edition copy of Anne of Green Gables you begged me for just came in!” He’d make a face like he swallowed a lemon and then laugh. One day he checked out another book–a fantasy I can’t remember now–and I pretended to pass out in my desk chair. Then, a couple of weeks ago, a girl commented that he often reads her romance novels during class.

“I’m bored,” he said. More on that in a minute.

Slowly but surely, he was getting burned out on the Star Wars books. He’s read every one at least three times, and on three day weekends or holidays he always checked out several to keep himself occupied. I decided to use this book to help me sell Jane Austen to a 13 year old boy.


When he didn’t immediately go to his Star Wars section, I knew it was game-on. I swear I could hear the opening bars of the Jaws theme song as I weaved my way through the tables to get to him. As it turns out, I never mentioned the book. I told him that he looked bored and needed a challenge. He agreed. I suggested he try reading some of the classics and used cold, testosterone-filled logic by pointing out the 18th century English would challenge him and force him to read slowly until he got the hang of it. I could see he was thinking about it, almost ready to do it. To be on the safe side, I pointed out some other books like The Phantom of the Opera, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and a few other classics recently donated. He chose The Phantom of the Opera and made a mental note of the other ones he wanted to check out in the coming weeks. I’m hoping he likes Phantom and it encourages him to read more classics. Not because he or any other kid “should,” but because a lot of them are great books. (Some of them suck; let’s be honest.)

This boy was only mildly resistant to reading a romance novel, and that confirmed something I’ve noticed over the last month. Many of the boys want to read stories with strong romantic elements. They don’t because the covers often set them up for teasing from classmates–often the same classmates who want to read the same book. I had another boy check out one of the “clean romances” I bought with the girls in mind. He kept the cover turned over and hid it under his math homework. Still, every single boy in that class knew he checked it out.

I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on the drop-off in reading so typical in boys once they hit 4th grade. I even see it in Mikey and that kills me. I read somewhere that 17% of boys don’t want to be caught reading in front of their peers for fear of being seen as weak or nerdy. Imagine! Reading a book is a sign of weakness for boys.

I know this post is jumbled and goes from subject to subject, but I look at this 7th grade boy who confidently reads what he wants, when he wants and compare him to the boys who are too proud to check out a romance novel or to the 17% who don’t want to be seen with any book. I wish I could bottle whatever it is that makes him tick.

Jules Kendall writes about books, family, and easygoing simplicity.


  1. says

    I went into “A Jane Austen Education” very tentatively, came out thoroughly enjoying it. Wouldn’t hand it to a 7th grade boy, but I love how you are using the idea from the book to get him out of his comfort zone and try something new. :) Nicely done and very sneaky. 😉

  2. Rachel says

    How about Robert Louis Stevenson? I read Treasure Island until I had it memorized. Also loved Kidnapped and Black Arrow. Sherlock Holmes was also a favorite.

    • says

      Yes, great ideas! We have several editions in the library of Treasure Island, but they are old and have been stepped down for younger readers. I need to create a section of classics–adult versions–for the kids. What would be great is to have both the beginner version and the adult version so that they can start at say, 3rd grade, and then by the time they are in 7th/8th they can reread the adult version and compare it years later! Of course, that might be something only a book nerd like me would find fun.

      • Carrie says

        No – this is a fantastic idea! our kids go to a classical Christian school, and in 4th grade, they all learn a dramatic poem telling the story of Beowulf in a slightly humorous version. (There’s a fake arm that is put to good effect…) The idea is that when, in the upper high school years, they tackle the Old English version of the poem, it will be getting ‘reacquainted’ with an old friend. :) (I use that same line of thinking to justify letting my boys read the “Great Illustrated Classics” series…)
        As a college librarian and the mom of two (so far, reading) boys, I love to hear your library exploits, and pray the Lord gives you many good years to serve there.

    • says

      Yes, we have all those and they are popular with the boys. I just need to get updated covers. Ours are beat and look…”lame.” I’ve recommended to him The Hobbit, but he said he’s read it and didn’t like the pages and pages of Hobbit language. I think this is hilarious since he loves Star Wars. Strange how what is okay in one genre isn’t in another for the same reader.

  3. Alexis says

    I read an article once where they redesigned cover art of books by female authors, imagining the same book/same title was written by a man. The differences in cover art were astonishing.

  4. Diana says

    Perhaps The Count of Monte Cristo would be a good choice? Or anything by Alexandre Dumas, really. Great for the adventurous type, boys and girls alike, and I’d assume K-6 adaptations of the novel would retain the romance elements of the story without the steamy details.

    Thanks for posting about the YA novels you enjoy. I’ve taken your suggestions to heart and passed them along to some members of the target audience for those books. As a catholic youth ministry volunteer I’ve been reading what our high school confirmation candidates are interested in, and your suggestions have won me a lot of points with our more reluctant participants! You’re doing a great job here at P&FF

      • Diana says

        I’m glad! Northern New York (as in Canadian boarder New York) loves your reviews so far. Our girls are big Harry Potter and John Green fans, so when theology isn’t grabbing their attention we turn to (other) books. I’ve got them all on the library’s waiting list for Fangirl as per your suggestion. I thought it was cute! I’m trying to pass Enders Game onto our resident Star Wars fan but so far she is hesitant.

  5. Phaedra says

    I was just thinking Sherlock or Dracula, but saw that it’s been mentioned (I second, or third the suggestion!) It’s sad that cover art might keep a boy from reading or that it’s not cool to read anything that ‘girls read’. I have a friend from my junior high years and he was (and is) a voracious reader & challenged himself continually across genre and to this day we STILL suggest books to each other (and he’s honestly one of the smartest people I know, and part of that is because of how well read he is). Wouldn’t it be nice if all boys/men could feel this confident? It sounds like you have ONE boy who is. Perhaps while you’re circling like a shark you could drop the hint that GIRLS think it’s cool to read and if they expand their choices it gives them something in common to talk about?

  6. says

    You and me both. Watching my (bright, curious, insightful) son slowly wither at school has been so painful for me. 6th grade was the turning point. Much of it has to do with what you touch on here: It’s very hard to be cool and socially accepted if you are a boy who is smart. I see this not only in my son’s experiences, but in that of so many boys I’ve worked with. It’s even harder if no one is really challenging you, and most of school is boring. It’s easy to conclude that the only thing you’re really going to get from school is friendship–so put your eggs in that basket.

    About cover art: So important! One of our library managers had old copies of The Westing Game (great book!). It wasn’t moving. She ordered copies with updated cover art, book-talked it, and it flew off the shelves. We absolutely judge books by their covers.

    • says

      I hold onto the old copies of the book and put it alongside the new copy/cover to use as a compare/contrast lesson with the kids. It works, especially with Mary Downing Hahn.

  7. frances says

    A couple of newer “classic” for a 7th grade Star Wars fan – Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow. Both would get him started on extensive series, as well, if that appeals to him (sounds like it might). Seventh Son by the same author is also interesting speculative fiction. I really, really dislike Card himself, but the books are great reads and I think they would really appeal.
    I don’t recommend these because I object to your classics campaign at all – quite the opposite! I just think the kid you’re talking about might like those as well. What about Twain, if you’re recommending classics? Not much more thrilling than Huck Finn, in my opinion. He might thrill to To Kill a Mockingbird, too, thinking along a theme.
    And for you – a mom at my school, an Austen scholar at UT Austin, recently did a study of the evolution of Austen covers. She was inspired when her daughter was assigned to read a copy of P&P that looked suspiciously like Twilight: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/13/the-jane-austen-book-club/?_php=true&_type=blogs&ref=books&_r=0 (see #11 in the slide show)

  8. Alicia says

    I clicked on comments to suggest a few books for him, and a lot of people have already suggested the ones I was thinking of! There’s also lots of good sci-fi out there. My dad was really into sci-fi so I’ve read a lot of his old books from the ’60s (and earlier). I-Robot is good (and soooo different from the movie). I love how much you’re pushing kids to get more into reading. I’ve always been a bookworm, but definitely hid it from my friends a bit in middle school, so I’d imagine how much harder it would be for boys!

    p.s. you should totally get that poster you linked to in an earlier comment; I kinda want it for my house :)

  9. Anna says

    A way to get around the cover problem (since you can’t exactly go out and buy new editions of all the books) might be something I’ve seen typically called “Blind Date with a Book”:

    You don’t have to call it that, of course, but the premise is strong: wrap up a book and write a couple intriguingly descriptive lines on the new wrapping and then watch people pick up books they’d never touch if they could see the real cover. You could even frame it as a challenge: if you pick a book you must read it, or something. That way they’d have to carry it around for a while, at least; then no one could make fun of anyone for reading a lame book because lots of people are doing it AND they could feel free to pick any “lame” book they wanted and just blame it on the Mystery Books.

    • Susan G says

      Genius! I admit to being heavily influenced by cover art – I have to like the sound of the book as well, but if it has a bad cover chances are good I’ll never get around to even looking at it.

  10. says

    I’m going to try to focus on the fact that a wee someone has found something new to read . . . and ignore that creepy cover. Eek!

  11. Jaimie says

    I was also going to recommend Ender’s Game by Scott Card and I see that more than one person has beaten me to it! I also recommend “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen — it’s about a 13-year-old boy who crash-lands in the wilderness and has to survive using, you guessed it, a hatchet. I also read the excellent follow-up book “The River” (similar premise, but boy alone must survive alone on a river) and looking on Amazon it seems there are a few other well-reviewed books in the series. I think it’s great that you’re committed to finding books that will capture the students’ interest. My own children are young (3 and 5) but I get a lot of satisfaction out of seeking out great books for them.

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