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Family Book Club Fail

an illustration of a large book in a rural landscape
Illustration by Mysticartdesign on Pixabay


My kids are used to me occasionally directing their reading choices. Every summer, I assign a few “challenge books,” to get them reading outside of their preferred genres. During COVID lockdown, we held a few family book clubs. I often like to use these opportunities to hit up some classics they haven’t yet read. In 2020, that included Julie of the Wolves and The Call of the Wild.


Recently as I sorted through the books my oldest had taken off his shelves before heading to college, I came across The Swiss Family Robinson, which I myself hadn’t read. I knew the language of a book written in the early 1800s would be a bit of a hump to get over, but I trusted that the story would be compelling regardless. Shipwreck! Survival on a desert island! Hunting and building! A family full of boys! What more could we want?


As it turns out, a lot.


“That was the most boring shipwreck ever,” said my youngest, after I read the first chapter aloud.


“Maybe he didn’t want it to be too scary for his young audience,” I speculated. The author’s bio in the back stated that Johann David Wyss told these stories to his own four young boys before bed. (Having that context explained certain things, such as why so many chapters ended with people going to sleep!)


My son had a point. The shipwreck scene didn’t really get your pulse racing. This was to be a recurring theme in our dissatisfaction with the book: scenes that should have been exciting weren’t.


Modern fiction is often much “closer” to its characters, showing a complex interiority. In comparison, The Swiss Family Robinson felt flat. Father might say “I felt despair,” but we’re not given a view of what those thoughts were and how he overcame them, as we would be in contemporary fiction.


Perhaps the bigger stumbling block was the ease with which any difficulty was solved, essentially flatlining any possible tension. Father regularly happens on precisely what he needs at just the right time. As my youngest laid on the couch reading a scene in which Father wants to cross a river and conveniently comes upon the perfect material, he asked, “How big is 18 feet?”


I grabbed a measuring tape and marked it out in our house.


“How big is 24 feet?” He asked.


I showed him.


“You’re telling me he found a bunch of wood that long?”


I shrugged. “Maybe it was from an earlier shipwreck?”


“But they were straight. To make a bridge,” he said. 


Yeah, that did feel kind of improbable. It was just one of many such instances.


“So he builds a raft inside of the shipwrecked boat and blows a hole in the side of the boat to get it out, without damaging the raft at all?” my middle asked, incredulous. “They are definitely playing on easy mode,” he said, using video game jargon.


My youngest agreed, “They’re playing ‘peaceful difficulty,’” (a Minecraft mode.)


My middle continued the analogy: “And Earnest has on ‘aim assist,’ because his aim is crazy. He hits every shot.”


My youngest: “Those kids downed 50 birds.”


“How does this pastor know so much about nature?” they repeatedly asked. It’s true. Father seems to recognize every plant known to man and all its uses.


Not to mention the fact that the island seems to have everything they could ever need. “That island’s stacked,” said my middle son.


I decided we might do better to read it aloud together. In their room one night, I read a chapter, and we laughed together when things were a little bit too easy for the family.


As an example, Father says, “I had to…meet, if possible, with a group of trees, at such fit distances from each other as would assist me in my plan of erecting a farmhouse. I was fortunate enough in no long time to find in this last respect exactly what I wanted, and quite near to the spot we on many accounts had felt to be so enviable.”


“That’s the kind of stuff that drives me crazy,” my youngest said.


I think I missed the window for this classic. I could see how it would make a nice evening tradition, one chapter a night, for families with early elementary-aged kids. They would enjoy the ingenuity without questioning how realistic it was. The “peaceful difficulty” would keep it from being too intense for children who might not be ready for realistic fiction.


However, my middle school boys are too jaded to enjoy such a story. They want real danger. They want an explanation for how the character knows what he knows. They want to see him struggle for success.


Honestly, I agreed. After the first handful of chapters, I was also tiring of it. When we were just over halfway, I debated quitting it entirely, then decided that we’d just skip to the end and read the last few chapters and discussed them briefly. We never did have an official book club meeting.

Later, as I read more about the origin of The Swiss Family Robinson, I understood better why the book is the way it is. I discovered that Wyss wrote it to teach his children about nature, which is why the father knows everything about every plant and how to use it. I also read that the family contributed to the book and sometimes his sons wrote chapters, and that it was added to over the years. This explains a lot, including why it doesn’t have a classic narrative arc. It wasn’t really written as a novel.


Shortly afterward, my oldest came home for spring break. Since he was the one who initially had the book on his shelf, I asked him what he thought. He'd read all of Sherlock Holmes in sixth grade and an unabridged War & Peace in eighth, and plenty of other classics. He’s not afraid of antiquated vocabulary or a slower pacing.

“Oh, that book was boring,” he said. “I quit about halfway through.”

I nodded my head, grabbed the copy, and carried it downstairs to the donation box.








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