When school ended for the summer a few weeks ago, my two older children were sad to say goodbye to their teachers and friends, but also excited at the prospect of so much free time. Some of that free time goes to practicing instruments, swim team, or building elaborate Lego creations, but a big chunk of it goes to reading. My oldest is turning thirteen at the end of the summer, and reminds me so much of myself at the age, including the large amount of library books she checks out and devours each week. Unlike me, however, she hates historical fiction and realistic fiction, preferring to spend her time on fantasy and science fiction. While I recognize most of the books she’s reading (I do work in a library), I haven’t read most of them myself. The truth is, teen dystopia doesn’t interest me and I have no desire to read every book my daughter does. I have books of my own I’d rather read.
I sometimes wonder if I should monitor her books more closely, like some parents I know. When I was twelve, I decided to read everything written by Judy Blume. She was one of the most popular and prolific authors of the time and I had read a few things of hers that I liked, so I thought I might as well read them all. Then I got to the book Forever, which I checked out from the library and read. I had no idea at the time that this book was well-known for being explicit in its descriptions of a pair of teenagers discovering sex for the first time. The book made me feel certain things that I hadn’t felt before—as well as a sense of guilt for feeling that way. My mom noticed that I had read the book and initiated a short talk about how “maybe I shouldn’t read books like that”, which made me feel worse because I didn’t know it was going to be a “book like that” before I picked it up. And I still didn’t know what to do with the confusing things it made me feel and think. I love my mom, but I think we both could have handled that talk a little better.
I know that someday (if it hasn’t happened already), one of my children is going to read a book that makes them uncomfortable because it uses foul language, depicts violence, has explicit sexual content, and/or describes things that I think are evil in a positive light. Maybe it will just make them uncomfortable because it is about difficult things like war, dysfunctional families, or prejudice. Sometimes that discomfort is a warning that the book is damaging in some way, but feeling uncomfortable when you read something can also just be a sign that it is about difficult things. This discomfort can be a positive precursor to growth as we learn empathy for others. You should feel disturbed when learning about the injustices of the world. Around the time I read the book Forever, I also bought a copy of the book Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor. It tells the story of an African American family in Mississippi during the Great Depression. It’s a majestic and heart-wrenching book, and made me feel uncomfortable, sad, and a little angry. I don’t, however, think feeling that way meant I shouldn’t read it. The book is meant to make its readers feel sadness and anger about the terrible injustices inflicted on African Americans in the United States. In fact, despite the heavy themes and depictions of violence, I have re-read the book several times and felt deeply moved each time. It’s not a light or happy book in any way, but one that I would be unafraid to recommend to any teenager.
And that is the point—I’m not afraid of the books my kids read. My main concern when I hear or read about people who worry about the books their kids read potentially harming them in some way is that they will raise kids who don’t like to read. There are thousands of children’s books in the world and something for every sensibility—S. R. Ranganathan, a great early library scholar famously said “every reader his book, and every book its reader”. This is the guidance that the librarians I know follow; all books are not appropriate for all readers, or at all stages in their life, but every reader can find the right book for them. I also don’t think that a little discomfort is a bad thing when it comes to reading; learning and growth don’t come when we only do things that are safe and comfortable. I’ve already written here about how I learned to love a whole new genre just by trying some books that I spent years thinking I wouldn’t like. I have also been able to figure out what my boundaries are by trying different authors and books—some of which I’ve liked and some I’ve abandoned halfway through.
Does that mean I’m going to hand my twelve-year-old a copy of Forever so she can have a learning experience? Nope, I don’t think she’s ready for it, or that it will ever be the right book for her. However, I’m also not going to insist that I read and monitor everything that she’s currently reading, or create a reading list composed only of titles I once read and loved. The world of juvenile books has changed considerably during the nearly three decades that have passed since I was my daughter’s age and there are hundreds of books being published for children and teenagers every year on a variety of topics. There are so many wonderful new books out there. Of course, with such abundance there’s also a lot of trash. Everyone’s definition of the ‘trash’ is slightly different. For me, that would include poor quality writing and editing, stereotypical characters, lazy plotting, and encouragement of bratty or dangerous behavior. It might also include inappropriate levels of swearing, sex, or violence. Learning to figure out how to sort the trash from the treasure is the project of a lifetime.
I want my kids to learn good discernment on their own. So we talk a lot about the books they are reading. What did they like or not like about them? Were there things that made them uncomfortable or that they didn’t understand? Before choosing books, we try to get a sense of the plot, themes, intended audience, and other concerns by reading reviews or by talking to others who have read them. You can find reviews at places like Amazon, Good Reads, Publishers Weekly—and some libraries even have review blogs like this one. I have a few good friends that are also readers and write helpful reviews on their personal blogs. Don’t be afraid to talk to the librarians at your local library—they are trained in recommending books for all types of readers and sensibilities and love to talk about books. I also let my children know that it’s OK to stop reading a book for whatever reason. I do that myself sometimes. While all of us in my house read on our own all the time, we also read some books out loud together. We’re currently re-reading the Harry Potter series out loud together and I’m enjoying it as much as the kids. Reading together as a family is a great way to encourage kids to talk about and reflect on the themes and events of a book together.
Reading is and always has been an essential part of my life, and I’m happy that it’s become so important to my kids. Reading can open our minds to new ideas, people, and places. It can challenge our assumptions about the world, other people, and ourselves. This aspect of reading has a long history of making people nervous; complaining about and censoring information, especially for young people, has a history equally as long as the existence of print. As a parent, however, I want to empower my kids to make their own choices and to learn how to say both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ when it comes to the media they consume. This is tricky and a little bit scary, but so is growing up.
How do you decide what to read and what not to read? If you have kids, how do you help them evaluate their reading choices? What were some of you favorite books when you were young?