Book Choice: Talking the talk with my own kids – pt. 1

When my eldest daughter was in fourth grade, she wanted to read The Hunger Games. It was relatively new, my students were reading it, and she heard me recommending it to friends. I described to general plot to her, including the fact that there are kids that kill and kids that die. I had her read the front flap and a few reviews, we talked about why she wanted to read it and she decided to wait. When she did read it towards the end of fifth grade she loved it, but also told me she was glad she had waited. I was quite proud of both of us. I hadn’t said, “No you can’t read it you are too young” and she made the decision that worked for her. And in the interest of full disclosure – she made the decision I wanted her to make.

Students, friends, teachers, and parents have all asked me, “What age is this book for?”, “Do you think this would be good for a third grader?”, “Is my child ready to read Twilight?”. I was even asked that question as part of an interview for the local news channel about the book The Hunger Games.

My answer is always, “It depends.”

It depends on the reader, their interests and development. It depends on if they are reading alone or with someone. It depends on why they want to read it, and a host of other possible factors. Each semester when I teach children’s literature, we discuss censorship and selection. I am a huge proponent of knowing the reader, knowing the book, and allowing the child/reader make their own decision about when to read something.

This belief has been tested by my own children in the past few weeks. My firm belief in trusting readers, in not censoring, and in choice has been tested by both daughters, they both wanted to read books that I was not sure they are ready to read right now. Now ultimately I know that I am the parent, and there are occasions that I would say “no you cannot read that”, but I also want them to learn to make informed choices for themselves.

Eldest daughter is now 12 years old and in the 7th grade. (The next post will be about the younger, 8 years old and 3rd grade). While I don’t typically write much about my children on this blog, I wanted to use these experiences to reflect on my beliefs about book choice and how those beliefs are enacted when I need to “talk the talk”. Not only because it is something I am passionate about as a children’s literature scholar and teacher, but also because it comes up so often with friends who are teachers and parents.

Fast forward to last week; eldest wanted to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower. She had seen a preview for the movie, and because in our family we read the books first, she asked to download the book to her Nook (it’s password protected because of the credit card information). I told her I had not read it and suggested we read it at the same time. Now, I knew that there was sex, abuse, drugs, and a variety of other “mature themes” in the book – but as I said I had not read it. She was reading on her Nook, me on my iPad – she started the day before me. I’m not going to lie. When I got to page three, I wanted to tell her to stop reading. But I didn’t. I kept on reading, then I went and talked to her. I asked her if she read anything that was confusing or she had questions about. She looked me straight in the face and said, “YES!”. Together we decided to keep reading but that we would debrief together at the end of each day. I told her the deal was we had to talk about the choices the characters were making and the things they were doing. We had some conversations about things like sex & drugs that I had been nervous about having with her, but I realized that the book was helping. It gave her a place to start asking questions that didn’t have to be specifically about her. If I had just said, “NO you can not read that”, I would have missed a huge opportunity ( and she probably would have checked it out of the library and read it in secret).

Ultimately, she decided not to finish the book. She said that the intensity was more than she was ready for right now. She has it and can finish it at any time. Much like when she chose to not to read The Hunger Games, I was relieved. I’m grateful for the conversations that came from her choice to read it, but I’m also grateful that she realized and acknowledged her own limits . She said, “Mom, one thing that is good and bad about realistic fiction is that you know it’s real, it can happen. I don’t think I’m ready for all that real right now.”

That’s what matters to me the most. That in the end she was able to decide for herself, and articulate why she chose to stop reading. It wasn’t random or uninformed. It wasn’t punitive or from an adult.  It came from her. The choice that she made came because I first said, “I trust you to know yourself as a reader and a human. Let me help you learn how to use that trust and knowledge to make a choice that is best for you.”