Book Choice: Talking the talk – pt. 2

Yesterday I wrote about my 12 year old daughter wanting to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower and how it pushed me to “talk the talk” of book choice with my own kids. Today’s post continues with a reflection on a similar event with my younger daughter.

My youngest daughter is 8-years-old and in the third grade. She recently finished listening to all the Harry Potter Books. She enjoys reading, though not as voraciously as her older sister. She knows what she likes and doesn’t like. If it is a choice between not reading, and reading something that she isn’t crazy about – she will choose not to read. However when she gets excited about a book, gets really really into it – look out. That’s what happened when she discovered HP audiobooks. She listened to all of them in less than 2 months, we talked about the characters and the stories. We also watched the movies and compared them to the books.

Last week she had a sleepover with one of her best friends who happens to be in fourth grade. Friend has read The Hunger Games and was telling Youngest how amazing it was, and that she just had to read it. I want to say first, that I love that they were talking about books. When friends recommend books to other friends (kids, teens, or adults), it can be one of the most powerful motivations to read.

So Youngest comes home SO excited because she wants to read The Hunger Games. She has asked in the past, but I think it was more to both imitate and annoy her older sister (who has read the book). This is an important part of the story – Eldest insisted on numerous previous occasions, that it was “not appropriate for Youngest to read”. After what seemed like the tenth time she told me, I sat down with Eldest and told her about my belief in readers choosing their own books. I reminded her of the time that she wanted to read Hunger Games. And I told her that ultimately, me saying “no you may not read that” is a form of censorship. That censorship and selection are something I teach my students about because of how strongly I believe that there are not book “rules” that work for everyone. That it was not her responsibility to decide what was appropriate for her sister (or anyone else) to read. Ironically two weeks later, Eldest wanted to read Perks of Being a Wallflower, written about in yesterday’s post.

Back to Youngest, who by now had asked every day for a week to read The Hunger Games. Youngest is a my sensitive one who has felt empathy for others from a very young age. She is the child who cries when other people get hurt. I had definite reservations about her reading The Hunger Games right now. But she was so excited about it, I didn’t want to squash that excitement. I was also genuinely concerned about how she would respond to the killing scenes in the arena and the fact that people were forced to watch it on tv. Part of me just wanted to say, “No, you aren’t ready, you may not read that book now.” But I realized as she and I sat at the table together I needed to talk the talk of book selection with my own child.

And what do I tell parents and my own students to do in these situations? Start by asking the child about why they want to read that particular book. She was excited about the adventure aspect, mostly she was excited to read something that her friends had read so that she could talk about it with them. Ok – where to go next? I described the general plot to her, the conversation that followed went something like this:

Me: Honey there is killing in this book. You don’t even like it when people get hurt.
Youngest: I know that mommy, Friend told me. She also said not to throw the book across the room when a character you like dies. Because it doesn’t change anything and you’ll get in trouble.
Me: Well, that is good advice. I want you to understand what kind of killing and hurting is in this book. It isn’t like Voldemort. There kids killing other kids because adults make them. And people are forced watch it all on tv.
Youngest: People watch? That’s yucky. <BIG PAUSE>  But it’s still a fiction book, it’s fantasy. I know that means it didn’t really happen.
Me: That is true, but I also know that when someone is injured, it makes your tummy hurt. I’m worried that if you read this book your tummy would hurt a lot and make it difficult to enjoy the story. How about I read a page or two to you, and you can see what you think. If you still want to read it, then we’ll do it together.

I read her the passage where Katniss realizes that she’s had her first kill. She remembers Rue being killed and realizes that the boy she killed has family that watched it happens and wants her to die.

She looked at me with her big blue eyes and said, “Mommy I really want to read it, but I think that it would make my tummy hurt.” Then I went and pulled some other fantasy, adventure books off the shelf for her to try out.

My point in sharing today’s story (as well as the one I posted yesterday), is to illustrate the ways that I had conversations with my daughters about these books. Did both situations work out the way I had hoped? Yes, because we had conversations, they had voice, and ultimately made their own decisions. As I write this, I’m imagining someone reading and thinking, “What if Youngest had decided she still wanted to read The Hunger Games?” That is a fair question.

We would have read it together. Not parallel like I did with Eldest and Perks of Being Wallflower (we read it at the same time but on our own). With Youngest, I would have insisted that we read it out loud together, so that I could have discussions with her about things as she experienced them. And it might have been fine, she might have loved the book. But, what would have been important is sharing it together and her knowing that I trust her to know herself as a reader.

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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.”