I recently read a blog entry written by a young adult author, Andrew Smith. He told of enduring a negative media storm around his book Marbury Lens. Responders believed that “harm was being inflicted on young people by the dark and negative content.” Smith took it so hard that he decided to stop writing. He fired his agent.
Last year, I read an article in the Huffington Post by a children’s author, Gary Soto, titled “Why I Stopped Writing Children’s Literature.” Again, public outrage was the culprit. He had written a book about a Latino family moving from a predominantly Latino urban neighborhood to a “safer community” in the suburbs. People were offended. They believed that the Latino community was negatively represented. Such a book would negatively affect the self-esteem of Latino children!
Not long ago I was personally stung by a more official variety of censorship. This summer, some of the titles on a list of books that my writing partner and I submitted to a review panel for a national project were rejected. Why? The panel said that these books, respectively, were too violent (Farmer Duck, Waddell 1995), exposed children to substandard English (Ugly Pie, Wheeler 2010), and exposed children to poverty (Elizabeti’s Doll, Stuve-Bodeen 2006). How about those children who live in poverty?
I remember an experience with a “banned book” from my pre-adolescence. I was in junior high school, and the banned book du jour was Forever (Blume 1989). My school’s library didn’t even own a copy. The public library did, but you needed a note from your mother to check it out. One of my friends finally got her hands on a copy when she went to the library with her grandmother. Apparently, Grandma didn’t get the memo and allowed my friend to check it out. We passed it around to everyone in our circle of friends during the three-week loan period. Girls who didn’t even like reading were among those who read it. We talked about it for the rest of junior high. So what happened? A group of girls read a book and then talked about it for weeks and weeks. Girls who were not readers became sufficiently engaged to read a 200-plus-page book. What didn’t happen? We did not become sexually active at the age of 12. Somehow, we all survived unscathed.
Do we really need to protect children from books? Is there any evidence, anywhere, that a child has ever been harmed by what she has read? Yes, children have been frightened, grossed out, and confused—but harmed? How can we create a balance between supporting children in making good book choices and censorship?
There is certainly such a thing as an “inappropriate book.” Perhaps it is not the right time in the child’s life to read this particular book. He doesn’t have the knowledge and/or life experience to fully appreciate what that book has to offer. He probably won’t go back and reread the book when he can fully comprehend, enjoy, and appreciate it. More important, there are wonderful books out there that he is missing out on because he is spending time reading a book that is not the best choice for him at this time.
Here are four suggestions for getting the right books into children’s hands at the right time and reacting constructively when the wrong book ends up in a child’s hands.
1. Have Several Good Choices Available
Give children access to lots of good, age-appropriate books. Invest time and energy in building great classroom libraries. The best place for a child to find a book is a classroom library built by a knowledgeable teacher. The classroom library is superior to the school library, the public library, and even the bookstore, because every book is appropriate for the child at that time. All of the books are on topics that the target age group loves. All of the books are at a reading level appropriate for the grade level. There will be books in the classroom library that will be too challenging for some children, but it is very likely that even these books will be within each reader’s reach with support from a peer or a reading buddy. The “too easy” books? The child can read them for fun and fluency building. You can’t go wrong with books from the classroom library.
Use the monthly school book clubs to build home libraries. Book club books are categorized into grade-level groups: K-1, 2-3, 4-6, 7-12. School book clubs do a great job of offering appropriate books for each age group, and they are a great choice for families because they offer these appropriate choices at bargain prices—more than 50 percent off the cover price, in most cases.
2. Judge for Yourself
Before withholding a book from a child (or trying to do so), read it yourself. Twitter and Facebook might have entry after entry on the evils of a certain book, but chances are that many of those ranting people have not even read the book! After reading the book yourself, you might not think, for example, that Farmer Duck is too violent. Why put yourself and the child through the drama of trying to shield her from a perfectly suitable book based on a mistaken belief that it is inappropriate?
3. Offer an Alternative
Luckily, about 3,000 children’s books are published every year. This means that for every inappropriate book out there, there are probably at least 10 appropriate alternatives. So when your third grader expresses an interest in reading inappropriate book A, you can respond by saying, “Oh, that’s interesting. How about appropriate book B? It’s another book about [insert topic], and the character is the same age as you. Do you think you might want to give it a try?”
Need help finding alternatives? You can start with a simple Google search. Or ask your online friends and colleagues at a site such as NCTE Connected Community or the Nerdy Book Club. Or find suggestions for books on the same topic and genre by scrolling down from the top of the title’s page on Amazon. The website Goodreads also offers suggestions for books that match the topic and genre of any chosen book. Or ask a knowledgeable children’s librarian, who will undoubtedly be delighted to help you locate an appropriate book. I often see book displays in libraries with signs such as “If You Loved Divergent, You’ll Love These Books.”
4. Read the Book Together with the Child
When a child will not be dissuaded or distracted, I promise you that somehow she will get her hands on that inappropriate book and read it. Isn’t it better if she does it with you rather than on her own? Make it clear to the child that you do not think that it is an appropriate book, but that she can read it—if she reads it together with you. You can answer all of her questions and clear up all of her confusion and misconceptions. It is likely to lead to some interesting discussions. The whole experience can have a somewhat positive outcome. Make the end of the book a celebration by taking a trip to the bookstore to get a new and appropriate book.