Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"Just be Glad They Are Reading."

It's Banned Books Week: yay! Oh wait. I mean, boo! Hang on, how are we supposed to celebrate this week again? By not burning a book? Oh yeah, by reading a banned book.

A year or two ago I did just that, picking up Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer, a YA read about friendship and grief, with just a bit of romance. It was banned because the protagonist has (spoiler alert!) consensual sex. For the first time since Judy Blume's Forever, it seems, a girl has sex with a boy and doesn't spontaneously burst into flames of regret (or get pregnant, or get herpes — they do use a condom.)

Author Beth Revis, whose books my teenager and I have both enjoyed, wrote an excellent blog post yesterday on the topic of sex, teens, and banned books, which I encourage everyone to read. I posted it on Facebook, and in the ensuing discussion one of my friends said, "Just be glad they're reading."

And that is actually what I want to talk about.

I am a passionate proponent of literary freedom, especially in YA books: I think we need more topics more widely discussed in young people's literature, and I've written about this here and here. But that doesn't mean I think content is irrelevant.

Is there something edifying about the mere act of reading? Does looking at a block of text—any text—automatically make you cleverer? Or perhaps that's not it, perhaps it's that stupid books are gateway-drugs to smarter books. Get him in the habit of reading (the thinking goes) and next thing you know, your offspring will be inseparable from his copy of War and Peace. It's a theory that people seem to accept as fact, but I'm not sure there's any actual evidence for it. It's like the sunny side of the slippery-slope fallacy: a kid who reads Captain Underpants or Twilight will learn to stare at words, which will then inevitably set the stage for Proust. To me, this seems as sensible as giving kids Twinkies in the hopes that they'll eventually get to kale. More likely, Twilight-reading teens will become Fifty Shades of Grey-reading adults.

Why, just yesterday he was reading The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby!
Content matters more than the form. I would rather my kids watch a clever TV show than read a stupid book. Good storytelling does something for us: it adds meaning to our lives, stretches our imaginations, bonds us together culturally. For kids, fiction can explore difficult or scary topics from a safe distance. Whether your eyeballs are moving over letters, your ears are listening to an audiobook, or your eyes and ears together are absorbing images on a screen, content is the key. What is the story doing for you? What is it doing for your kid?

Stories don't have to be difficult or challenging to be "good": I want to be clear about that. Fun books and simple plots can still have storytelling value. Books that exist merely to entertain, to be escapist, are not automatically bad books. My own criteria for a bad book is that it has to be poorly written or have a bad message; some, like Fifty Shades, are twofers. You get your terrible writing and your crappy message in one tidy little bundle!

Whether we keep actively-bad books out of the hands of our kids is a question that leads back to where I started: is that censorship? There are solid reasons to draw lines between kids and books: Is it age-appropriate? Is it going to give her bad ideas? (I have a friend who had to "ban" Captain Underpants because the practical jokes it inspired in her household were out of hand.) Is it morally questionable? Will it be too upsetting? Parents, like school libraries, have to make those kinds of decisions all the time, and sometimes we separate our kids from good books for bad reasons. But sometimes we offer our kids bad books for one particularly wrongheaded reason: the assumption that books, by definition, can never be bad.


  1. Enjoyed this, especially after reading the link you suggested. I strongly agree that what a kid reads matters. I've never gone along with, "Just be glad they're reading." My brother spent his youth incessantly reading the backs of cereal boxes (don't ask me why), but good literature has never been his forte. Cereal boxes, just like Fifty Shades, does not eventually lead to Proust!

    1. "My brother spent his youth incessantly reading the backs of cereal boxes" Oh, this made me laugh! I did that too. I think because it was 6 a.m. and I was chewing away mindlessly with my glazed eyes fixed on whatever was in front of me. Which just happened to be a cereal box, 90% of the time. All nice and vertical-like, right there in my line of vision. Maybe we ought to start pasting pages from great literature on the backs of cereal boxes!

  2. One loves to read, but I acknowledge that I have a lot of genetic advantages in that area.

    I, like you, am partial to good content, in whatever form it might appear. I acknowledge though that my idea of good content is often very different from other people's. I guess in terms of children, I would try to expose them to things I thought were worthy, and fully expect them to then choose other content.

    1. "I would try to expose them to things I thought were worthy, and fully expect them to then choose other content."


  3. I agree with you, Steph. Not every book is created equal. There should be some value in it for the kid (and entertainment is also valid, but I think the message is important.) I wonder if the people who subscribe to the "at least they're reading" philosophy would be happy to find their teens reading Playboy confessions (hey, it's written down and they might learn some vocabulary!)

    This post reminded me of a book I had to read in the sixth grade called "My orange-lime plant" (by Brazilian author Jose Mauro de Vasconcelos). When my classmates and I read it, we were shocked. The book is filled with bad words and harsh issues: extreme poverty, violence toward children, death of a loved one. But the message is so powerful I've never been able to forget it (it's still in my list of favorite novels.)

    Here's some info about the book:

  4. This is my copy. Isn't that a cute picture?


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