Know your kids, know their books. It’s *your* job.

Over the past week or so, much has been written in response to an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (sadly, the piece was presented an an actual, you know, “article,” which implies “reporting” and “fact-checking” and nitpicky stuff like that, but I digress).  Many eloquent responses have been reported here and here and here and here and….well, I can’t possibly say more or better coming from the angle of a children’s writer or a reader of kidlit.  So I won’t even try.  I do have much to say on the subject, but I’ll take it from the angle of my most important role in life:  a parent.

The opening of the WSJ article describes a frustrated parent who, after perusing the YA shelves of her local Barnes & Noble, could not, despite reviewing 78 (count them!  78!!) books, find one appropriate for her child.  All she found, she says, were depraved books about vampires and suicide and self-mutilation.   What she wanted for her daughter — lighter books with lighter themes — were nowhere.  After the WSJ writer describes a handful of books — a handful, out of the hundreds and hundreds published every year — she goes on to complain that when parents object to certain titles, the industry throws a tantrum, shouting “censorship!”, and, she says, that’s just not right.  Also, those nasty books actually give kids bad ideas about how to behave — without reading those books, such behavior would never occur to a teenager.

Well.

First, yes, I’d like to point out when a parent demands a certain book be taken from the shelves, denying all children access to it, that is actually censorship.  Make rules for yourself about what your child can and cannot read, yes.  Choosing for other families? Um, not so much.

Now, about the other stuff.

What really had me scratching my head is why in the world did this mother examine the covers of 78 books before giving up?  Why 78? Why not 178?  Why not three?  And why count?  Why give up?

If only there had been someone there at the bookstore with her to give her advice, offer a suggestion — an expert in books, perhaps, someone who has the job of knowing the depth and breadth of young adult literature.  Sigh.  (Note to self:  Write letter to Barnes & Noble and ask them to staff their stores with “salespeople” in the future).  Because the books were there.  They might not have been face out on the shelf or in a special display, but they were there.  And it’s a parent’s job to know how to find them.

In fact, arming ourselves with knowledge about children and all that relates to them is our job as parents.

From the time we parents find out we’re expecting a child — however that child comes to us — we prepare ourselves, for mostly we start off pretty ignorant.  We read books and articles, surf the internet, reach out to doctors and other parents, and we begin to make decisions about what is best for our child.  We continue in this fashion as the child grows.  It doesn’t stop when a kid has a certain birthday — I’ll bet my mom still forms opinions about stuff going on in my life (though she only offers advice when asked, thank you, Mom).  Suppose we parents decide to make changes in our lives — maybe we want to give up our fast-food, daily takeout ways in favor of home-cooked, healthier fare.  But how?  We turn to the experts, of course — we read cookbooks, Google things like “make my kid love spinach and me too!”, we read articles, and ask People Who Know.

Why should books be any different?

Okay, I know.  Maybe by the time your kid is an independent reader, you’re just so happy to see her hiding under the covers with a flashlight, eagerly turning pages instead of poking a stylus at a DS, that you don’t care what she’s reading, as long as she’s reading.  And mostly you don’t have to — most chapter books and middle grade novels are inoffensive.  And maybe you examined the cover, read the jacket flap and a few pages and decided okay.  Even if there is mystery or ghosts or young wizards facing the Dark Lord, you’re pretty sure that it’s not scarring.

But then your young reader tiptoes into the vast world of YA.  Now what to do?  Well, just as you did when you decided to learn to cook fish your family would eat, you do research.  Start with the experts.  Fortunately, there are people who make their living at choosing books.  They are called “librarians,” and any librarian in the children’s section will be happy to discuss kidlit with you and help you find what you’re looking for.

And there’s this — if you don’t see what you are looking for, ask for it.  Bookstores and libraries will be more than happy to get you a copy.  It’s what they do.  In fact, if more people did this — rather than complaining about the trend toward dark literature, or the lack of variety in kidlit — maybe publishers and booksellers would respond.  After all, they’re in the business to make money by selling books.  If they sense a shift in what sells, they will provide what readers want.  You’ll see a change in your choices, just like we did when we started, as consumers, to be interested in buying organic products at the grocery store.

Then there is the internet.  Hundreds of blogs and websites are devoted to young adult literature.   In the wake of the WSJ article, author Jennifer Bertram has started  the Light and Round Project, a weekly wrap-up of books that are neither dark nor edgy, a great resource for parents and writers alike.   Surely some or all of these authors will appear on her list: Ally Carter, Heather Dixon, Allen Zadoff, Lisa Bergren, Jennifer Donnelly, Sarah Dessen, Stephanie Perkins, Kiersten White, Catherine Murdock, Alex Flinn, Sarah MacLean, Saundra Mitchell, E. Lockhart, Maureen Johnson, Simone Elkeles, John Green, Kay Cassidy, Michelle Rowan, Heather Brewer, Mandy Hubbard, Joan Bauer, and Lisa Yee.

And, above all else, read with your kid.  Ask her what she’s reading and get a copy for yourself.  If you’re comfortable letting her read edgier books, just imagine what an important dialogue you can have after you’re both read a book like Wintergirls or Scars.  And if you’re not comfortable with the edgy books and put your foot down but still find your child huddled in her room reading a book about eating disorders of cutting, find out why.  You might be surprised by what you hear.  Maybe she’s struggling with body image.  Maybe she has a friend who is cutting herself.  Maybe she’s just curious about sex.  None of these are comfortable topics for parent or daughter to chat about, but we parents have to bite the bullet and jump in.  A book can give you both a springboard into that discussion.  A book might even change a life.

The frustrated parent described in the article had just popped into the store to buy a gift for her child.   But even during a spontaneous stop, one without a list of her daughter’s favorite authors or titles she wanted to read, a mom should know her kid and her kidlit — just like she knows her kid’s friends and what she eats and what subjects she’s taking in school.  And if your child reads a certain kind of book, you should know that, if only so you can say to the salesperson in the store, “Hey, my kid likes to read books by Meg somebody.  Have you heard of her?”  And you’ll find Meg Cabot books galore — and other writers too.  Sure, sometimes they aren’t in an obvious place (maybe a certain author has been shelved in the middle grade section, for instance), but a salesperson can help locate what you want.

That’s their job.

Parenting is a careful balance of being prepared and being able to handle curveballs (you know, go with the flow, roll with the punches, especially when dealing with kids ages 8 and up, who are anything but predictable).  So, be a parent.  Decide what your own rules are, what’s appropriate and good for your kids.  But know your kids, too, and what they’re thinking about, what interests them.

Fiction mirrors life, and often the books we are interested reflect what’s on our minds.  Kids are no different than adults in that way.  So get to know your kid’s mind — and be ready to roll.

That is your job.

Laura Manivong’s blog post on banned books — MUST READ!!

In my last post, I mentioned the idea that books can be used as springboards for discussions with our kids.   Well, one author did just that — with her own book, and her own child.  Laura Manivong’s debut novel, ESCAPING THE TIGER, is based in part on her husband’s childhood escape from Communist Laos and his time in a refugee camp.   The harsh realities of life in the camp are woven eloquently throughout this story that kids everywhere should read.  Themes of censorship are a huge part of this story.  In a recent post on the blog Page Turners, Laura discusses a teachable moment with her 8-year-old daughter, who, when her mother told her that the book was a little mature for her, snuck a copy and read it anyway.   You MUST read this incredible post by this amazing mom and talented author!

I’ve been meaning to do another post on book recommendations which actually was going to include Laura’s book.  Still planning to do so, but in the meantime, check it out!  Not so incidentally, this book has a real place in middle school curricula — take a look at her teacher resources too, and pass them on to your local middle school!

Fall — crimson leaves, crisp apples, and books on fire

Ah, fall.  My favorite season.  Crisp air, bright sunshine, blazing foliage.  Apple picking, leaf jumping, pumpkin carving.  Halloween, birthdays, my wedding anniversary.  Fall is a feast for every one of my senses.

But if I concentrate, I can smell something other than the fallen leaves and fresh produce.

It’s the smell of burning books.

Fall is also the season that brings us Banned Books Week, an annual celebration started by the American Library Association in 1982.  The mission of this week is to remind the world that everyone has the freedom to read what they want.  No one has the right to make that choice for you.

I love books.  I love reading.   I was the child who hid with a flashlight under my covers long into the night, went to friends’ houses and spent my time exploring their shelves, and in middle school I even read while blow-drying my hair (Don’t believe me?  Check out my school pictures from those years.  Horror.)  Sure, I did other things, but no day passed that I didn’t pick up a book.  My parents encouraged my habit, so long as I got enough sleep and my homework was done.

I only remember one time being told I was not allowed to read a particular bookIt was my birthday, eighth grade, and Christine, one of my best friends, gave me a copy of Judy Blume’s FOREVER, a book which deals with teen angst, first love, and sex.  My mom read it first, then sat me down and explained that she felt the subject matter was too mature for me.  She talked about her views on premarital sex, love, and other things that made me squirm with embarassment and wish to disappear.  In conclusion, I could read it in a year or two.  Then she hid it.  Badly.

It took me less than a day to find it on a closet shelf, and I raced through it.  Judy Blume was — and remains – one of my favorite writers, and I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to read this book.  Plus, I needed to see what the fuss was all about.

Interestingly, while I did like the book, it did not make me eager to rush out and jump into bed with someone.  By eighth grade I had assimilated a certain worldview of what I wanted and did not want, in the very foreign and somewhat scary world of intimacy with boys.  Reading FOREVER (okay, I read it a bunch of times, as I always do with books I like) did not undo thirteen years of life with my parents.

That’s the funny thing about controversial books.  A person or group of people hear about it, decide it’s bad for kids, and decide to try to get it banned.  Often this is done without reading the book at all, or simply reading out-of-context excerpts pasted together by fanatical control freaks.  My mom read it, gave me her view.  I disagreed and disobeyed.  Naughty, to be sure, but such is life with a teen.  The more you say “you can’t”, the more that teen will be interested in whatever was probably just a passing thought to begin with.  The important piece of my experience was the discussion, as humiliating as it was for me (and perhaps Mom, as well).  The best books are the ones that spark discussion — and sadly, that’s the reason most banned books are challenged in the first place.  They encourage thought.  And dialogue!  With kids!  Stop the madness!

Judy Blume is one of the most frequently banned writers in America.  This is because her books usually deal with the reality of a child’s life, the fears they harbor, the questions they have, the issues that they face every day.  And, yes, most parents want to be the people who explain stuff to their kids.  That’s their right, without a doubt.  Parents should be the ones to help their own children navigate the world, especially through the turbulent waters of adolescence.  But it’s not their right to say my child cannot have access to those books.  My mom did not forbid my best friend from reading FOREVER.  In fact, Christine had already read it.  Her mom is my mom’s best friend.  Christine’s mom did not have a problem with the book.  (It’s possible she didn’t even read it, I don’t know.)  There was no fallout between the moms because of the difference in opinion.  Each let the other parent in the best way she knew.  The moms talked with their daughters as much as each felt necessary.  And Christine and I went on to have some interesting, nervous-giggling discussions of our own.  (And to the best of my knowledge, she also did not rush out the next week to have sex.)

When I taught seventh grade, a colleague and I decided to integrate Banned Books Week into our fall curriculum, much to the irritation of our department head (who thought we were upstarts anyway, because we wanted to do more than parse sentences and read The Odyssey).  We used it as a jumping off point to talk about the power of language, moving from banned books to advertising to propaganda to politics to essays and speech and back to fiction.  It was an awesome unit.  (I’m sure department head was happy to see me go when I became an at-home mom).  The kids loved those weeks of delving into language, challenging themselves and each other to consider the words they used every day, as well as the words they heard and read in the world around them.  They talked about making choices — the whys and hows and ramifications of free speech, whether in a book, at recess, or in a larger public forum.  I could see them grow as writers, thinkers, and speakers.  Like I said: Awesome.

That’s often what the best books can do for us.  They can challenge us to hone our thoughts and opinions, and learn how to express ourselves clearly, honestly, and, hopefully, without fear of retribution.  Sadly, some adults refuse to allow kids to rise to this challenge.  Again, I have no problem with a single parent deciding that his or her child cannot read a particular book.  My problem comes when that parent’s morals and opinions are thrust on the rest of us.  That’s what happens when a book is removed from public access, whether a school or library.

Every year, a new catchprase encompasses the spirit of Banned Books Week.  This year’s is “Think For Yourself, and Let Others Do The Same.”

Indeed.

Coming soon:  Why books are challenged, who is challenging them, and what you can do about it.