Let Your Kids Read Crap
Books should open doors to other worlds, not just hold up a mirror to a suburban lawn and patio set.
That’s a direct quote from this post on Book Riot. And it set me off but good.
I absolutely blame myself for falling for it. As a person trying to avoid negative thinking, this was like a recovering drug addict just happening to find himself in a terrible neighborhood with a roll of bills in his pocket. And I do partly blame the author for tweeting (twice!) a five-month-old blog post because…actually, I’m not sure why she did that*. But tweet it she did and read it I did, and then my morning dog walk turned into ten minutes of me silently bitching this person out. (The dogs were nice about it, but I know they could feel my lack of engagement.) Then when I came back, I got on Twitter and actually-but-still-silently bitched this person out. And she re-made her points, but I still didn’t agree with them. Which leads us to here.
(*I asked on Twitter, and she says it’s because book fairs run twice a year in her kid’s school — as they do in mine, actually — and the next one is coming up.)
I’m stuck on that quote at the top of my post, which is the final sentence of her post, the summary line. This is what books should do, someone says. And right away, like six or seven of my hackles are up. She also says “if you choose Stuart Little over Charlotte’s Web in E.B. White’s oeuvre, something is wrong with you.” And I get it, she’s being mock-outraged. But she was clearly actual-outraged enough to write the piece and call out a bunch of books by name. Then, five months later, she was still actual-outraged enough to tweet it twice in a morning. And now I’m counter-outraged. Because it really does bother me.
First of all, this post isn’t on someone’s personal blog. It’s on a books site. Second of all, it’s a site that claims the following on its About page:
We think you can like both J.K. Rowling and J.M. Coetzee and that there are smart, funny, and informative things to say about both and that you shouldn’t have to choose.
Oh, okay. So then why are you telling me that the Scholastic book fair, a thing designed to make money for a school, is too commercial? That the “drivel factor was high,” in the author’s words? That their damnable offense is in selling Pinkalicious and Junie B. Jones and Skippy Jon Jones (Junie’s cat-husband in an arranged marriage, I assume)? Also, is a biannual Scholastic fair the only place to find books in a school?
Now: I no longer have the books I bought at Scholastic fairs in the 70s and early 80s, so I don’t remember if my monster makeup book was by Maya Angelou or John Cheever. Or if my knock-knock joke book was by Henry Fielding or Jonathan Swift. (Either way, probably ghosted by Kip Addotta, though, right?) So I could be wrong, and Scholastic fairs may have taken a serious dip in literary quality. Or they may always have been a mix of “commercial” and “literary,” whatever the fuck those two terms are supposed to mean.
But as a parent, I’ve been going to school book fairs, Scholastic and otherwise, for well over a decade now. Here’s the crazy thing: there’s never just the “junk” and nothing else. There’s always a variety. I’ve never been to one at my kid’s elementary school that didn’t have a decent selection of things like Holes or A Wrinkle in Time or To Kill a Mockingbird or every uptight parent’s favorite, the Chronicles of Narnia. And yeah, Pokemon books or X-Men movie tie-ins are front and center. Because, again, they’re there to make money. I mean, that’s how a bookstore works, too. And, uh, also LIBRARIES: New releases and bestsellers (and coffee, and t-shirts) in the front, deeper cuts in the stacks.
Kids, if I’ve observed a few things over the last 14 years, seem to read for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, yes, they want a window into another world. Sometimes they want a mirror. And sometimes they just want to be entertained. If only they could be more like adults and read for just that one reason! Oh, wait…
Maybe why this all bothers me so much is because it reminds me of a thing I’ve truly hated in myself, which is when my kid has pointed to a certain book and I’ve gone, “Ugh.” We’ve all done it, and if you haven’t, then I applaud you. But I eventually stopped myself from doing it, because I remembered: That is the worst thing, as a kid, to have the adults in your life judge the things you like. (“Worst” other than being beaten or raped, I mean.) You’re trying to form an identity! You’re making choices! And the person who’s supposed to love you unconditionally is going: “Ugh. Really, honey?”
And parents of young kids, I get it: This is when they’re forming identities, and you can’t shake the image of your kid at 42, sitting on a cinder block under a bare lightbulb, still mouth-reading his or her way through Captain Underpants. But we all know this isn’t how that happens. Pot is how that happens.
No one is disputing that discovering and reading fine literature is important — not even the dicks at Scholastic, a BOOK COMPANY that makes money selling all kinds of books. But just as crucial is a kid feeling like she can make some choices and try things out and read for fun without the adults in her life looking at her like she’s cradling an armful of cat shit. Please, yes, pass judgment on that kid for preferring Stuart Little to Charlotte’s Web.
And you know, after he or she has done their Scholastic shopping and read their books that you hate, bring them to the library or a decent independent bookstore. Tell them, “Okay, here’s fifteen dollars for the Scholastic fair, and then I’ll give you another fifteen to spend at the bookstore.” But don’t tell them it’s because their book fair picks are crap. Tell them it’s because you want the authors to get their fair share. (Read my Very Important Note, below.)
Let your kids read the stuff you think is crap. Know why? Because it reminds them that reading is for pleasure. And because they really will develop taste and discernment on their own. E.M. Forster, in the lectures that formed his book Aspects of the Novel, remembered fondly the goofy, one-dimensional adventure tales that had filled his youth. Somehow, despite the terrible rot of these books, he became kind of important in the world of literature.
Oh, and don’t keep shoving at them all the books you loved as a kid. You and your child will have plenty of time for mutual resentment in the teen years. Remember this: that you probably found your beloved books on your own — maybe at the library, maybe at a book fair — and that that act of discovery felt as important as the (perceived) literary quality of those books. In a life where you had say over very little — when you slept, what you wore, what you ate, what you’d have to read for school — these were your books.
Now let them have their books.