Let Your Kids Read Crap

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.

Very Important Note: I’m defending Scholastic’s right to sell all the commercially successful books and games they want, if that’s what earns money for the schools. However, be aware that when your kid buys that book fair edition of Take Me Out of the Bathtub, the author is getting a radically reduced royalty rate. This is why my wife and I pushed our kids’ preschool to switch to a local independent bookseller for their book fair needs. Prices were slightly higher, but authors got their fair share. On the other hand — and this matters — the selection was a lot narrower, prices were high enough that kids didn’t feel they could buy their own books, and I don’t think the school made as much money. Yet it was a local business…and aargh, you can see why this debate never ends. It’s like a bag of Terminators.
Very Important Note 2: I know the author of Pinkalicious. She lives in my town, her kids go to school with my kids. She’s really goddamn smart, really talented, and really nice. She and her husband spend their lives making things kids like. And a LOT of kids like Pinkalicious. It means something to them. I’m not sure that’s something she needs to apologize for.

Photo Credit: Johnson Cameraface via Compfight cc

6 Responses to “Let Your Kids Read Crap”

  1. Tana Butler says:

    I agree with this whole, BUT.

    I would NEVER let my daughter waste money on R. L. Stine’s particularular version of “crap.” Those books are like the old “Batman” television series. They would clean up one mess, only to be taunted with a teaser about the next episode. That was fine then, because we knew we were going to watch it, and it was free.

    R.L. Stine is an atrocious writer, and his whole empire was based on baiting the kids to buy his next book. Which sucked. Every aspect of it.

    I’m still glad I laid down that law. Junk food is one thing, but junk food in your brain (dark toxic stories) does no child any good.

    Thanks for letting me speak.

  2. Thank you! As a mom, I’m in charge of running my daughters’ lives in so many ways, why try to dictate their tastes too? Every day my girls’ encounter challenges and stresses at school that I only have the vaguest notion of. They’re not going to find solace with some fusty old classic that I swoon over. For a kid who wants to unwind and relax the right book might just be the one that’s all about farts.

    My oldest daughter has the entire set of Capt. Underpants and has literally read them to pieces. At the end of second grade, she was what they call a reluctant reader. It just didn’t come naturally. Reading was hard and she didn’t like to do it. So, I took her to the library and we borrowed stacks and stacks of comics and mangas and really whatever caught her eye. Stuff SHE was interested in. Some of those mangas have like two words per page, but she was reading “whole books,” and by the end of the summer this reading thing just clicked. Now she’s in 6th grade reading at an 11th grade level and she’s tackling some pretty respectable, and literary, books all on her own.

  3. Editdebs (Debbie A-H) says:

    Amen! I have never cared what books my son reads, just that he read. He prefers nonfiction, which breaks my heart a little, but I keep it to myself. Side note: I actually need to read more nonfiction.

  4. Pepper Potts says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this! As a child I was a voracious reader from day one and the credit (or blame) rests with my mother. She read to me. She took me to the library with her on her weekly trips. I don’t remember her ever pushing certain books or authors on me; that would have turned me off for sure. But there were always books by Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl and Beverly Cleary and Marguerite Henry and Tolkien on the shelves at home.

    I discovered early on that I had, by far, the largest vocabulary in my 5th grade class. I always aced spelling tests. One time my teacher assigned a book report and specified it had to be a Newbury Award-winning book. Mom took me to the library and told me to ask the librarian for help. I’ll never forget the look on the librarian’s face as she went through the shelves trying to find one I hadn’t read already.

    That’s not all I learned. I learned that, more than anything else, reading is supposed to be fun. My mother tore through plenty of New York Times bestsellers, but she also enjoyed historical fiction, thrillers, and high fantasy. Every Friday night, Mom would curl up in the recliner with some chocolate chip cookies and a Regency romance or British mystery from St. Martin’s Press. She called it “mind candy”. It was her treat to herself, the way she relaxed after a long week.

    Thank you for bringing back those good memories of books and everything they mean to me. I hope your words can help parents share that same love of reading with their kids now, too.

  5. Sheila says:

    Agreed. (This coming from a mother who changed the grammar when reading aloud from Junie B. Jones.) But for the love of God, could we PLEASE get rid of the giant pencils and iPod-style erasers at Book Fairs? Sheesh.

  6. amanjo says:

    My parents also let me read crap. I spent my book fair money getting Babysitters Club books, and I went through a big V.C. Andrews phase in high school. I left those V.C. Andrews books at home when I moved out. My mom later read “Flowers in the Attic” and was horrified that I had read it in high school. But she’s an avid reader of Harlequin romances and is in no position to judge my reading habits!

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