I was not a precocious kid, but I was a precocious reader. I was also a voracious one who made her way through the children’s section in the library like a weevil. It wasn’t long before I was eyeing the adult section with my mind set on breaking through. I had just started wandering into those stacks when a book caught my eye as a summer read selection, and I pounced. I don’t remember any discussion about it until we got to the check-out desk. For those of you not familiar with early ’80s references (ahem), The Thornbirds would probably be pretty tame today, but it involved a priest and an illicit affair—an affair that in my memory at least was pretty graphic. Suffice it to say I was halted, the librarian’s stamp (yes, we still used a stamp; it wasn’t that long ago) mid-air.
As far as I remember there were no rules about what I could or could not read. My mother’s attitude was that if it didn’t interest me, I’d stop reading and if I was curious enough I’d either ask about it or look something up. In an encyclopedia. (Seriously, it wasn’t that long ago.) I do remember a startled look from the librarian and a murmured discussion with my mother before I lifted the heavy tome up over the desk, triumphant. And of course I read a few chapters, had no interest in what was going on, and abandoned the book. I am curious, in retrospect, about the interesting looks I must have received when I took it out of my bag at the community pool.
Needless to say this happened in a time where we didn’t wear bike helmets, we played outside without parents, and there was no internet (and I will quickly add all this wasn’t that long ago). Things are quite different now. And whether you are a proponent of free-range parenting or attachment parenting, the fact is we are more sensitive to exposing kids to things like violence, sex, or drugs. Which leads us to taking a look at what we let—or don’t let—our kids see, consume, and read.
When it comes to books, issues usually come up with older kids who may be reading middle grade and teen books about tougher subject matter, like suicide or addiction, or include characters who are engaged in sexual activity. Where does the line come between censorship and keeping kids “safe?”
As a publisher I’m particularly sensitive to censorship. Some of the kids’ books that have been banned are mindboggling. One parent’s ignorance can affect an entire library system’s ability to shelve a book. When I first started out as an editorial assistant I remember getting a call from a distraught librarian about a book being challenged (when someone lodges a complaint that a book is inappropriate). The book was about a chimpanzee. The chimpanzee had ketchup squirted on him during lunch, another character thought he was bleeding, and hilarity ensued. A formal complaint was lodged that faking ketchup as blood was too violent.
While as a parent I want to try to shield my children from violence, especially at an early age—and perhaps especially in today’s world—if the most violent thing they will be exposed to is ketchup, I would sign up for that in a second.
We are raising kids in a world where we monitor them (quite literally with baby monitors) from infancy, with cameras in their rooms, controls on televisions, passwords on computers, wifi blocked in bedrooms, and even GPS systems on chips attached to backpacks and in cars. Are there different parameters for books?
As a publisher and a parent I’m at odds with myself. The publisher in me never wants to stop a child from reading anything. To my publisher brain, that’s censorship. I certainly don’t want to tell other kids what to read; that’s the very definition of censorship to me. But my own kids? The parent in me is desperate to make sure I bring up children with a model of equality, respect, tolerance, empathy, and kindness, which means sometimes regulating or at the very least moderating what they consume (i.e. “Yes, I know he’s Batman, but it is not OK to hit anyone. No, not even the Joker.”). To my parent brain that’s guiding my child.
Those of us who have parameters at home understand that they get regularly challenged. My oldest child made a case last weekend in the toy aisle that the water gun was not a gun; it was a laser water shooter that a good guy like Han Solo would use. (I am either raising a future lawyer or a future agent).
So when my child chooses a book and is hell bent on reading it do I challenge him? No.
I believe in being an aware parent; knowing what my children are reading and why they want to read it are of equal importance to me. Let’s say, for instance, that one of my children wanted to read a pretty heavy book about a character battling addiction before—as his mother—I felt he was ready to take something like that on. Why did that book speak to him? Was someone experimenting with or using drugs? Was it him? Since we’ve spoken to our kids about the dangers of drugs are they just curious to see what ravage they can really do?
This is where parenting gets really tricky, because I’m going to bet on the fact that there aren’t a ton of teens, or tweens for that matter, who will willingly say, “I’d like to read that book because one of my friends is experimenting with drugs and I’m a little worried, especially because next week all of us are going to smoke something with him when his parents are away for the weekend.”
Maybe they are just curious. Maybe it’s just a good story. Maybe you should read it, too. You receive alerts about your children’s online activity, right? You read their texts? You check out their browsing history and check out the pages they’ve opened? So why wouldn’t you also read the books they are reading?
My children are younger, so it’s hard to say what I’ll do (and lord knows I have learned as a parent that you don’t know what the hell you’ll do until you have reached that stage) but my instinct now would be to read—or at least speed read; maybe skim; OK, definitely at least read the book flaps and the online description—what they are reading. That way I know what information (and misinformation) they are getting. I would make sure that I talked about it (which may well be a one-sided conversation). It might even be enough (in my hopeful parent mind) for my child to know that I’m reading it, too, so he can talk about anything in it that he needs help processing.
Despite my great my love of books or my belief in how powerful and transforming stories can be, I would rather my children learn about most things from me than a fictional character, no matter how poignant a story is. We live in the information age and there are messages—overt and subtle—being hurled at them every millisecond. It’s too much for me to assume I can control what they are exposed to and what they find without me sitting next to them 24/7 (and trust me, as a mother I have had the instinct to attach myself to them 24/7). Anyone who has watched a school bus pull away with their child inside and has sobbed understands: You aren’t weeping just because your child is growing older. You are weeping because you realize you’ve just lost control.
That doesn’t mean you just throw up your hands and sing “Que Sera, Sera.” (At least in my parenting book). There are books that would set off alarm bells for me. If every book he checked out was about bullying I’d intervene, pronto. If I noticed a trend in books about misogynistic behavior I’d be right there with some conversation starters. If many books he chose were about a character exploring sexuality I would have my mom antenna up even further than it already is for openings in conversation. Sometimes books are chosen because they are great stories. Sometimes book choices illuminate something else going on.
In our house I am Command Central, and not just because I (usually) remember who is supposed to bring in a casserole for International Day and who has to pack cleats for soccer practice. I am watching, hopefully not in an evil or menacing way, but oh boy, am I watching. I don’t get much from “How was your day?” I get a heck of a lot more in overhearing somebody tell the Spiderman doll (sorry, “action figure”) he can’t sit next to Captain America because he has a new friend now. In a world of parental controls, GPS tracking, and alert systems, the best monitoring in my opinion is the good old-fashioned way: paying attention. Do I censor? No. Do I monitor? Without question.
Would I let one of my children read The Thornbirds? Yes. I’d kind of like to know how it ends.
In the top 10 list of the most frequently challenged or banned books of 2015 4 of them were for children and young adults: