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When two readers love each other very much, they raise a smaller reader
August 19, 2011 1:34 PM   Subscribe

"It’s a mistake to rarify reading and put books out of reach."
posted by burnfirewalls (63 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
The good news, if there is a good news in this scenario, is that the 13 year old whose parents were looking askance at her buying a copy of that book don't really have any control over whether she checks it out of her public library. I was pleased that the author of this piece acknowledges that there are tricky situations going on here and doesn't villify the public servant or the parents but has more of a "this is a complicated situation" approach.
posted by jessamyn at 1:39 PM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don’t blame those two women any more than I blame the librarian. Their responsibility as guardians, whether they were aunts or family friends or much older sisters, is to watch out for the young person in their charge. Thirteen is a liminal moment between childhood and adulthood, so who am I to say what’s appropriate for someone that age, and for this particular thirteen year old I don’t know in the slightest.

I agree with most of the article, but this line of thinking seems ridiculous to me. Most thirteen year olds are more than capable of self-censoring; if they encounter something that makes them uncomfortable in a book, they can always put it down. The idea that we have a "responsibility as guardians" to thirteen year olds -- with respect to bookstore fiction, at least! -- is more about our own discomfort with certain ideas than it is about a realistic fear that young teens will be harmed by books.
posted by vorfeed at 1:51 PM on August 19, 2011 [10 favorites]


I totally agree with you vorfeed, I think this was more of an outcropping of the fact that in the US we often act like [and our laws support that] people own their children and are allowed to make decisions for their own children that we might not find appropriate so many people defer to the desire of the parents or guardians even when our own feelings may suggest a different path.
posted by jessamyn at 1:54 PM on August 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


It’s a mistake to assume, as Alan Jacobs did recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education (in a passage later quoted by Shelf Awareness), that readers are, “mostly born and only a little made.”
Damn straight. My parents were readers. I didn't inherit that from them genetically, but my brother, sister and I all learned it from them. I read to my son, and he's a reader. I read to my daughter, and she's one, too. Hell, I read to my wife, and now she's a reader - one who started long after she reached adulthood.

I don't think anyone is born with a tendency to like books.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:54 PM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


This, by the way, is the book that the young woman's guardians (not her parents...two roving great aunts, perhaps?) protected her from.

Now, my parents forbade a great number and variety of books, from Bleak House to Red Harvest, but I cannot imagine that they'd have forbidden a rather ordinary (though nice) looking grown-up novel from NPR's recommended summer reads when I was thirteen.

And for serious, books are not "tricky" unless you're talking hard-core pornography. I wouldn't give a 13-year-old Hogg, for example, but for real - show me the ideas contained in a book a thirteen-year-old can get through that are going to be that horribly toxic. Especially given the usual contents of YA novels, which are often pretty dubious - whether it's heroin addiction in Dinky Hopkins Shoots Smack! or simply terrible slishy romantic and classroom dramas.

I certainly remember being upset by books - Red Harvest, which I read on the sly, was rather queasy--making, Stephen King novels were scary, Anthony Burgess's various novels were misogynist and homophobic and kind of messed me up - but the most upsetting and frightening short stories, the most age-inappropriate, were definitely the ones in the Junior Great Books program when I was ten. I was not ready for "The Rocking Horse Winner" and "All Summer In A Day", even though they had child protagonists. Or the one where the Indian emigre girl gets beaten up, or the one where the kids destroy an old man's house. Those were haunting and frightening, and I would never have sought them out.
posted by Frowner at 1:54 PM on August 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


I love the idea of reading as a foundational freedom. When I take my 3-y.-o. to the library, I watch her pick out books, and there is something wonderful about hearing her ask, "And we can take this one home?" It may not be her library card, but choosing on her own which books to borrow is such a freeing experience for her: it's liberty and autonomy in a safe and friendly space, and it's a delight to witness.
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:58 PM on August 19, 2011 [9 favorites]


I don’t blame those two women any more than I blame the librarian. Their responsibility as guardians, whether they were aunts or family friends or much older sisters, is to watch out for the young person in their charge. Thirteen is a liminal moment between childhood and adulthood, so who am I to say what’s appropriate for someone that age, and for this particular thirteen year old I don’t know in the slightest.
Hmm. I'm an aunt, and I would probably be cautious in a situation like that precisely because I'm conscious that I'm *not* my nephews' guardian, and it's their parents', not my, responsibility to watch out for them. I find myself telling my nephews "let's ask your mom and dad first" an awful lot, just because I don't want to undermine my siblings' and their spouse's parenting choices, and I probably err on the side of caution. I suspect that will not be a factor in whether my nephews grow up to love books or not.
posted by craichead at 1:58 PM on August 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


“Books are so… books are tricky. That’s something your mother needs to decide.”

Fair enough about letting the parents decide, but books aren't tricky (for the most part). It's funny, because my parents did say that I wasn't allowed to watch certain movies before a certain age, but I can't imagine them ever even thinking about saying that I couldn't read a certain book.

And, until now, I don't think I've ever thought about the potential need to censor what my future children read. If their level of reading comprehension allows them to read the book then, unless it's pornographic or hateful, I can't think of a good reason for them not to read a book. If there are ideas that they find disturbing or confusing then, hey, teachable moment, right?
posted by asnider at 2:03 PM on August 19, 2011


My mother, who was perfectly happy to see me reading A Clockwork Orange and American Psycho in eighth grade, only ever put one restriction on my reading: no Ayn Rand, at least until 16. As a result I'm a happy and well-adjusted person who never had an Ayn Rand phase and certainly didn't miss it. Thanks Mom!
posted by villanelles at dawn at 2:04 PM on August 19, 2011 [24 favorites]


I am so glad to see Alan Jacobs get namedropped here. He's a professor at the college I attended, and somehow I managed never to have had a class with him or meet him; and ever since graduation I've heard more and more about him and sort of feel a weird pride of ownership despite that.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:04 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Their responsibility as guardians, whether they were aunts or family friends or much older sisters, is to watch out for the young person in their charge.

I just cannot get my head around the idea that ordinary, non-Joy of Sex level books are so dangerous that each one must be scrutinized before a young teen can read it. I had the entire run of the adult library from the time I was eleven or so, with the understanding that my parents would see any books I brought home. I would be very interested to hear from parents who feel that they need to check each fairly-innocuous-looking book (and by "check" I mean more than "see if the blurb looks dodgy, investigate further if the book seems to be mostly about drugs and sex and serial killing".) Why? What do you look for that's not fairly readily apparent on the cover and in the marketing?
posted by Frowner at 2:08 PM on August 19, 2011


Books are "tricky" because reading them can lead to independent thinking. There are a lot of people who don't like that.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:12 PM on August 19, 2011 [18 favorites]


Fair enough about letting the parents decide, but books aren't tricky (for the most part.

Books are tricky--everything is tricky if you're not the parent. I'm a mom of 3, ages 10, 7 and 4, and parents these days protect their children from/deny their children many things, from sugar to specific video games and TV shows to particular content in books (though books come up less often than other things). And some of them get really bent out of shape if their guidelines aren't followed. They/we want a sometimes-unreasonable level of control. The aunt story struck me as maybe that kind of thing--I know I am sometimes tense about what I offer to other people's kids.

The library card thing is just kind of weird. My son had a library card before he was 2, I think. I signed him up for it to get us around the 50-item checkout limit. All our library asks is that a parent sign a form and vouch for the kid.
posted by not that girl at 2:12 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


And, until now, I don't think I've ever thought about the potential need to censor what my future children read. If their level of reading comprehension allows them to read the book then, unless it's pornographic or hateful, I can't think of a good reason for them not to read a book.

Ah, your hypothetical future children! It actually is possible to have kids who read at a level that makes books they're not emotionally or otherwise ready for accessible to them. I have several friends who have to navigate this with kids who are early-elementary age (or even younger) but capable of reading young adult novels. It's easy to talk about teachable moments, but those teachable moments can be very challenging--a friend was just talking to me about her five-year-old grandson starting to read Tom Sawyer, and his mother realizing that he wasn't cognitively prepared, or possessed of enough context, to handle a conversation about the racial content. He wasn't just not ready for the book, he wasn't prepared for the teachable moment yet.
posted by not that girl at 2:16 PM on August 19, 2011


One of the greatest things my mother did for me was absolutely not supervise my reading in any way. If a book was around the house, or at the library, or if I got it from Weekly Reader or later, from a bookstore, then it was "appropriate" for me. I also babysat a lot and had free run of the families' bookshelves.

And I read lots and lots and lots and lots of deeply inappropriate material, I am proud to say. I wish I had been in charge of my nieces' late childhood and early teenage reading because I would have encouraged them to do the same (by shutting up and ignoring it).
posted by FelliniBlank at 2:20 PM on August 19, 2011 [10 favorites]


I don't know; when I was a kid there were a number of books I read that kind of upset me, because while I may have been able to read them, the material or storylines or context were emotionally beyond what I was capable of. I was an "advanced" reader, so I was often enouraged by my parents to read books beyond my level, and sometimes that was good and challenging, but there were a few occasions where, upon retrospect, I'm really surprised my parents "let" me read something, and wishing they hadn't (or wishing they'd read it with me, or better prepared me for it).
posted by Ideal Impulse at 2:23 PM on August 19, 2011


My mom took one book away from me - it might have been one of the Flowers in the Attic books - because she said it was the worst-written thing she'd ever come across (she taught American lit). Other than that, there were no restrictions at all put on what I read. Of course, she knew me, and I suppose it's possible that if I had picked up, I don't know, Fear of Flying at age 8 (it was on our shelves), she might have not let me read it then. But that never happened, so I'll never know.
posted by rtha at 2:24 PM on August 19, 2011


“Books are so… books are tricky. That’s something your mother needs to decide.”

In theory, I know there are plenty of parents who monitor their children's reading, or get veto power over what they do and don't read. I confess this is a totally alien practice to me though. I am ever more grateful that thanks to a combination of my parents being way too busy with work, their not being familiar with English language literature, and my own voracious reading pace that my parents never really monitored my reading. My mom read to me when I was learning to read, but after that it was wind me up and watch me go: I got any and every book I wanted from the library (within the checkout limits) when I went twice a month with my parents, and my mom brought home tons of Goosebumps paperbacks from the Goodwill store she managed. Neither of my parents ever expressed any judgments about my reading, and the only comments they ever made on the books I checked out of the library or bought were "Are you sure you can read all of those in two weeks?" and "Do we even have room for any more books?"

I guess I can understand finding it "tricky" to decide what you should and shouldn't feel comfortable allowing or recommending to a kid who's not yours. Leaving aside issues of objectionable or mature content, there are plenty of books that a younger reader just plain won't fully understand, because they don't have the context or cognitive skills yet. I do find it difficult to know what books fall in those categories for my younger cousins when their parents ask me to recommend books for them. But then I self-censored pretty well as a young reader, and when I didn't, it was a valuable lesson learned. (When I learned that lesson: reading 1984 as an eleven year old. Without the appropriate amount of context and critical analysis, I didn't get anything out of it other than "authoritarianism is bad" and just found it intensely disturbing.) Still, I err on the side of permissiveness. I think it's better for a young reader to learn their tastes and their limits than to have someone make those decisions for them.
posted by yasaman at 2:28 PM on August 19, 2011


the only book that my i remember my parents being worried about me reading was the malleus maleficarum, which i checked out during my john bellairs inspired devil magic phase in 4th grade. my dad was worried because the book used the word "semen", and was visibly relieved when i said i had given up on reading it because it was super boring.
posted by beefetish at 2:33 PM on August 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


I just wanted to say thanks to my mom and dad for very rarely restricting access to any books and specifically for this:
1) When we passed by a bookstore in LA when I was 8 and I saw a Griffin and Sabine boxed set and was intrigued by the concept of an entire trilogy in epistolary form (complete with actual letters that were folded into actual envelopes!), that they didn't say oh this doesn't look appropriate for an 8-year-old but just went ahead and bought it for me, slightly sexual content be damned.
2) That I was allowed to read books on sex in Japan, domestic violence in the Congo and even their own books on gender-neutral parenting, if I was interested (and I often was!).
3) That however little money they had for new clothes or home entertainment systems, there was always money for more books.
4) That when I was 13 they got me the book on sexuality, sex and drugs (Deal with It) that I specifically requested and didn't bat an eye at its depiction of human sexuality as a continuum, its exploration of the different slang terms for drugs and sex and even its illustrated guide to vaginal secretions.
5) That despite all the above, they still thought Mills and Boon and Harlequin romances were not appropriate for me until I was 16 at least. I used to think it was because of the sex, but now I think it's because they're just terrible examples for women -- ok for my mom to read as a guilty pleasure, but perhaps at 11 not really appropriate for me.
posted by peacheater at 2:35 PM on August 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Ah, your hypothetical future children! It actually is possible to have kids who read at a level that makes books they're not emotionally or otherwise ready for accessible to them. I have several friends who have to navigate this with kids who are early-elementary age (or even younger) but capable of reading young adult novels. It's easy to talk about teachable moments, but those teachable moments can be very challenging--a friend was just talking to me about her five-year-old grandson starting to read Tom Sawyer, and his mother realizing that he wasn't cognitively prepared, or possessed of enough context, to handle a conversation about the racial content. He wasn't just not ready for the book, he wasn't prepared for the teachable moment yet.

I guess the question I would have is -- so what? What is the bad result that follows when you allow your "cognitively unprepared" kid to read Tom Sawyer? He'll come back to it later and understand more, maybe. And couldn't a book be one place where you can pick up the "context" and other resources that allow you to understand our complicated world?

I wasn't a precocious enough reader to read myself Tom Sawyer at 5, but I wasn't much older when my dad started reading me Mark Twain, starting I think with Huck Finn. Those were good times.
posted by grobstein at 2:36 PM on August 19, 2011 [8 favorites]


When I was in high school, due to roleplaying games (Thanks, On the Edge!) I ended up reading Junky and Naked Lunch along with the beat poets and other weird things. My parents never said a word. Then, in college, I had left a copy of Rule of the Bone laying around the house and my parents told me they didn't like what I was reading. IIRC, the only slightly objectionable stuff in ROTB was the kid smoking pot and running away from home.

Overall, I think I'm lucky that my parents weren't big readers like I was.
posted by drezdn at 2:36 PM on August 19, 2011


I don't know; when I was a kid there were a number of books I read that kind of upset me

I certainly read books that upset me (even to this day, I read books that upset me - but that's not the same thing, I admit). And I certainly read books where I was not ready for any 'teachable moment' - but my parents weren't especially invested in teachable moments. They tended - for good and for bad - to let books speak for themselves. Of course, I was an exceedingly opinionated child anyway.

On balance, though, the freedom was worth the upset - I don't see how it couldn't have been, unless the parental library was exclusively composed of Anthony Burgess, fundie doctrine and the Marquis de Sade. The books that upset me also brought me a lot of knowledge and ideas and puzzles and sometimes validated my own experience of the world (Lord of the Flies - "OMG, I'm Piggy", I thought immediately.) I remember puzzling and puzzling and puzzling over the violence in Red Harvest, the gaybashing in several Steven King books, all kinds of stuff in the abnormal psych books from the sixties that I was reading at 14. Not to mention the big chunks of history and culture that you pick up.

Seriously, Steven King made me smarter. I remember reading almost all of the then-published Steven King books when I was in junior high - there's a big section in one of his books about racism in the US military in WWII; I'd never heard of gay bars until I read It (which even then I recognized as kind of homophobic and fucked up); there's just a whole bunch of US culture stuff from the 50s and sixties...plus the notion, in the otherwise problematic Shawshank Redemption, that people can be convicted of crimes for expediency - an idea that my 8th grade English teacher did not appreciate. And those were the schlock books that I was reading.

There was something, too, in being able to develop a personality as a reader apart from my personality as a daughter. I could read things that my parents wouldn't approve of or would find incredibly pointless and trivial (my father is the last of the "universal themes are the only valid themes" men). I could have opinions about books that I did not need to share or justify. I could be, in my own head, a pint-sized scholar and intellectual.

Honestly, I was shaken up by books at thirteen, but I think it's relevant that I'm shaken up by books now too. Books shake you up if you read enough of them.
posted by Frowner at 2:37 PM on August 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


Books are not tricky... and I've got to say that I'm offended by the idea that any parent would prevent their child from reading any particular book. Before you jump on me, let me explain...

Apparently I started reading at 2. I taught myself the alphabet from sesame street and street signs. My parents were big readers (it is telling that my first word was "book"), and we always had books in the house. We lived in the country so a couple of times a year we would make a trip to the city and my mother would buy a huge number of books, for my sisters and I as well as for herself. I had access to any book in our house (though I had to ask for the ones on the high shelves), as well as any book in the public library or in my grandparents house.

When I was seven I was reading the Narnia books. When I was nine I was reading Sherlock Holmes. At twelve I had moved onto Austen and Tolstoy. No book was off limits. I remember finding some books difficult, and some books challenging. Some books I stopped reading because I figured I should wait a few years more to try them. I was never censored in my reading. I just wondered my way through the literary cannon, devouring books and learning about anything and everything on the way.

When you restrict access to books, you restrict a child's development. Unlike film, books depend on a child's imagination to take tangible shape. If a child reads something that they don't understand, they'll simply come up with their own explanation or they'll ask someone about it. None of my nightmares came from books. If a child finds something in a book frightening, the book will generally provide the tools for a child to deal with it. In any case, I don't think we should be protecting children from such things - books are a way in which we can learn about elements of living that we haven't yet experienced.

Apart from anything else, reading teaches empathy. There's nothing tricky about that.

NB. For the record, I also read a number of controversial books when under the age of 18, for example, American Psycho. Because I'd grown up reading from the get-go, I'd learned to read books critically, so rather than be frightened I was merely sickened. I then read up on the cultural and historical context of that book, learning more and more about what the big deal was. In the end I decided that I wasn't sure what I thought of the book (except that I didn't like its misogyny), but that it wasn't worth anyone getting too het up about. Equally, at 16-18 I was reading the Roman poets Catullus and Ovid, and having my presentation on their erotic poetry censored in my year 11 ancient history class. Again, I'd already learned that there wasn't anything bad about this poetry, just that some people are far to quick to judge. SO MANY LIFE LESSONS LEARNED, simply through summers of reading from dawn to dusk.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 2:41 PM on August 19, 2011 [13 favorites]


Typing this from the reference desk at work...

I understand the point the article makes, but really, I pray for the day that regulation-loving librarians and overly-concerned parents are any more than a drop in the bucket where any "rarification" of reading is concerned. The second paragraph of the article momentarily hits on the much bigger threat to reading: a society that cares so little about books and reading that it allows--demands, even--budget cuts that result in reduced hours, bare-bones staffing, and closed branches in the public library.

The problem is exacerbated on both the supply side (cuts to libraries and schools, villification of public services) and the demand side (people who, as the products of shitty schools and race-to-the-bottom consumer culture, see no value in investing in something so useless and tiring as reading).

So yeah, while I agree that "It’s a mistake to rarify reading and put books out of reach," I think it's a mistake we're making, as a nation, with no intent to change course anytime soon.
posted by Rykey at 2:41 PM on August 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


I thought the best part of this piece came from Mitch Hedberg—“Every book is a children’s book if the kid can read!”
posted by Toekneesan at 2:42 PM on August 19, 2011 [6 favorites]


RKS jr's junior high teacher told us last night at orientation that our child would be reading "To Kill a Mockingbird." And said, in a tone of voice that suggested she certainly didn't EXPECT anyone would have a problem with it, that if we had a problem with that book to let her know. It had the sound of a contractual obligation thing she had to say, that she didn't really want to say that, but there it was.

To Kill a Mockingbird.

Sheesh.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:47 PM on August 19, 2011


thinking back i think my mom raised more of a stink about the misogyny inherent to anime and the shitty science fiction movies i obsessed over as a teenager than anything that i ever read including the malleus maleficarum.
posted by beefetish at 2:48 PM on August 19, 2011


The bit about the library card is really strange too. They won't let the parent fill out the name on the card? My daughter had a library card last year when she was two!

On the other hand, while the rule in our house is that my kids can read anything they want, I do feel obliged to maybe suggest that the just-turned-6-year-old maybe isn't quite ready to read certain books (later Harry Potter, for example). But mostly she does a pretty good job (well, except for the fact that she's obsessed with these crappy fairy chapter books. Dana the Dance fairy, Henrietta the horse fairy, etc. Why can't they do Marta the Mathematician Fairy ?).
posted by leahwrenn at 2:56 PM on August 19, 2011


I wrote about a similar situation in a blog I used to write about scholarly publishing. It recounts an incident that occurred in a bookstore I ran. I'm a bit mystified at people who protect their children from books. They will let that same kid watch the worst television on the planet, but they are concerned about what I can only imagine is an expansion of the kid's vocabulary.
posted by Toekneesan at 2:58 PM on August 19, 2011


Among the largest barriers to making children love reading are the third of 4th graders in the US who score below basic on reading exams, including an appalling 73% below basic in Detroit, and 60% or more in several other large American cities. If reading remains frustrating at age 9, reading becomes something other kids do, and leaves a ripple effect in poor academic performance that has existential sorts of consequences by adulthood. There's no doubt library availability plays a role in whether kids read a little or a lot. But imagine the impact we could make by giving reading instruction the kick in the ass it needs.

Without re-litigating the reading wars, it's important to point out that both the National Research Council in 1998 and the National Reading Panel in 2000 have spoken to the importance of phonics in reading instruction. The National Council on Teacher Quality (disclaimer - a former employer) has noted that only 15% of education schools provide even minimal exposure to scientifically-based reading instruction. US public education is leaving a huge cohort of kids - most of them low-income and minority - critically underprepared to read the books we expect them to fall in love with.
posted by Apropos of Something at 2:59 PM on August 19, 2011


I don’t blame those two women

I do. Or at least, I do if the story is complete and accurate, which is impossible to tell from here.

As presented, they judge the mother's potential disapproval as overwhelmingly more important than the daughter's certain interest in the book. A decent person who believed that the mother has the right to forbid specific books, and was concerned that this particular one might get forbidden, would nevertheless want to help the daughter have a chance to get what she wants, and would try to find a solution. They'd check the bookstore's return policy; inspect the book themselves on the spot; ask the daughter if she's willing to risk losing her money when her mother confiscates the book; ask themselves if they're willing to take that risk, and if so, buy the book now and let the daughter buy it from them later if approved. Anything, really, just think about it for a few seconds. The aunts just reject the proposal outright, which says they don't give a damn what the daughter wants. That's absolutely blameworthy.

(If, I repeat, the story is complete and accurate as presented. I'm also assuming they're not opposed to books generally, which would of course be a whole other kind of awful.)
posted by stebulus at 3:02 PM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've never met a child or an adult who was harmed by reading too many books, or the wrong sort of book (insert religious snark here). I've met many children, and even more adults, who certainly appeared harmed for lack of reading. Better to err on the side of caution and let children read all they want.
posted by Sternmeyer at 3:09 PM on August 19, 2011 [9 favorites]


I would have been just as happy not to have read as much Mr. Natural as I did when I was 13. R Crumb has some fucked up views about women. In general, I'm glad my parents protected me as much as they did from books that objectified women and boy are there LOTS of them.

In my parents' defense, Mr. Natural was not at our house but at lots and lots of friends' houses. Fantasy novels are a whole 'nother subject. I had to read those on the sly.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:15 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


When I was 12 years old, I picked up a copy of The Exorcist at a church rummage sale and handed it to the old woman manning the table. I actually had no idea what would be in it, and was only vaguely aware that it was an "adult" horror movie.

Old woman screwed her face up and delivered what she thought would be a crushing denouncement: "what would your mother think if she saw you reading this book!?"

I was both embarassed and insulted. I ran across the room and found my mom, and dragged her over to the book table. Picked up The Exorcist and said, mom, can I buy this book?

My mom's eyebrows went up -- perhaps she, unlike me, knew that the novel contained crucifix masturbation -- but after a moment, she shrugged, looked at the old woman and said, "if he's old enough to WANT to read it, he's old enough to read it".

Yeah, moms was pretty cool.
posted by the bricabrac man at 3:25 PM on August 19, 2011 [7 favorites]


I found a comment that appears relevant to whether "born readers" exist.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 3:26 PM on August 19, 2011


The closest my mom ever came to censoring my reading materials was when she sat me down for a long and detailed discussion about racism against Native Americans while I was in the middle of reading the Little House books; I was 5 and all I wanted was maple syrup candy.

A few years later, when I was maybe 8 or 9, the mean bully school librarian tried to prevent me from reading some random YA novel (likely Are You There God), despite many explicitly permissive notes on file for me from both parents unilaterally allowing me to read whatever the fuck I wanted. When I related the story over dinner, my dad had to get up from the table and go outside to stomp around ragily (although I didn't know this until many years later). The next day, he stayed home from work to take me to school, and gave the librarian a considerable piece of his mind for "attempting to squash my intellectual curiosity". I think the best part was when he compared her to Pol Pot.

(also i learned a lot of hungarian swears that day.)
posted by elizardbits at 3:46 PM on August 19, 2011 [17 favorites]


My parents put absolutely no restrictions I was aware of on what I read (or on what I ate, but that's another story).

At ten, almost eleven, near the end of the 5th grade, I got hold of Mein Kampf in one of those strange and perhaps illegal to sell at that time pulp paperback editions which was very luridly translated and which had a big center section of black and white photographs printed on slick paper that were taken mainly in Nazi concentration camps and showed close-ups of results of tortures and ghastly medical experiments, stacks of gassed dead bodies, emaciated and not, full frontal naked and just utterly pitiably starved men and women, and a series of pictures of young women running naked through a gauntlet of uniformed men on either side, with a caption that explained how the soldiers were "choosing" women from among the inmates. I'm not actually sure what impact having this book has had on me. I believe my parents knew I had it, since it was lying around for a while, but I'm not sure.

Haven't thought about that in a long time.
posted by jamjam at 3:55 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was allowed to read anything from my parents house, the library, or anywhere else, as long as it was type only. My parents once said something to the effect of "If they're old enough to understand it, it won't hurt them; and if they're not old enough to understand it, it still won't hurt them.". Pictures and movies were another matter, due to the less mediated emotional response. Naked people and ordinary sex were OK. Violence and disfiguration weren't.
What this FPP and discussion mostly remind me of was a friend's story of teaching herself to read at age 3 from the newspaper comics section. When someone saw her sprawled on the floor reading from "that trash", her mother replied "Yes, but you'll notice she's *reading*.".
posted by Dreidl at 4:04 PM on August 19, 2011


I think the best part was when he compared her to Pol Pot.

Best. dad. ever.
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:05 PM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ironically, Stephen King wrote the ultimate cautionary tale about the dangers of reading: "Apt Pupil" (in Different Seasons). (How are the winos in your neighborhood doing, jamjam?)
posted by Crabby Appleton at 4:05 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


One's *own* library card, the official document that grants you both the right and the ability to fill your brain with whatever stuff you choose, in pro per, is a huge deal. I will always remember the day I could write small enough to get my card -- and I have a 15-character name, which includes one of those maddening lower-case "g"s, so easily confused with "p" or "q"... It was something I had fought for and won, it was earned.

The author almost seems to be saying that making something a little bit hard to get would discourage kids from wanting that thing. What?
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 4:15 PM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I will always remember the day I could write small enough to get my card

For real? Is this really a common thing? When I first read it (in the linked article), it struck me as very odd.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 4:17 PM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Better to err on the side of caution and let children read all they want.

I wonder sometimes when I read stories like this, whether there is actually a large cohort of people who are concerned about, to the point of disallowing, what young people read, or if there is actually a very very small cohort but a lot of people who live in perpetual fear of those people [and their lawsuits, and their rage] and thus sort of over-moderate what they have available in order to try to preemptively avoid conflicts. Don't even stock the slightly age-inappropriate YA books and then you don't have to fight about them. I have spoken to librarians in states in the midwest who even get overrruled by their technical sevices staff. They'll buy a book about sex, one for adults mind you, and it will somehow get lost in processing and never make it to the shelves, consistently. And if you're the lone librarian in a small town and you know the board won't agree with your position, it's tough to determine whether it's a hill you want to die on.

There is a general conflict in the library profession about children's rights, about how far to go. In many public libraries in the US, teenagers can check out R rated movies [because the MPAA guidelines are just that, guidelines] because libraries don't uphold the same rating systems as the movies. This, predictably, drives a lot of parents and other "concerned citizens" somewhat batty.

There are also a few very very vocal folks, I might call them concern trolls, who seem inordinately concerned about what other people's children are reading and believe that there is actual harm done to young people who read age-inappropriate stuff, especially sex-related stuff. The evidence does not support this [well, like all evidence, there is some fringe-y evidence that supports it, but the bulk of the evidence does not support this at all]. And the thing about these people is that they can be in many places at once, argue with a lot of people at once, thanks to the internet, giving the appearance of much more of a groundswell of support.

Vermont recently amended their state law concerning library privacy, giving slightly less privacy to very young children but considerably more to older teens. This was controversial locally a little but I think people were happy with how it worked out generally. It's a really problematic issue, how much of a young child's reading habits should stay entirely secret from the parents, reasonable people disagree on where to draw the line. People from all over showed up on the VT Library Association blog and elsewhere to claim all manner of outrageous things about the steps the VLA was taking, the harm that would befall children, etc. It was difficult to deal with, even though we were comfortable and confident with our decisions. And I think people sometimes think about a difficult conflict like that and overemphasize the size of the negative response because the VOLUME of the negative response is so great even though the number of people who are participating may be super small. It's important to talk these things out when they happen, and even more important to talk to your kids about it.

Back on topic, I was always allowed to read what I wanted, but my mom oddly [she said herself, later] drew the line at graphically disturbing Newsweek covers during the Vietnam War.
posted by jessamyn at 4:20 PM on August 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


One of the big policy changes I made back in the day, when I was a newly minted librarian, was to allow any child at all to have a library card, regardless of age or writing ability. Some parents were very upset when this changed, and still made their kids wait until they could fill out the application themselves. I didn't get it then, and I don't get it now.
posted by Biblio at 4:40 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I remember the day I tried to check out a YA novel called Poor Jenny, Bright as a Penny and the librarian told me it was "too advanced."

I went home and told my mom, who promptly turned around and went back to the library and told the librarian right then and there that there were no books in the library I couldn't read. Period. I was about 10. The mere fact that my mom told another adult that I was to be trusted with anything written was more awesome than the book. And yeah, there were books down the road that I got a hold of and didn't understand or made me think a little too hard about unpleasant subjects, but knowing that my mom thought I could handle it made it better.

I have a number of friends with daughters in the pre-teen/early teen age range that are avid readers. All of those girls ask me what to read because they know I read *everything*. With my goddaughter, I can give her anything I think she'll like, because her folks trust her to read anything. There've been a few books I suggested to her that she either didn't like or thought they were too "lovey". I try with her to think of books that I read at that age or ones that I would have liked to read at that age and suggest appropriately. With the rest of the young girls, their parents are much more restrictive and I have to be very, very careful of what I suggest. I've gotten in trouble for suggesting The Tale of Despareux because the Mom thought it was too dark.

All these girls are nerdy and big readers, but my goddaughter has a level of confidence with the adult world that the other girls seem to lack. I'm not saying it's because of what she's read, but she is a way different young lady than the other girls her age.
posted by teleri025 at 4:47 PM on August 19, 2011


My mother, who was perfectly happy to see me reading A Clockwork Orange and American Psycho in eighth grade, only ever put one restriction on my reading: no Ayn Rand, at least until 16. As a result I'm a happy and well-adjusted person who never had an Ayn Rand phase and certainly didn't miss it.

Ah, see, age 16 was exactly when I discovered Ayn Rand—I'd never heard of her before then—and I spent the next couple of years in an Ayn Rand (but also an F. Scott Fitzgerald, Orson Scott Card, Robert Penn Warren, and Richard Feynman) phase. The things my parents weren't thrilled with me reading around that time: Erica Jong books and magazines like Cosmopolitan. On the other hand, I think I was 10 when I read The Abortion. [shrugs]
posted by limeonaire at 5:00 PM on August 19, 2011


My son has had unrestricted access to the internet since he was 3 years old. He is now 18. We kept him out of school and called it homeschooling. He pretty much got over his porn phase when he was 7.
posted by Ardiril at 5:06 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some parents ... still made their kids wait until they could fill out the application themselves. I didn't get it then, and I don't get it now.

I'm one of those parents. In c. 1974 when I got my card, that was the library's rule -- but in c. 1995-1998 I required my kids to fill out the application themselves to get their own cards. Before that, of course, I'd check out stuff to read to them on my own card.

Having a library card before you can fill out the application is meaningless -- a driver's license without the driving test. What purpose is served by giving the *parent* an additional card on which to check out books? The whole magic of one's own library card is the autonomy of it, that it is in a very real way your admission ticket to the life of the mind, with your name on it, non-transferrable. It is a significant step, and I think we lose something if we don't treat it that way.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 5:10 PM on August 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


I think the only thing that can result in harm is a lack of knowledge; what's worse: a child who sneaks a sexy romance book which depicts women as inferior beings without any idea that's not how it should be, or a child who reads the same sexy romance with the knowledge that the characters depicted are caricatures and are not how life actually works?
posted by maxwelton at 5:18 PM on August 19, 2011


I got a library card for the first time back when I was six. I had a bunch of books at home too back then, because my parents were always encouraging me to read, read books to me, and even though we never had much, always made reading important.

I used that same library card from ages six to eighteen, until the system made me replace it. I have kept it as a souvenir. I had two homes as a kid -- the library and the arcade. Even now, many years later, I'm still an avid reader, I'm a writer, and a gamer too. All of these have melded for me professionally as well.

So yes, let kids pick out their own books. Let them figure out what interests them. It may be reading about railroads, or it may be nonfiction. Age recommendations are loose guidelines. More importantly, let them try. Banish the words "you can't" when it cmes to reading.

I picked up MacBeth at 10. Did I understand everything? Of course not. But I followed plots and I loved learning new words and figuring out what was going on. I challenged myself even without even realizing. No matter what, never ever discourage them.
posted by cmgonzalez at 5:26 PM on August 19, 2011


I can't imagine telling my daughter, at any age, that she couldn't read any book. Nothing discouraged reading. She never wanted for a book more than a day, (unless I had to search for it) and they all were chosen by her. The ones chosen by me or her mother were usually ignored, either pointedly, kindly, absently, or WTF Dad/Mom!. Books from relatives received the same treatment. She read constantly, and woe betide the person who objected, including teachers.

yasaman

"Are you sure you can read all of those in two weeks?"

Where did a four year old get such a powerfully withering look?

...reading 1984 as an eleven year old....just found it intensely disturbing.

That's the age she read it, and it freaked her out, too. But concurrently, she had a computer class, in which one project was to typeset a business card; she made one for

O'Briens' Interrogation Services
"How far will you go
when you really want to know?"

with a little logo of a guy with a cattle prod and a smoking iron.

One of my worst memories involved a librarian in 1955: I had been to see the film "Daddy Longlegs" in which Fred Astaire does a little drum solo/dance thing, which, since I was studying drums, made me enthusiatically interested in "Daddy Longlegs". So, nerd that I was, I rode my bike to the library next day to see if I could check out the book, which I was about to do when when this old librarian built like Big Mama Thornton bent way over and shook her head, saying, none too softly, "Are you sure you want to check out that book? It's really a girls' book, you know." I was a kind of wussy kid, (never did make much of a drummer) and I was mortified. I've never forgotten that moment, and I think if her grandson was known to me I'd set O'Brien's Interrogations on him.
posted by carping demon at 5:29 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Having a library card before you can fill out the application is meaningless -- a driver's license without the driving test. What purpose is served by giving the *parent* an additional card on which to check out books?
I was a really early reader and a really late writer. I have terrible small-motor skills, and in order to learn to write I had to see a "writing tutor" who I now suspect was some sort of occupational therapist. I could have easily passed a reading test, so I'm not sure why an arbitrary *writing* test would be equivalent to getting a drivers' license without a driving test.

Anyway, I'm glad there wasn't a rule like that when I was a kid, because I definitely got a library card before I could print my name in teeny tiny letters, and it would have been too bad if my writing difficulties had gotten in the way of me becoming a reader.
posted by craichead at 5:44 PM on August 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


"It’s a mistake to rarify reading and put books out of reach."

THIS IS WHY BOOKMOBILE IS THE BEST USE OF MY TAX DOLLARS EVER.

*cough* Sorry about that, my enthusiasm overflowed. I adore the bookmobile, though. In my city, it visits all the neighborhoods where you can't walk to visit a branch without crossing a major (unsafe) road, with a particular focus on impoverished neighborhoods. Mostly children's books, but also movies and adult books. The absolute highlight of my toddler's week is when we walk the couple of blocks to the bookmobile -- rain, shine, or dire ice -- and he picks out three books, mostly about trucks or insects, to take home with him. IT BLOWS HIS FREAKING MIND that he gets to pick new books every two weeks. He's even started letting the librarian scan his books. (He can pick out more, but three is about the ceiling on what I can keep track of.)

I seriously cannot wait until he's old enough to ask for his own library card. We go to the branch libraries too, but it's just not the same as the bookmobile, that he can walk to BY HISSELF (no hands held) and pick out his own books. I think the smallness of it, the curated selection, makes it less overwhelming. (Also I just learned I can order books interlibrary loan SENT TO THE BOOKMOBILE which is one step less awesome than having a librarian actually deliver them to my house. OMG I LOVE BOOKMOBILE.)

My parents never censored my reading, although my mom did almost crash the car when I was 7 and asked her what a prostitute was. (I think I was reading Jane Eyre but I don't know for sure.)

SFF is so popular among teenagers today. I am like the clearinghouse for my friends with teenagers. Friend: "Should she read book X?" Me: "It has some sexuality but it's sensitively and appropriately handled, I think she'll get a lot out of it ... and if she likes that, try book Y ...."

Also I would like to say that every December my book club picks a YA novel as a faster read when we all have holiday obligations, and we invite members' teens and tweens to read it with us and attend the meeting, where we have a fully adult discussion about it in which they are involved. Highly recommend this as a strategy, the teens and tweens get pretty excited about getting to come to adult book club and argue about books with us. We've also usually done the "The Big Read" novel each year, and invited members' high school students to join us. This is also awesome. Teenagers are pretty impressed by adults talking passionately about books.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:01 PM on August 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


Overall, I think I'm lucky that my parents weren't big readers like I was.

Heh, this was how I got around it too. I read all sorts of 'orrible stuff--Flowers in the Attic, etc., as well as literature that I didn't know was literature (but then, Dickens kinds of falls in that category anyway). The only complaint was that I left the books around the house and cluttered it up.

The only thing they ever took away from me was a copy of a D&D Manual I borrowed from a friend's brother who played it. But that was because of the Satanic Menace that they kept hearing about in church, and also the giant red demon on the cover didn't help.

Of course, my parents didn't have graphic novels with violence and sex in them like I do, either; I am planning to keep some of those from him until he's a teen, because a gradeschooler might be a bit young for a few of those Sandman stories.

Does that make me a hypocrite? Maybe.
posted by emjaybee at 6:03 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thank you burnfirewalls, and you too Metafilter, for reminding me of one of the amazing things my family gave me, unrestricted access to books. I only ever had one person express concern over what I was reading, my sophomore English teacher. I was way ahead on my classwork and grabbed A Clockwork Orange off the shelf next to my desk. It was one of the titles for his senior novels class. I was a couple chapters in when he noticed I'd picked it up and came by to ask what I thought. I talked about how cool I thought Nadsat was. He looked at me a bit sideways then said, "Don't tell anyone where you got it," with a bit of a smile.

I remember being a bit shocked for a moment when I realized he might get in trouble for letting me read it, perhaps a lot of trouble. Then I felt a little sad, which eventually morphed into a nice clandestine vibe which went well with the book. He left after my junior year, so I never got to take his novel class. Mr. Ainsworth was one of the good ones. Thanks to you too, Mr. Ainsworth.
posted by calamari kid at 12:44 AM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, is this where we talk about what our parents did/didn't allow us to read? OK, great!

My mom teaches 4th grade and has since before I was born. My grandmother before her was an elementary school teacher and principal. My great grandmother before her was an elementary school teacher. From the time I was born, my house was full (literally, we had rooms filled floor to ceiling) with child-appropriate reading material. With the exception of a few books I flat out refused to read for arbitrary and obstinate reasons (Lord of the Flies, Call it Courage, and a couple others--I don't know why) I read pretty much all of them.

Well, when I was seven, Jurassic Park had just come out, and it was my favorite movie. We went to see it in the theaters (4 year old brother in tow), and I would. not. shut. up. about it. Best movie ever, right!? Dinosaurs! My dad decided that to fill the time before it came out on video, he'd give me the book...maybe all the words and geneticsy talk would wear me out and I'd chill a little bit.

Well, I blasted through Jurassic Park no problem. My teachers were "concerned". The kids in my class, most of whom hadn't even been allowed to see the PG-13 movie went ballistic, "that page has the word DAMN on it! I'm going to tell on you!" (In case any of you are wondering, I actually re-read Jurassic Park last month for the first time since I was 7. I was shocked at how much I remembered.)

Seeing how much I liked Jurassic Park, my dad decided to continue the Crichton thing and give me The Andromeda Strain. Boom. Done. Then he gave me Sphere. Boom. Done. (I should note that these books gave me horrible nightmares. I didn't tell my parents, of course, because I wanted to be allowed to keep reading, but I really worked myself into a tizzy. As long as I was actively reading, I didn't have a bedtime as a kid, so I'd stay up into the middle of the night to finish a book. I remember it was 3 in the morning when I finished Sphere, which ended on a somewhat ambiguous note, and I had to read Vampires Don't Wear Polka Dots in its entirety so I could get my mind off of Sphere long enough to fall sleep.

After the great success with Crichton, my dad decided that I must just really like science fiction. So he did what any responsible parent would do and gave his nine year old daughter Brave New World. Yes, the book that features a chapter of small children fucking. After Huxley, it was "you like animals, right? Here, read Animal Farm."

So yeah, no censoring in my house. The only book I recall ever having been barred from me was Lolita. My dad read it when I was ten or eleven, and I asked him if it was good (a relevant question, since he usually passed everything he read on to me when he was done). He wouldn't talk about the book, said it was really boring, and hid it somewhere after he finished it. Having now read Lolita as an adult, I have to say that yeah, that was probably a wise choice.

But damn, dude, books! Books are awesome!
posted by phunniemee at 8:05 AM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have several friends who have to navigate this with kids who are early-elementary age (or even younger) but capable of reading young adult novels. It's easy to talk about teachable moments, but those teachable moments can be very challenging--a friend was just talking to me about her five-year-old grandson starting to read Tom Sawyer, and his mother realizing that he wasn't cognitively prepared, or possessed of enough context, to handle a conversation about the racial content. He wasn't just not ready for the book, he wasn't prepared for the teachable moment yet.

Not a personal attack, NTG, but man, using Mark Twain as the example here is pretty funny. Because you know what he would have to say about withholding books from kids over concerns about the viability of teachable moments.
posted by No-sword at 3:41 PM on August 20, 2011


Not a personal attack, NTG, but man, using Mark Twain as the example here is pretty funny. Because you know what he would have to say about withholding books from kids over concerns about the viability of teachable moments.

I'm really sorry I used the phrase "teachable moment." It's not a concept I have any affection for, and people seem to have jumped on it to ridicule it.

I think the concern parents have about books like Tom Sawyer or the Little House books is that children will take in the racist content uncritically. I don't know how valid that fear is; my own experience of reading those books as a child is that the racist content went right past me--I didn't connect Laura Ingalls Wilder's Indians with modern Indians in my mind, for instance--and, since I was a voracious reader, it was just one image of Indians that I took in. Likewise Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn--sure, I had Jim as one of my images of black people, but I also read To Kill a Mockingbird, Black Like Me, Invisible Man (comprehending it not at all, as I recall), a whole range of white-woman-taken-by-Indians romance novels, and so on. Maybe that's the fallacy behind parents' fears of this kind of thing--that they are giving too much power to a single book, when the reality is that for a passionate reader any one book is going to be just one among many.
posted by not that girl at 4:53 PM on August 20, 2011


I think the concern parents have about books like Tom Sawyer or the Little House books is that children will take in the racist content uncritically.

Yeah, I don't think that's something to be concerned about at all. I didn't start cloning dinosaurs or having sex with my classmates because I read JP and BNW at a young age. Just like my brother didn't start running over pedestrians and beating up hookers because he played Grand Theft Auto that one time. My parents were pretty far from chill on a lot of issues growing up, but I have to give them major props for not worrying about what I read or watched. The more access you have to information, the better you can refine your own filter for what is and isn't appropriate.
posted by phunniemee at 5:21 PM on August 20, 2011


I may have cloned a few dinosaurs, but I think I turned out okay in the end.

Maybe that's the fallacy behind parents' fears of this kind of thing--that they are giving too much power to a single book, when the reality is that for a passionate reader any one book is going to be just one among many.

Yeah, I think that this is true. It's true that a single book can be very powerful, as in inspiring, memorable, but I don't think that a single book can teach casual racism (for example) so powerfully and permanently that it changes them forever. (That said, as a parent I can understand being reluctant to go through even a temporary stage of your child, say, innocently using racial slurs on people they see on the street, after reading those words in a book where no-one thought they were unusual.)

When I read Tom Sawyer at around the age of your friend's child I remember being more powerfully struck by the use of the word "truck" in the first chapter:
"Nothing! Look at your hands. And look at your mouth. What IS that truck?"

"I don't know, aunt."

"Well, I know. It's jam—that's what it is..."
... And young Australian Matt is all like, what? He had a jam truck drawn on his face or something? Couldn't even find it in the dictionary.
posted by No-sword at 6:09 PM on August 20, 2011


It actually is possible to have kids who read at a level that makes books they're not emotionally or otherwise ready for accessible to them.

I realize that. I was one of those kids. Can't say a book ever left me traumatized or damaged.
posted by asnider at 8:59 PM on August 22, 2011


I read Pet Sematary at 13. Scared the hell out of me, but I loved it. I then proceeded to read every King book I could get my hands on over the next 3-4 years. As far as I can tell, it hasn't ruined me forever.
posted by antifuse at 1:06 PM on August 30, 2011


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