What is the Best Way to Decide What to Let Kids Read?

What is the Best Way to Decide What to Let Kids Read?

October 18, 2011


Yes, I’ve been talking about posting my thoughts on this subject for some time. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about, but seem to have a hard time articulating my thoughts. When I sat down to write my post for the first time, what came out was a very long, very disorganized mess. Posting it was out of the question because it was so incoherent, but the thought of trying to rewrite it felt like a daunting task. Here I am trying gain and hoping I’m able to make sense.

Before I go any further, I want to remind you that I’m not a parent. If you think that fact disqualifies me from having an opinion, I suggest you stop reading now.

Over the past year or so, a few things have happened to get me thinking about this. Back at the end of January/early February of this year, there was a shitsotrm surrounding a list of YA novels Bitch Media posted on their blog. I’m not going to rehash the details here, but one of the questions the event raised for me was what kind of responsibility a feminist publication like Bitch has to its young readers who might be discovering feminism for the first time.

In June, Meghan Cox Gurdon posted her piece on The Wallstreet Journal website and supporters of YA insisted that YA Saves. Then there was a post on the Bookblogs ning by a parent lamenting about how dark YA literature has become. I frankly saw a lot of the same sentiments by people posting in that thread that I saw in Gurdon’s piece.

One of my biggest issues with the “OMG, YA is so dark!” argument is that it ignores all the YA books that aren’t dark. And really, folks need to understand that book publishing is a business and publishers only publish books they think they can sell. Perhaps there should be a discussion about why people are drawn to and buy certain types of books. I think that kids are smarter than a lot of adults give them credit for. 2 Some kids, unfortunately, have very dark lives; those that don’t probably know kids who do. I think sugarcoating the truth does kids a grave disservice. Furthermore, many of the so-called “dark” YA novels I’ve read end on a hopeful note, one that I hope sends a message to young adults experiencing something dark that things can get better.

All that said, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with parents being involved with what their kids read. I think parental involvement on that level is a wonderful thing, actually. I’d like to think that if and when I have kids, I’d let them read whatever they want. Pam of Bookalicious summed up my thoughts nicely on twitter:

I think kids can handle way more than we give them credit for. My daughter and I listen to audio a lot. She has questions, I answer. Its fun

I’m not here to tell parents what they can or can’t let their kids read. If a parent wants to forbid their kids from reading a certain type of book, it’s frankly none of my business. What concerns me, however, is that in trying to protect their own children, they might be interfering with another parent’s ability to let their kid read a specific book – whether they mean to or not. Worse yet, some suggestions I’ve heard thrown around will probably make it extremely difficult or impossible for a kid that could really benefit from reading books with specific content to get their hands on a copy.

For example, there’s no way I could get behind warning stickers being placed onto books. Imagine, if you will, a teenager who is having sexual feelings for the first time. He or she feels attracted to people of the same gender, but doesn’t know anyone else who has similar feelings. There is a fear that there’s something wrong with these feelings. He or she might fear physical harm from family, peers, or other members of their community if these feelings are made public. So s/he turns to books in order to understand what’s going on and feel less alone. A teenager in this situation should not have to deal with warning stickers that read “this book contains gay or lesbian material!”. You know that books with LGBT content would be among the first books to be targeted by this kind of measure.

Another suggestion I’ve heard is to institute a rating system for books similar to music, video games and movies. The problem is that every time I’ve seen this suggestion, it’s been made in such a vague way that I have no idea if I can support it or not. I’d need more information before I could definitively say one way or another. Who’d be setting the criteria for ratings? The book industry? Some outside entity? What would the criteria for rating be? Would kids or teens of a certain age be denied access to a book of a certain rating, even if in some circumstances the kid/teen could truly benefit from reading the book? What if a parent doesn’t mind if their kids reading whatever book? Would a parent have to go in with the kid every single time to purchase a book? I’m sure I can come up with even more questions and concerns about a book rating system if I thought about it enough.

There are some things I know I can get behind, however.

  1. Information about the contents of a book (namely, the contents that some people might find troubling) being available in reviews, on lists and on the publisher’s website. To an extent, I think this information is already out there – especially for the books that are popular/have a lot of hype. Parents just have to look for it. In fact, I’d argue that parents who don’t know the content of something like The Hunger Games and then get all shocked and offended when they find out what their kids are reading are just being lazy.
  2. Talking to a librarian/getting recommendations from a librarian. Even calling up the local library and requesting that your kid not be allowed to borrow books with specific content. It only needs to take a single phone call if you’re unable to accompany your child to the library every single time. I’m sure the librarians of the world haven’t been able to read every single book in existence. However, unless I’m totally misunderstanding the purpose of a librarian (and I don’t think I am), a librarian should have basic knowledge of the content of the book, including the ones they haven’t read. If they don’t know off the top of their head, they should have resources at their disposal to look it up. Librarians are supposed to be able to help patrons find books and other resources. That’s kind of their job. If they’re not doing that, they deserve to be fired.
  3. Similarly, booksellers can offer recommendations. Yes, it’s in their best interest to sell books. But any business owner worth their salt knows that If they intentionally lie to a customer to get them to buy something, the customer isn’t going to come back for more.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.


  1. If you’d like to see an example of a really smart kid, this post about Sexy Times in books on Reading Vacation is a perfect example.
  2. If you’d like to see an example of a really smart kid, this post about Sexy Times in books on Reading Vacation is a perfect example.

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