Screening the Reading

One of the things I love about summer is what a perfect time it is to read to my kids. I read to them all year long, but in the summer it’s different. In the summer I’m not competing with school assignments and afternoon extracurriculars. In the summer bedtime is a little more flexible so I can stretch our reading time even if it’s supposed to be lights out. In the summer, reading together is a daily happening we all look forward to, not a rushed twelve minutes squeezed somewhere between dinner, bath, and bed. I love it.


But I have come to a sober realization, perhaps slowly over the past year, that I think I need to pay more attention to as my kids become more advanced readers. I have always been quite cautious about what movies and television shows my kids watch. My own TV and movie consumption as a child was not closely monitored nor restricted, and I have seen enough to know what I don’t want my kids to see as young as I did. But when it comes to books, I admit the idea of closely scrutinizing my kids’ reading content was not something I put a lot of thought into. 


But now I know I must.


In libraries and book stores, books are most often sorted by reading level, not content. Which means my third graders might be perusing shelves looking for Ramona the Pest and come across a young adult novel about teen suicide. Or I might think it’s fun to let them read a graphic novel because of the silly pictures, only to find out the stories glorify bullying, complaining, and disrespect for authority. I need to be careful what my kids see and read. I also need to be deliberate to teach them to make their own wise choices about the books that I don’t see. 


In an era when reading is threatened by the constant allure of screen technology, there seems to be cultural acceptance of the idea that any reading is good reading. But I don’t think that’s true. When my kids were in preschool I had to explain to them that we would not check out Pokemon and Lego and Barbie books from the library. Never mind the fact that these books are marketed to children solely for the purpose of assuring customer loyalty from diapers to death bed, which is another issue altogether. But the content of such books is so often completely incoherent. These are not stories, but a lame attempt at entertainment. They do not teach morals or develop characters or illustrate elements of a story. They simply entertain, and innocent young minds are none the wiser.


The same unfortunate dumbing down of reading content is evident at older ages too, which is why teaching our growing kids to discern the difference between literature and drivel is so important. But even beyond that, as a parent who reads to my kids on almost a daily basis, I have come to realize the care I must take in choosing what we read together, too. 


This summer my kids turned nine years old. So far this summer we have read A Wrinkle in Time, Where the Red Fern Grows, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. These are wonderful classics, full of rich imagery, engaging characters, and powerful storylines. But they are not books I would want my children to read on their own, even though they may be capable. In the pages of these books we have delved into issues of the cosmos and creation, death and loss, unspeakable tragedy, rampant racism, and matters of injustice, hate, and cruelty. In the pages of these books—true gems of children’s literature—my kids are exposed to concepts, ideas, and truths that are complex, nuanced, and sometimes disturbing. 


I wouldn't trade our reading together for the world. I love our time together, I love the worlds we get to travel to, and I love the conversations we delve into before bed. I love that we get to be silly with Pippi Longstocking, explore new frontiers with Laura in the Little House on the Prairie series, learn about another culture in A Single Shard, and share a good family cry in the final pages of Charlotte’s Web. I am delighted that my kids enjoy this time too, and that they are also branching out and finding books to read on their own as they discover what speaks to them and makes them curious for more. But I hope as they grow that I do not neglect to be wise in what I choose, and what I allow them to choose for themselves. 


I could easily succumb to the pride of seeing them peruse the young adult section without adequately screening for content appropriate for their tender age and understanding. I hope I model well for them that not all reading is good reading, and guarding our hearts and minds doesn’t stop at the library or book store door.