Monday, November 24, 2014

Good For You Is Good Enough: On Chapter Books, "Reading Up", and Stressed Out Kids

I’ve been thinking a lot about Chapter Books lately. Actually, all books, ALL THE TIME, but since I wrote a Chapter Book that I’m querying and I read a lot of those books in particular, I think about them. And I think about the concept of “reading up”, and I think about stressed out kids.

I haven’t been at this writing gig forever, and I haven’t been a parent forever, so I don’t know everything. But I do know this:

There is a lot of talk, on the news and in magazines and in the media generally, about how we are currently raising a generation of stressed-out, high-anxiety kids.

At the same time, there is a lot of talk (usually in the same places, often within the same program or in the same magazine issue - the unintentional irony is amazing) about how to get our kids reading younger, how schools expect them to be reading at an earlier age, and about how to help your kid “get ahead” and start “reading at a higher grade level” than their enrolled grade, so they can “get ahead of their peers and get a head start on life”.

There are levels to the problem here. First, we have the whole expectation that EVERY CHILD will somehow be ahead of every other child in every area, which is ridiculous and unrealistic and also unnecessary. (America, in particular, has an especially bad case of what I like to call "First Place-itis", both on an individual level and also as a nation. Unless you have traveled, one could be excused, based on what we hear from the American Propaganda Machine, for thinking that other countries - the ones that are Developed Nations, but that aren't the Top Dog - lack basic things like central heating and flush toilets and traffic lights. Trust me, America - being Number Two or Number Five or Number Twelve really ISN'T the end of the world.)

But the other level to the problem is the whole idea of encouraging kids to consume media that was not intended for them. I wonder if the people who write the articles encouraging parents to get their kids to read Harry Potter at the age of five have actually read the books themselves. Because when I was five, reading about a kid being hunted by a bad guy and then (SPOILER ALERT!) burning the bad guy’s face off at the end would have freaked me the hell out.

I know that if you’re a parent reading this, or maybe even if you’re an author or a publisher reading this, you’re probably defending the whole “reading up” thing. This is understandable. Parents want success for their kids, and publishers want to stay in business. And maybe your 5-year-old kid really can handle watching a man’s face turn to ash and then slowly drop away from his still standing corpse. (I guess this is me coming out against the idea of showing your kid the movie to help them understand the book that was written for kids much older than they are. Because, DUDE: if you don’t think they’re ready to read it? The beauty of books is that the images to go with the words are formed based on that child’s experience. Movies? Not so much.) But given the frequency of reports that our kids are more stressed out than kids have ever been, it seems clear that maybe more of us are wrong about that than we think. Maybe some of the kids who seem to be “handling it” are actually freaking out inside.

ASIDE: No, I don’t think it’s good to “desensitize” our kids. I want violence to always be an abhorrent, shocking thing to my children. Because once they accept it, they are one step closer to practicing it.

It saddens me that, in search of books for their ten-year-old “voracious readers”, parents hand them books like The Hunger Games and Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars rather than handing them books like When You Reach Me and The Tale of Desperaux. Not because the first set of books aren’t good books - in fact, I think they’re AMAZING books. But they are books written for teenagers, with the interests of teenagers in mind. They’re books written with the understanding that the people who read them will be concerned with things like how governments can wield power responsibly and what that does and doesn’t look like, and whether smoking pot is as bad for them as their parents say it is, and whether they should have sex with their boyfriend or girlfriend this weekend. Whether they’re “ready”, and what being “ready” even feels like, anyway.

Is your ten-year-old thinking about that stuff?

I hear people in the publishing world say that kids should be able to read whatever they wish, and that they will put a book down if they aren’t ready for it. I don’t completely agree with that. Because you can never un-read something that you weren’t ready for.

I think a valid question here is: why do we bother writing “for children”? What are the distinctions between “chapter books” and “middle grade” and “young adult” for, if we are going to encourage people to flaunt them? Those labels are signposts, guys.

I do not advocate censorship. I do not advocate the banning of books, or the removal of books from libraries and school curricula. I DEFINITELY do not advocate the sanitizing of books. (My WiP is a YA about a school shooting. It’s not sanitized. But it’s a YA, and it’s not for ten-year-olds.)

I DO advocate parents taking an active role in choosing, with their children, what their children read, and I advocate parents talking about books with their kids. I advocate booksellers taking an interest in helping their customers find the right book for them, above pushing the latest blockbuster. (Independent bookstores are much better at this than major chains, I find.) Some young kids really are ready to read books written for older kids, because they are asking those questions at a younger age. Also, some books on the “teen” shelves really are great for older tweens to read, just as some books on the “tween” shelf are genuinely appealing to 7-8 year-olds. But those are the exceptions, and most of them probably are not.

I wish - I really, really WISH - that we who make the books and publish the books and sell the books could continue to be be a little smarter about and more considerate about emotional preparedness. I hope that we will continue to be more sensitive to the emotional needs of children.

I wish that we, as a society, as a culture, would place “emotional needs” higher up on the importance pyramid than “reads and does math at a higher grade level than the rest of his class”.

Little children need, above all else, to feel loved and safe. And while I have never been a great fan of the litany of formulaic, sappy chapter books about fairies and ponies and princesses and puppies - IVY & BEAN and CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS are much more to my taste than RAINBOW FAIRIES and PUPPY PLACE - it saddens me to see Chapter Books coming out that open with demons and angry monsters and danger. It saddens me deeply. Because I do not think that we serve our six-year-olds’ emotional needs well with these types of books.

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Thanks for stopping by.


  1. I often had this conversation with parents when I worked at Chapters (especially those who were about to buy Twilight for their 9-year-olds). Just because kids are reading above their grade level doesn't mean they are emotionally mature enough for the content. Some definitely are (my parents gave me Clan of the Cave Bear when I was ten, because I've always been 35 years old on the inside), but many aren't. For those kids, I recommended classics like Anne of Green Gables or The Secret Garden or Where the Red Fern Grows - their reading level is high compared to modern books, but their content is still very kid-friendly. Unless you can't handle stories where bad things happen to animals - I still cry like a baby when I read WTRFG and I've read it at least a dozen times. :)

    1. Lindsey, thank you for understanding what I am trying to say here. <3

  2. Agree! We almost took the kids to see Dumb and Dumber 2 but were warned about some adult parts. I'm glad we changed our minds but then they get to school and his mate has seen it. Who knows what they are talking about.

  3. I think the key thing is to talk to your kids - explain to them why you haven't seen it with them, and talk about why you feel the way you do. Kids are smart - they'll understand.