Suzanne Tobias

September 2, 2010

If kids want to read, let them

Another school year has begun, which means it's almost time for school library trips, book fairs and Scholastic book order forms.

Another school year has begun, which means it's almost time for school library trips, book fairs and Scholastic book order forms.

That means I soon will be hearing from parents who can't believe some offensive, scandalous piece of literature is being sold at their child's school or stocked in the library.

And that's when I sigh.

I think about all the great books I've read in my lifetime, starting with Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein and ending most recently with Suzanne Collins' "Mockingjay." And it saddens me to think someone might have thwarted those experiences early on.

I spoke recently with Philip Nel, director of the children's literature program at Kansas State University, about the popularity of Collins' "Hunger Games" trilogy. With its popularity has come concerns that the books, which portray a fight-to- the-death involving tweens and teens, might not be appropriate for young readers.

The series' premise is in fact violent, its telling brutal if not gory, its message disturbing. It offers insights about war, torture, politics and human nature. Underneath it all is a page-turner of a story reminiscent of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.

Nel's overall take on the matter reflects my own: "If a child wants to read a book, we should let the child read the book."

A few years ago I spoke with a Wichita librarian about another book, a Newbery award-winner titled "The Higher Power of Lucky." Some had pledged to ban it from elementary school libraries because of a certain body-part word ("scrotum" ... shhhhhh!) on the first page.

"I will defend to the death the right of a parent to choose what they think is appropriate for their child to read," said Jean Hatfield, a member of the committee that selected the book for the 2007 Newbery Medal. "I just hope they really read it — the whole thing — before making that judgment."

My 10-year-old son loves to read. He also loves immature humor in the vein of "Captain Underpants," "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" and a high-class volume titled "Zombie Butts from Uranus," which he checked out of the public library this summer. When he's not laughing about those books, he's creeping himself out with R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps" series.

Prize-winning literature? No. But whenever Jack devours one of those books, I consider the big picture: He's learning to love reading. He's learning the power of the written word — to teach and inspire, yes, but also to tickle, spook and entertain.

Last year that love of books emboldened Jack to pick up H.G. Wells' "The Invisible Man," a sci-fi classic not many fourth-graders would freely choose. I'd never read it so we enjoyed it together, alternating chapters at night.

Similarly, I was pleased that my daughter's sixth-grade class read "The Misfits," by James Howe. The gutsy story about fitting in amid preteen pressure has faced challenges elsewhere. But she loved its message, and so do I.

I understand parents' interest in shielding kids from content they might find inappropriate. It's our job to provide guidance, set boundaries. But like Nel, who's teaching a class this semester on censorship in children's literature, I think books help more than hinder.

"Read it with them, talk about what worries them, what troubles them, how they would respond if faced with certain situations," he said of the Hunger Games trilogy.

"To be able to cope with things you wish they didn't have to cope with — that's part of learning, maturing, growing up. That's education."

I'll read to that.

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