It’s happened again. My daughter came home from a trip to the county library with a stack of books. She reads dozens of books a week. I can’t keep up. Ever since third grade when her teacher recommended a book I found inappropriate, I have skimmed the books she brings home. Sometimes she brings home books that I veto; she has to wait a while to read them.
I’m not sure I can tell you here what my standards are for which books I find worthy of space in my child’s brain. I’ll try. It’s not so much that any particular subject matter is disallowed. It’s the way in which the subject matter is treated. She’s not allowed to read some of the books that are quite popular with her friends. And she’s read, then loaned, many books that her friends have had to return to her unread, once their parents knew the subject matter. She has read books about homosexual teens, teens who self-injure, suicidal teens . . . these are some of the topics that her friends’ parents have vetoed. Again, it’s not the topics that I nix so much as the treatment of the topics. If a controversial or provocative topic is treated in an honest, creative, productive way . . . if the teens depicted somehow find their way . . . to safety, to health, to peace of mind . . . if adults aren’t wholly depicted as untrustworthy morons . . . if there is even the tiniest attempt to connect behavior to its logical consequences . . . those books are all OK with me, for her. And of course, that leaves millions of books from which she can choose.
And I’m not so naive as to think my daughter will never a read a book that I’d rather she didn’t. We discuss that openly, too. All I can do as a Mom is my job — share with her the benefit of my best judgment; what she does with that once she’s out of my sight will always be her choice. So far, I believe she trusts and respects me enough — and is intelligent enough about considering such things — that she isn’t sneaky about her reading.
So, yea, ever since her third grade teacher had her reading about how messy ejaculating boys are, I’ve tried to screen teacher-recommended books. On Saturday, LG brought home a book about a 16-year-old dying of cancer. The kid has a bucket list of sorts. Number one on the list — have sex. Not surprising; perhaps not unrealistic for a kid in that situation. So I started flipping pages. I ended up crying. Not at a poignant, beautifully written story. But at the reality that once again, the people that I’m paying to look out for my child’s best interests do not take that responsibility, that trust, seriously.
From the email I wrote to the reading teacher:
There are a number of sex scenes, perhaps the most memorable of which is an account of Tessa’s boyfriend performing oral sex on her, and her inviting him to masturbate while she watches, which he joyfully does. “I have never shared anything so intimate, never seen such a look of bewildered love as his mouth opens and his eyes widen,” Tessa says. Even if I didn’t object to the graphic descriptions that preceded this quote, I absolutely object to my pre-teen getting the message that sex equals intimacy, and orgasm equals love.
If you’re aware of the content of this book, and you believe it is
age-appropriate for your 11- and 12-year-old students, then you and I must agree to disagree. It’s not appropriate for LG.
I am writing this in the hope that you were not fully aware of the book’s content, and that this information will be helpful to you in the future.
It is difficult to find books that engage a voracious, advanced reader, but contain age-appropriate content that holds her interest. I do appreciate thoughtful recommendations from people who have more experience of children’s fiction than I do. I didn’t appreciate this one; indeed, I felt I was put in the position of having to protect her against the recommendation, against exposure to content for which she (thankfully) has no context, and which she really isn’t ready to thoughtfully process. Even beyond the graphic descriptions of sexual encounters, the message of the book is objectionable:
“we made love twenty-seven times and we shared a bed for sixty-two nights, and that’s a lot of love”
The bed-sharing is because once Tessa’s parents know she’s dying, normal teen “rules” are recognized as being unimportant after all, and the boyfriend moves into her room.
[what I didn’t add in the email, but what happens in the book is that apparently, if you’re 16 and dying, you might as well do whatever the hell you feel like — drugs, stealing — because, hey, you’re dying! What a pathetic message; what a missed opportunity. If your life might be cut short, be as selfish and irresponsible as you can. Mmmkaayyy, that’s one way you might go. Or you might think about what is the most positive, productive, lasting way to spend that time. Just sayin’, another way one might go when writing (and recommending) such a novel for children to read]
I’m a family therapist and counselor educator. I’m not naive as to preadolescents’ sexual curiosity. This book is beyond LG’s and most of her peers’ level of sophistication. We have always educated her about sex, talked openly about it, in a developmentally-appropriate way. She is in the very earliest stages of being able to comprehend the relationship between sex and love. This book would be damaging to that developmental process. I won’t go on and on; I trust I’ve communicated how much I object to this recommendation, on many different levels.
I am interested to know whether your recommendation was made after having read the book. I appreciate your having read my concerns here.
I received a terse reply, which included the statement that the book was on a list recommended by a librarian from the county system, and that the reading teacher had not read this book, nor many of the others, and that in the future she would tell the children [as she recommends books she’s never read] that just because she’s recommending the books, or because county, state or national children’s librarians are recommending the books, does not mean that they are appropriate for reading by the children to whom they’re being recommended.
WHAT? Yea, that didn’t reassure me. I don’t recommend books I haven’t read. Would that really be too much to ask? And as for giving kids a list and then saying, “but this might be inappropriate…” Are you kidding me? There’d be a run on the juvenile fiction section. So…this is me, not reassured.
And you know what? I wanted an apology. I’m slowly, painfully realizing that was too much to ask. But had I been in her shoes, my reply would have been more like, “I am SO sorry; I had no idea of the content of that book. I will talk to LG . . . blah blah.” I got nothing like that.
I don’t think any lessons were learned here. I guess my somewhat pessimistic view that there is no one who is going to look out for my kid’s well-being the way I do, was reinforced.
I told LG that there is nothing in the world more precious to me than her brain, and that is why I take so seriously the honor of being entrusted, for these few short years, with its care and feeding. And I hope that some of the standards that I have — out of respect for who she is and who she will be — that some of those standards stick. That she decides, at points along the way, that there are some pursuits that aren’t consistent with where she wants to go, who she is and wants to be. I hope; I pray.
My lovely, thoughtful child was perhaps more generous to her reading teacher than I was. She said, “You know how I trusted Mrs. P to recommend books that are good for us? Well, she probably did the same thing; she probably trusted the county librarian to only recommend books that would be good for us.” Do you see? Do you see why that brain is so precious, why I want to throat-punch someone who doesn’t treat it with the respect it deserves?
I don’t know where, if anywhere, this will go from here. I don’t think the teacher really gets it. And frankly, I don’t know which is worse — if the teacher had read the book and thought it was appropriate, or that she’s recommended books she doesn’t know. Is it too much to ask that she be familiar with the books she’s telling the kids about? And it’s no small matter to me that other preteens are getting that book, and other comparable ones, and they’re not telling their parents. If parents ask at all, the answer of “Mrs. P said we would like it,” will be more than sufficient reassurance for most.
I’m not about banning books. I’m about helping children choose wisely. And having parents be aware of what their kids are putting in their brains. I don’t have the physical or emotional energy for crusading. But there’s always that Golden Rule thing. As a parent, I’d want to know. I don’t know what I will do with what I’ve learned this week.
I found the source of Mrs. P’s recommendations. It’s the YALSA: Young Adults Library Services Association. That might be part of the problem. There’s something called Teen Read Week. The thing is, my kid isn’t a teen. And even next year, when she is . . . there’s a huge jump between just turned 13 and nearly 20. Between early teens and late teens. And I certainly don’t think of my 12-year-old nor of her peers as “young adults.” The closest she might come to that is an “old child.” Maybe there’s a need for a literary category that fits in between children and young adults. They want to make that leap instantly, for sure. But a leap is not the healthiest, wisest way to travel from childhood to young adulthood.