In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Why we read (after Orlando)

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I've been trying to write a blog post about children's books, but I keep stopping to cry. I keep stopping because I can't stop thinking about Orlando, about the 50 people, most of them barely out of their teens, who were killed on Sunday morning in the nightclub that was their sanctuary, their safe space. I can't stop thinking about how rare safe space feels right now. It is not safe in this country to be queer. It's not safe to be Muslim. It's not safe to have brown skin. It's not safe to be a woman. It's not safe to go to the bathroom. It's not safe to worship in your church. It's not safe to dance in your nightclub. It's not safe to sit in your school classroom.

How do we explain this to our children? How do we make sense of it for ourselves?

In the last couple of months, Eleanor has started reading Harry Potter. She began a year or so later than many of her friends, but she's still younger than Harry is when he begins his journey. I've been trying to slow her down. I don't want her to get to the worst deaths too soon. I don't want her heart to break for Dumbledore before she's ready.

Here is what she's learning from Harry Potter: that in this world, there is magic. That there are friends who sacrifice themselves for others -- true loyalty exists. That pure evil exists, too: there are those who believe there is no value to human life, who believe that an ideology and the quest for power are more important than anything else. That sometimes the person you think is the bad guy isn't the real bad guy. That sometimes, the person who seems to be the bad guy is more complicated than that: he has hatred in him, but when it matters most, he chooses to be on the side of good. That we can survive unthinkable tragedy.

This is why we read. Reading allows us to think through the complexity of human beings. We read because it allows us to understand and work through the issues, because we learn human things through literature. We learn how to live, and we learn how to keep living when those who we love die. We learn that people are not just one thing or another, that the world is not black and white. That there are no easy answers.

This is why books matter.

One of the questions I've been trying to address in the blog post I can't write for the tears comes from Eunice, a friend who's started a book club for her 4th grade son. She started the book club because her son's school has essentially stopped teaching literature. Instead, they're teaching "critical reading skills" through passages that mirror what students will find on standardized tests.

There is so much wrong with this. I could write a book. (I'm actually starting to write a book.) As a parent, as a teacher, as a reader of long standing, I know down to my bones that the best way to develop "critical reading skills" is by reading things that matter to you, things that engage you, things that push your imagination and your skill, that make you question and wonder.

When our children read books that matter to them, they grow as readers, and as people. They become citizens who are able to assess the literature of the world around them, to read articles, speeches, bills, debates, and more with a critical eye. They become more empathetic, more likely to listen to others, more likely, as you've written, to be willing to understand issues from someone else's perspective.

When our children read test prep passages, they grow as test-takers, and little else. They learn to look for a single right answer. They learn that the form and length of their essays are more important than the content. When we evaluate our children solely through standardized tests, we are perpetuating a reductive view of the world. This has political consequences.

Eunice wrote to me because she's looking for guidance -- a list? -- of good books for her son's age group. She's concerned about encouraging her son and his friends to find "great" books as well as "fun" books -- right now, each kid involved takes turns picking a book, and leads the discussion about that book. She's also concerned about the intensity and maturity of the material in some of the books her son's friends are choosing, a concern I've heard recently from a number of parents.

I'm going to save the list question for my next post (though anyone reading this blog might start by checking out our lists to the right of this page: Middle grade booksYA books, and Lots of Ages all contain a variety of options).

For now, I want to say two things about the book club:

First, it's a wonderful idea. A book club like this provides two things vital to creating readers: choice and community. Looking to book lists can be a great way to find books to "interview" to see if you like them, as I wrote about last summer. But allowing kids to choose books for their peers, to have that ownership and that enjoyment, goes a long way toward building their identities as readers.

Second, a book club, like a good classroom, can be a perfect place to talk about some of the issues of content that parents (and kids) find disturbing in a book. It can be a safe space for both kids and parents to bring up their feelings about the content they're reading. These discussions might lead to a larger conversation about the goals of the book club: do the kids involved want to set guidelines about the content of books they pick? Do they want to agree to bring in classics every few books, along with contemporary fiction? How about nonfiction? Choosing the books can be an opportunity for critical thinking as much as reading and discussing them. But again, the decisions should come from the kids. We become readers when reading becomes something we want to do rather than something we feel we should do.

Part of what makes great literature great -- this goes for children's as well as adult literature -- is a willingness to engage with complexity. But a large part of what makes it great is pleasure.

We read to find so many things: joy, and peace, and excitement, and knowledge. Reading is a sanctuary. It is a safe space within which we can find ourselves or escape ourselves. Sometimes it's a space where we retreat just to laugh; sometimes it's a space within which we confront the things which frighten us most.

Reading with our children gives us a common language and an opening to try to understand the world together, in all its horror and all its beauty. Even when the world is inexplicable. Even when we know we cannot always keep our children safe.

Love, Annie


  1. What a well written post. You touched on a truth- books help us understand and make sense of the world. We learn so much from the characters and stories we read and discussions with other people/parents helps us further our understanding. I read Harry Potter as an adult. Not only did I love it, but it helped me learn a lot about the world too. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you, Jess! I read Harry Potter as an adult too, and had the same experience. Reading -- for myself and with my kids and my students -- keeps teaching me so much about the world.