"Sorry, guys, it was out. Put it on reserve, though."
This was met with a loud "Awwwwww!" In stereo.
For the last two months we've been reading the Gregor series aloud at night. Suzanne Collins is one of my favorite children's authors and this particular series has completely captured the attention of my two fantasy loving children. Have I questioned its age-appropriateness for my 5 year old? Absolutely. Have I read it to him anyway? You betcha. Are the themes scary? Yes. Personal sacrifice, a missing parent, and death are down-right frightening. Having also read "The Hobbit", and a third of "The Lord of the Rings" with the kids, we figure they can handle the adventures that 10 year old Gregor experiences far beneath the streets of New York City. They dig this genre. So, off we go, every night, to a new world where . . . well, I don't want to give it away - but, it's awesome.
I recently read a blog post from a mother sharing how surprised she was to find herself banning certain children's books which she felt to be too intense, scary, or theologically shaky from the perspective of her personal faith. For example, "The Chronicles of Narnia" was chalked up to a "wasteland of bloodshed and violence" and Christopher Robin from the good 'ole Winnie the Pooh books "went around shooting everything with his gun". As an avid reader, I had to take a deep breath to finish reading the post, for her obvious focus on the "darker" moments in these books clearly overshadowed other beautiful truths found on the pages. While I respected the author for her unapologetic honesty (for that's what we bloggers are known for), I found myself in complete disagreement.
Point of clarification. Banning is very different from actually making an informed choice as to what material is appropriate for our children based upon their age and level of maturity. The Gregor series would scare the pajamas off of some children. The White Witch in Narnia may cause nightmares for others. Not so with mine. That being said, I do not agree with my soon to be 10 year old daughter reading a series such as Twilight. This series, cleverly cloaked as a vampire/werewolf adventure, is actually, in my opinion, the simple story of a girl who is willing to become one of the undead, (thus leaving behind her entire mortal existence), in order to be with a boy. Does this mean it's banned forever? No. Will I let her read the series when she's older? Yes. And when the time comes, will I be prepared by having already read the series rather than relying on the opinions of others? Done. Way ahead of you.
Thankfully, by the end of the author's blog post, she had come to the realization that rather than resorting to hiding books in the attic (the current means of protecting her child from "inappropriate" material), she needed to allow her child to take the lead with choosing books. She was careful to explain that this did not mean turning a blind eye to whatever material her child chose (again, age, maturity, hello). But, she did realize that choosing the offensive stance of reading the material WITH her child, followed by a healthy dialogue about the story, could prove more beneficial. Avoidance of certain subjects was now replaced by discussion.
I was glad to see her land here.
Even though my daughter can read, we still gather as a family before bed to read aloud. I love this time for several reasons: we get to explore new books together, it gives me the opportunity to engage my children in discussions about the material, and reading time means snuggling. Most importantly, however, I finally get to "act out" the characters in the books we choose after two years of being forbidden to do so by my children. Apparently, Mom's interpretation of the White Witch in "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe" was spot on, and, well, I freaked them out. They've only just recently cleared me to once again read with dramatic inflection.
And lest you think my younger one isn't in on this chapter book reading action, I'll have you know that he can still recall parts of "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" which we read together as a family when he was only 3. No, he didn't always sit still at that age, but we had to start somewhere. Just like many other aspects of parenting, it took several attempts over time before he settled into listening to long stretches of story without the aid of illustrations.
I'm into books. Can you tell? I'm into parents reading on their own. I'm into parents familiarizing themselves with what their children are reading. And I'm into parents reading with/to their children.
And I want you to start early.
If you want to get started on reading some longer chapter books with your family, but are intimidated by the prospect of doing so, especially with children between the squirmy ages of 3 and 4, check out my arsenal of tricks:
- Open a bedtime cafe: When mine were younger, I made up a wacky name, introduced myself, and welcomed them to my Bedtime Cafe. I pretended they were weary from traveling and needed to stop in the cafe for a nosh of yummy steamed milk with a hint of gingerbread syrup and a bedtime snack. I then proceeded to read to them while they snacked and filled their bellies.
- Use quiet manipulative toys: Let the kids sit on the floor and listen while building with lego's or blocks. Have paper and crayons at the ready so they can draw while you read.
- Cast roles for independent readers in the house: In
the case of Harry Potter, my daughter decided which character she
wanted read. Some nights, she played Harry. Other nights, she read Hermione's dialogue. I always had to be Draco and Snape.
- Let someone else do the talking: Long car rides? Scratchy throat? Just had a hard day? How about a book on tape/CD/ or downloaded onto an iPod? On a car trip, rather than listening to Justin Bieber for the umpteenth time, pop in a book.
- Don't tackle War and Peace: If "Little House on the Prairie" overwhelms you, try a shorter chapter book to begin. Starting with shorter chapter books such as The Magic Treehouse series or A-Z Mysteries will help build the habit of listening.
That's how we began, and how we continue to roll.
It is indeed up to us, as parents, to decide which books and stories are appropriate for our child's age and stage, rather than banning certain titles altogether because someone else deems them inappropriate, or because the content may have a storyline that will need explaining. That's our job as parents - to nurture, teach, answer questions, and explain. But, in order to do so, we'll need to crack the spine of an actual book and educate ourselves as to what our children are reading. And then, go a step further and talk about the content. Novel idea, right?
Allow me to encourage you to read with your children, read on your own, and, yes, read what they are reading. Heck, as adults, we have fancy book clubs where we read what everyone else is reading, so why not read what all the kids are reading also?
Please, don't suppress what could be a good conversation with your children over the content of a book by hiding it away in the attic.
However, if you do go that route, and happen to fill an attic with banned books, can I have them?
Joline Pinto Atkins is a former actress who now uses the web as her world-wide stage and can be founding writing at www.thecuppajo.blogspot.com, www.fithwithjo.com, and www.pittsburghmom.com as the Soccer Mommy Blogger. Joline is wife to one (phew - that's good to know) and mother of two amazing children, aged 9 and 5, who are both named after authors. Addicted to fitness, she sweats out any daily angst by running (not with sharp objects) and weightlifting, and longs for good books, vats of coffee, and an endless supply of buffalo wings - which she will not share with you. So, please, do not ask.