The Right Books

I’m still trying to collect my thoughts on this one.  Since I’ve been on a kick about childhood books lately, something else has been drumming around in my head: How do people decide what’s appropriate for children to read?

I feel like that raises the looming spectre of banned books, and to be clear, I think banned books lists are a crock.  In my experience, most books wind up on banned lists because they make some groups of people uncomfortable.  This is not at all the same as saying they oughtn’t be read.  In many cases, quite the opposite.

But I’m mostly thinking about me, and about my parents.  Broad groups of people making sweeping statements about what complete strangers should or should not read is fairly obviously unreasonable.  On the other hand, parents make decisions about what’s appropriate for their children all the time.  It’s more or less their job, and since they know their children well, they’re in a better position to do so than strangers who want to prescribe what’s good for everyone else.  I don’t think most people would disagree with the notion of parents choosing what books their children read, though some people might object to the particular choices those parents make.

I was a fairly precocious reader.  By the time I was eleven or twelve, I had outgrown or voraciously devoured everything in the children’s section of my library and headed for the adult section.  (This was before YA exploded, so there wasn’t much of anything in between.)  At this point, my mother started to pre-read everything I checked out to make sure it was appropriate for me to read.  Mostly, as I recall, this meant ensuring I read nothing involving sex.  I do remember one book that slipped through the cracks.  I thought she had said I could read it, so I did, when she had actually said I couldn’t.  There was one sex scene in it, of the “evil temptress clouds the hero’s mind” variety.  I mostly found it confusing and skipped on past it to get to things I found more interesting.  I’m fairly certain that whatever impact my mother was trying to prevent, that wasn’t it.

My father had different worries.  I remember him expressing, at one point, the concern that reading science fiction and fantasy would make me confuse books with reality.  I found it incomprehensible then and still do, unless it was the only way he could find to voice some other anxiety.  Regardless, I fortunately never found myself restricted to realistic fiction only; my mother had no problem with the fantastic, and she was the one in charge of my reading permissions.

Obviously, I have some problems with (what I can discern of) my parents’ ideas about what was appropriate for me to read as a child.  But I understand the impulse: parents want to shield their children from bad things and ensure they get the right ideas, whatever those are.  There are a lot of things I wish I hadn’t learned from books – that boys are heroes and girls are damsels, that being pretty and even being good means being light-skinned and able-bodied, just to name the first that come to mind.  Those ideas are so widespread and so entrenched, though, that it’s incredibly difficult to avoid them.  I don’t think simplistic rules will do the trick.

I don’t mean to denigrate my parents or anyone else trying to raise children in the incredibly complicated, problematic world we live in.  And I know there are some great books out there, books that challenge toxic ideas endemic in our culture rather than reinforcing them.  There are people who do great work to promote them, like the We Need Diverse Books project.  Separating positive and negative influences is hard, however, since books are complex artifacts and many include both at the same time.  We expect stories to reflect the world, but to the extent that they do, they reflect it like a funhouse mirror, twisting and distorting so that what we see isn’t what’s really there.  And stories don’t simply reflect the world; they help create it.  Believing is seeing.  That’s why the lessons children learn from books are so important, and why so many people struggle so hard to make sure children learn the right ones.  We just don’t all agree on what “the right ones” are.

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A Truly Terrible Book

Today I want to talk about a Truly Terrible Book.  Something in my last post reminded me of a book that will remain unnamed that I read probably a decade or so ago.  (Alas for the naiveté of youth – today I hope I wouldn’t have finished it.  I might still have, though, because hope springs eternal and I always really want to know what happens.)  In fairness, this was a decade ago, and my memory of it will probably be hazy because I’m not willing to put myself through reading it again.

However, I’m still fairly confident that it was terrible.  For one thing, I remember the plot being awful.  It careened from one event to the next, often without a clear sense of connection from one to another.  Worse, by the end of the book there were so many dangling plot threads I’d need to take off my socks and shoes to count them all.

Oh, and there was a completely unnecessary rape scene in the first chapter.  Even in high school I saw it as a gratuitous attention-grab.  I don’t know where this notion that rape makes a book “edgy” or provides a good “hook” comes from, but it needs to die the swift death it deserves.  To make matters worse in this particular book, the perpetrator of the rape does it as a means to an end (to use the victim’s powers), but it becomes clear later that he could have accomplished the same thing simply by touching the victim.  So what was the point of the assault?  To show how eeeeeevil the perpetrator is?  That’s made abundantly clear by the use to which he puts the victim’s powers.  The whole thing is just lazy, shoddy story construction.

It is a truly terrible book, so much so that I really wish I could just metaphorically set it on fire and throw the ashes in the ocean.  But I can’t help but think there were a few things it might have managed to not screw up.  For one thing, the main character is gay.  That might not seem like such a big deal, but even today books with gay protagonists are relatively rare and viewed as niche.  A decade ago they were far more so.  Furthermore, being gay doesn’t cause the main character any particular distress.  He doesn’t agonize over his sexuality or relationships or worry overmuch about the reactions of others.  Certainly, plenty of gay people do, but it’s still important to have stories in which being gay is normal and accepted.  And again – those were rarer a decade ago.

For another thing, that rape scene is male on male.  The scene is still utterly gratuitous and appalling, but the fact that men can be victims of sexual assault or abuse is normally barely recognized, if it’s recognized at all.  When I think about it, I can’t help but appreciate that the book brought up an overlooked form of violence.

I don’t know to what degree the awful execution of the book harms the potential good it could have done.  It’s true that for some reason the book stuck in my mind, but that was probably just because of how terrible it was.  On the other hand, maybe it didn’t need to stick in my mind; often it’s the quiet, ordinary susurrus of the everyday that normalizes ideas.  So maybe, despite all its flaws, this book managed to shift the tone of that endless hum just a little and do some good.