The Books We Choose Matter

My son’s school issued a challenge for every student to read 40 books (1 book = 75 pages) this school year, not counting school reading assignments. The challenge intentionally specifies that the kids must choose books from a variety of genres, which makes sense. A kid who loves high fantasy could just burn through 4000 pages of high fantasy novels before winter break. Or 4000 pages of graphic novels. It’s what they love. I read books I love super fast. Particularly graphic novels read fast, and they are meant to be fast, and normally fun reads.

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Don’t get me wrong. I think kids should get to freely choose to read the books they want and enjoy as much as possible. Any books or book series that make kids want to read is likely a good book/series. I can remember when my brother was in late elementary school/middle school and tested at a high reading level like my son has. And he was forced to read books at his tested reading level, instead of the books his peers were excited about. Imagine being 9-13 and instead of consuming Harry Potter with all your friends, you were reading Jane Austen, because her novels were at your tested reading level, but still content appropriate for being 9-13. I love Jane Austen, but wow. Let the smarties read Harry Potter too without making them feel bad about it. (Also, an aside…it is HARD to find books that are content appropriate for a 9-12 year old who test at an 11th grade-college reading level…just saying.)
And I’m all for, ‘Life’s too short to finish a book you don’t like.’ I’ve left many a book stalled or unread when it wasn’t a required read for school.
But in order for kids (AND ADULTS!) to have a reading experience that broadens their own perspective on reality, they can’t limit themselves to just what’s easy and fun and familiar. I get that too. So I was excited about the stipulations that my son read so many books that were realistic fiction, historical fiction, memoirs/biographies, poetry anthologies…
I’ve tried to help him choose some good books to read. I don’t want to be a dictator or even a little bit of a pushy mom, so of course I always ask for his input. He’s chosen some really good books to read. Some of them are middle school reader classics like C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter Series. But some of them are books I’ve read myself that talk frankly about mental illness and history and social issues. He’s read George Takei’s graphic novel, They Called Us Enemy, about the US Japanese internment camps in WWII. He’s read John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down, about an anxious high school girl, and Trevor Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime, about growing up as a mixed race kid in South Africa. His next planned reads are Jackie Robinson’s autobiography, I Never Had It Made, John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and Nathalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls.

I’m glad he’s choosing books written by diverse creators about perspectives that don’t look like his. I’m proud of him.

I went to lunch with my mom and an aunt on Thursday, and they asked about the reading challenge, among other things regarding The Boy in school this year. (He’s excited to go to Space Camp next month…he can’t stop talking about it). So I told them about some of his book choices. And they were surprised. By the diversity. And by the seriousness of the material. And I think they were both perhaps a little disturbed that J and I approved these reading choices so enthusiastically. They think The Boy is too young to be exposed to dark parts of history like racism and genocide.

I’m an optimist and so is J. We like to focus on the positives in life and we try to be positive people who are doing our best to raise a son into a good, kind, positive man. And we certainly don’t want to traumatize our son. J is protective to the point of it being a running gag among the people we know, and I am pretty sensitive. I’ve written at length about my own emotional issues and anxiety. Neither of us want to cause undue worry and pain to our son, obviously. But keeping him from the reality of dark things that have happened…sometimes dark things his own ancestors were partially responsible for or participated in…dark things that could be repeated if we don’t look at them with open eyes and minds and hearts now…dark things from the past whose roots are still planted and whose branches are still bearing fruit…isn’t protecting him.

Kids who never read about slavery and apartheid and the Holocaust and forced internment and discrimination are kids who find it easier to deny these things are part of world history, and who find it easy to deny those things are still rippling out to real problems today.

I hope when my son starts Jackie Robinson’s biography, he is shocked and disturbed by the experiences of black Americans in the 1930s-1970s. And I hope he sees how much work is still left to do to move toward true racial equality now. I hope when he reads Rise of the Rocket Girls he sees how difficult it is for women to find a place in a male dominated industry and he sees how that relates to his own current reality and the challenges faced by his female peers. I want him to recognize his vast amount of privilege, and to be moved when he reads painful and poignant books. And I want him to read those books, even though they aren’t his natural first choice…the books he would voraciously consume because they’re fun. I hope he realizes that they are important and they matter, even if they aren’t ‘enjoyable.’ I hope that means something to him. And I think it does.

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