From Stories are Good Medicine
I started voraciously reading middle grade and YA literature when my big reader 8 1/2 yo was about six.
I’d always loved children’s literature, and been a huge reader myself as a young person, but when my son started exhausting chapter books and delving into MG novels, I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time in our local library. Helping him choose books that were both appropriate to his reading level and his level of maturity became another full time job. I started reading book reviews, book blogs, author websites, and of course, all the books I could get my hands on. In fact, I was spending so much time with kids literature, that I switched from writing (grown up) creative nonfiction to children’s fiction.
I was familiar with the classics, and it’s those to which I directed my son first. Roald Dahl was an early favorite, as was Laura Ingalls Wilder. Beverly Clearly, C.S. Lewis, and even J.K. Rowling I’d read all before I became a mother. But I’d never heard of many of the newer authors. And so I familiarized myself with names like Judy Moody and Frannie K. Stein, and later, Percy Jackson, Artemis Fowl, Septimus Heap. I wasn’t really reading to censor, rather to get a sense of what was written at what level, and direct him to books that I thought he’d enjoy. And ultimately, I was having an incredible amount of fun with what I was reading, and I absolutely loved being able to talk about the finer points of 39 Clues or other series with my son.
There was rarely something I didn’t let him read, rather, I might honestly alert my son to a book’s topic. For instance, when he was first reading the Harry Potter series, I urged him to stop at book 3. When, after having read the first three volumes at least twice, he insisted on reading on, I eventually gave in, urging him to come find me if there was anything he wanted to talk about. Scary things happen in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (book #4), I told him, and it would be ok if he wanted to put it down. (*spoiler alert next para*)
But that didn’t stop me from feeling like a horrible mother when he came home from second grade ashen faced and distraut. "Cedric Diggory died," he wailed, and, having been an avid adult Harry Potter fan myself, I could utterly empathize. I too had been heartbroken with that particular fictional turn of events. And hey, I’d been an adult when I’d read it.
I learned an important lesson thereafter, however. My son has now stopped himself at Harry Potter #5. He’s heard that a rather important, erm, character dies in the latter books, and although he knows the fact of that death, he’d rather not experience it just yet as a reader. And I respect his feelings, and appreciate his judgment about his own ability to handle certain fictional content.
I still read a ton of MG and YA literature, but I’ve stopped reading ahead of my son. In fact, he’s read plenty of things that I haven’t (although most of them are on my to be read pile) – The Children of the Lamp books, and Nathaniel Fludd: Beastologist are some recent examples.
But recently, I picked up Lisa Yee’s fabulous Millicent Min, Girl Genius. My son had already read her Bobby the Brave books and was itching to read more of Yee’s writing. But I’d heard, via a post on this very blog on menstruation in YA and MG books, that the book’s 11yo main character dealt with the very understandably 11yo girl-appropriate topic of periods, and I’d decided to go back to my old habits of pre-reading.
Now, the problem is, that which is an appropriate 11yo girl topic isn’t always an appropriate 8yo boy topic. Menstruation occupies about 2 pages of Millicent Min – it’s very appropriate to the story and very sweetly and believeably handled. If this were my 8yo daughter , I’d have absolutely no problem handing her the book. If (that 8yo daughter) had questions, I’d also have absolutely no problem answering them – ie. this is something that will happen to you too, maybe not for a few years.
But what about my 8yo son? He knows grossly about the birds and the bees, ova and sperm. But do I really want to go into the mechanics of periods and tampons with him right now?
I sound like a ridiculous prude, I know. I’m a pediatrician, and feminist, and teach issues in gender studies for goodness sake! Yet, my mommy-self is somehow living in an alternate universe to my scholarly and professional self.
I know, I know, the period pages will probably go right over his head. And it would be a crime to deprive him of Millicent as a character, and Yee’s fabulous writing voice. (In fact ANYONE wanting to know how to write an authentic and believable MG voice must RUN not WALK and get Yee’s books)
Yet, when it comes to my son, I hesitate.
He’s read books about death, about (I’m pretty sure) decapitation, about spies and wizards and ghouls and goblins. And now, I squeamish about letting him read – for about 2 seconds – about tampons and maxipads? What’s my problem?
Have you ever pre-read books for your kids?