I was recently in a position to overhear a conversation at a book store concerning the quality of books for young adults. The statements regarding concern over the quality of recent young adult books was at the heart of the conversation. Teen romance is scary enough in real life, the idea of reading about it was enough to send one woman over the edge. The other woman tried to defend it, stating that the character qualities in the books were actually more mature than what the average teenager would experience and that by reading such literature (a term I use loosely when referring to teen romance books) it might actually help young hearts as they tramp through the dating scene. Having never read teen romance, I must admit that I cannot declare an educated decision on this matter. In all honesty, both women are probably correct. When they caught me listening in, they asked me my opinion: What do you let your children read? How do you select books for teenagers? How do you make your children read? All good questions. I gladly climbed aboard my soapbox and shared.
What do I let my children read?
Books with integrity. Books with strong characters in nearly impossible situations who overcome odds to become great heroes. Books based on history–the ugly parts: The Holocaust (The Diary of Anne Frank or Number the Stars by Lois Lowry), Slavery (Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson or Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglas), War (The Winged Watchman by Hilda Van Stockum or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne), Family Issues (Almost Home by Joan Bauer).
Books that allow escape: Fantasy (The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Never Ending Story by Michael Ende), Historical Fiction (The Little House of the Prairie Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Fever by Laurie Halse Anderson).
Books that teach, encourage by example (Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham, Alas Babylon by Pat Frank, The Lonesome Gods by Louis L’Amour).
When I’m asked to give my opinion on how to select books for young adults, I can only offer suggestions. I encourage the reader to consider books that allow them to put on different skin, view through a different set of eyes, see a part of the world they would never otherwise see. That’s why we read or watch TV or go to the movies: for the experience of the story. My personal opinion will probably carry little weight with parents who are simply thrilled when their children read anything. The concern of the quality of the literature isn’t considered important, but it is. Just as people fawn over mass-produced or organic produce, the quality of literature is even more important because it effects the health of the soul. If detoxing your body is difficult, imagine how much more effort goes into detoxing a soul. If the Bible isn’t something a young adult reads regularly, then that is a great place to start.
When my children were young, I had grandiose plans of reading every book before they did. This worked until I was outnumbered three to one. As the stack of books for me to pre-approve grew taller than me, I realized that I needed a different strategy. It came down to a three-step process of approving books before I could read them.
- Read reviews of the book on Amazon. By reading a few of the 5 star and a few of the 1-2 star ratings and reviews, I could gather any potential inappropriate themes that I would not approve of.
- Post a request to friends for thoughts on the books we want to read. I used to use Facebook for this quite a bit. It generated some really great discussions.
- If a book passed the first two steps, then my children were allowed to read it, with one rule: If it ever felt inappropriate, they were to bring it to me for a discussion.
By doing our research and giving my children the authority to determine if I would approve of a book or not, we’ve discovered that they are much more cautionary than I am about what they read. Any book with a swear word is brought to my attention. I’ve even read books after my daughters have and have found words and sometimes phrases blackened out. Censorship at its best!
The last question, How do you make your children read?, really stumped me. Simple answer: I don’t make them read anything. Long answer: years of modeling reading, giving them time to read, providing time at the library for browsing, giving books as presents, rewarding good behavior with an extra story at bedtime. We turned off the TV years ago. Instead of the furniture arranged to watch a screen, it’s arranged around book shelves and tables with books and big comfy reading pillows.
Remember your teen years? Did anything your parents make you do become fulfilling? The typical answer is no. It comes down to putting your actions where your mouth is. You say you want children who are strong readers, then you must practice reading strong. If you want children who gravitate toward books instead of video games, then you must do the same. And for the love of all that is holy, don’t give your young girls romance novels! What good can they possibly glean from such books?
In all these qualifications of what to read and how to encourage teens to read, there was nothing that would classify a teen romance novel as a good choice.