Give Them Literature or Give Them Death

I work in a bookshop. Though, strictly speaking, it’s not just a bookshop – it’s a gift-and-stationery-and bookshop.

My favourite part about it is making book recommendations – especially recommendations for children, or people who are buying for children.

I think it’s the selfish hope that the words and worlds that entranced me as a child will go on to entrance new young minds; that maybe they’ll get bit by the reading bug; that they too will become obsessed with the fictional worlds; that they’ll learn about the many faces of humanity they haven’t yet encountered.

Point being, it’s a very cool thing to be a part of. And it’s nice to see adults taking an interest in the reading material of the little people in their lives.

But then there’s the other side of it. The not so nice side when the judgments and opinions of adults hinder more than help their child in terms of reading.

There’s one particular situation which sticks out in my mind more than others.

A mother requested recommendations for her two young boys – one an avid reader, and the other one not so much. It was easy to make recommendations for the former, unsurprisingly, but it was the latter I was most determined to find something for.

“He likes horses,” his mother said, and deducing he wouldn’t be interested in the ones with pink, sparkly covers of horse fiction, I tried the reference books, also pointing out the horse magazines we had.

His mother, however, wasn’t too keen as they would have pictures and she wanted him to focus on reading – on words.

Which, I wanted to point, would still happen with the magazines, except there’d be pictures interspersed between the articles.

She wanted him to read books, though, good quality ones that would shape him into the kind of accomplished reader she obviously wanted him to become.

It was clear, however, when the boy picked up the horse magazine, poring over it, begging his mother to get it for him, how passionate he was about horses.

What could have been the harm in buying the magazine? If you already admit your child has difficulty reading, surely you’d want to supplement their reading with an interest of theirs. In this case, the boy’s equestrian tendencies could have eventually compelled him to read the magazine articles. Which in turn could have prompted him to seek out equestrian manuals, and novels about horses, and maybe eventually arrive at “War Horse” which his mother obviously considered suitably appropriate image-unaccompanied reading for her son.

The mother wasn’t having any of it, though. She wanted him to pick a proper novel, but of course, there was nothing to interest a son who wanted pictures in his books, or to placate a mother who wanted her son to move on to more grown up books.

The boy quit pestering his mother after awhile, and went outside to wait on a couch while she and his brother made their purchases. Surely, that – zero reading material – is not better than reading material with pictures in it.

If a child is not interested in reading, then forcing them to is certainly not going to work. And neither are narrow-minded judgments about what is legitimate reading. If one boy wants to read novels and the other wants to read magazines then by all means let them. Don’t extinguish whatever small interest they might have, simply because it’s not the type of interest you would like. Keep an eye out on how to keep the flame alive.

I had to bite my tongue as the mother kept on talking right to the end of her shopping about how she wanted her son to read “real” books while he sat outside, empty-handed, exhibiting zero interest in this world behind the glass doors that his brother and mother were occupying.

What you read is not the key. It’s how you read. Discussing the magazine articles together, based on the boy’s interest in horses, could have easily fostered a strong interest in reading over time. By forbidding the boy from reading books with pictures, the mother is risking eliminating his interest in reading entirely.

This fervour for Quality Reading becomes detrimental to what it hopes to achieve. A love of books and stories is not created from having classics pounded into you – it starts when you read something out of interest, out of curiosity.

I grew up reading all over the spectrum – from Sweet Valley High series to Black Beauty. And it wasn’t until I acquired more reading that I grew to understand how beneficial different kinds of reading could be, from the one-dimensional world of the Sweet Valley High series to the more nuanced one of Little Women. Growing up with the Wakefield twins taught me just as much as growing up with the March sisters (though, admittedly, they were two groups of very different lessons).

Two sets of sisters that I wished I was a part of

Conversely, having read all the Classic Greats is not guaranteed to make you an engaged reader. I used to believe reading widely was the key to an open-mind, but that is not the case. I’m acquainted with someone who reads above average, but is one of the more close-minded and judgmental people I know. It’s all in the method, not the content.

If you’re worried about how your child will digest certain worlds, then by all means teach them to read critically – let them know that not everything should be taken at surface value, coax them to question the world around them.

But don’t snuff out that tiny spark of interest when it’s on the brink of igniting, all for some grandiose vision of the “Right” type of reading.

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4 thoughts on “Give Them Literature or Give Them Death

  1. SO important. I admit to having been a bit of a book snob during a portion of my teen years (but I was an EVERYTHING snob back then, really). And I gave myself really high standards, i.e not allowing myself to move on to other books until I had finished the one I was currently reading, no matter how much I hated it or no matter how difficult it was for me. I hadn't yet grasped the idea that reading should be enjoyable, not a duty or a badge of honour, and that enjoyment has to come with flexibility and a wide selection of choices (which is what that poor horse-loving kid deserves, bless).

    My brother has dyslexia, and as a kid, really long wordy books were too much for him. And in any case, his interests tended to lean towards non-fiction, and my parents were perfectly happy to indulge him. So while I got fat paperbacks and words upon words, my brother got dinosaur picturebooks and magazines about WWII. Reading your post has really made me appreciate how cool my folks were about accommodating not only our respective interests, but our reading ability. They never told me any book was too thick or too advanced for me, and they never suggested that my brother should “grow up” and start reading stuff with less pictures in it. And sure enough the older he got, the more he expressed a healthy and voluntary interest in reading the things I was reading too. Like literally the worst thing you can do is insist to a child that there is a /right/ way to be a reader and kill that spark off so early.

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  2. Yeah, I don't blame you – we're raised to think that way, that what we read/watch/consume reflects us, when it should be /how/ we consume those things that should be in focus.

    If only all parents were like yours! A child should be allowed to read at their own pace – certainly, it should be challenging, but pushing them so far beyond their interests/capabilities is never going to turn out well.

    It's a bit of a struggle to see some parents' good intentions flop. Kudos to yours though 😀

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  3. Ugh this post is so important and I am having trouble stopping myself from just typing “YAS EXACTLY” over and over again. I am so glad that you are working in this book shop (if you still are) and that you are doing your best to influence children's reading choices in a positive way. Your mindfulness and critical thinking skills are so appreciated.

    Just going to vent about some things I agree with you on here. When college admissions happened, I was accepted into an Ivy League university, as well as a couple of public Ivies, and one of my peers turned around and asked me “wow, Thomas, it's weird that you're so smart but you spend so much time reading YA.” That comment offended me so much, because I believe reading YA is what has given me so much empathy for different people's circumstances, for exposing me to big questions of relationships, mental health, diversity, death, and more. We cannot constrain what we read to just classics or really any type of book, because that would limit the scope (of prose, of genre, of diversity, etc.) and forbid us from grappling with viewpoints outside of the ones we prefer to indulge in. And from my personal experiences and the people I have met, the individuals who were given the ability to read what they wanted to from a young age have developed the strongest intrinsic motivations to read for fun – to read widely and without fear of judgment.

    Sorry for this not so quality comment, but again, I appreciate this post so much. I work as a consultant at my college's writing center, and we are often instructed to help our peers learn HOW to write, not WHAT to write. People need to develop their own preferences and tastes and capabilities. Yes, we can guide them and support them, but it is up to them to make those changes within themselves. This applies to reading at a young age as well.

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  4. It is amazing that the mom in your story didn't “get it.” Reading anything for pleasure is a valid form of reading, and that magazine could have started that boy on any number of paths wherein he found knowledge, companionship, insight, and solace.

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