Saturday, March 5, 2011

Do you Pre-Read Your Kids' Books? Censorship vs. Sensibility

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?


  1. Please let him - if only being *used to* girls having periods, and the accompanying apparatus, is an invaluable quality in a boyfriend. Which he might be one day! But he'll surely be a friend.

  2. ok, claire, but only if you come over and help me explain periods to him when he asks! :) I'll probably just hand him the book and see what happens (if he even notices the menstruation stuff) but what I'm more amazed at is my own hesitation...

  3. I read stories to my children so I don't know that I preread them so much as read them alongside them. I know that when I overheard coworkers say they were reading the Harry Potter books to their children I suggested that they start prereading with book four because the situations the characters face become increasingly sophisticated and intense. This is one of the reasons I loved the books myself, that the stories grow in maturity with the characters. However, I can't imagine reading the fourth or any of the following books to a six-year-old child. (I was so devastated by the events of book six that I walked downstairs and my then adolescent children watched me silently hand the book to one of my children and then walk back upstairs. Two of them, who were then old enough to break my heart by maturing into non-readers, had already heard what happens thanks to the internet. They knew why I was so quiet and needed to remain that way.)

    I'm adding Yee to my list. I believe you're the second person to mention the name and I know that this usually means I need to pay heed.

    And there is a big difference in the reading of an event, that goes on for pages and pages, and seeing it in the movie.

    I did, however, watch movies before I would take my children to see them. I didn't always trust the ratings to be accurate and I often question the blurring of PG-13 with movies I feel deserve to be rated R but then I don't understand why, as a teenager, my friend and I couldn't see Harold and Maude, a movie we had both already seen and wanted to see again, but could easily go see The Rocky Horror Picture Show so I may have been more determine to preview movies than I would be to preread books. And bear in mind, only one of my children is a reader by nature so it may be I didn't preread because there was need to do so.

  4. My kiddos started asking about the birds, bees, and yes, even periods rather young. Needless to say, my hubby and I had a mini "holycownowwhat" moment, but decided to give them an answer that was as straightforward as their curiosity. I'm glad we did. They didn't freak out and neither did we. Now that they're older, the topic isn't a "big deal." We have the same attitude with books and movies. We don't technically pre-read, but we make sure we are informed about the content and have a chat with them before any exposure.

  5. Thanks for your comments and insight as usual Satia - I utterly agree re: the difference of viewing a film and reading! And definitely add Lisa Yee to your list of MG to be reads - she's a master (and writes just delightful characters)
    Thanks for the insight of a 'veteran parent' (ie. one with older kids than mine!) Samantha, and thanks for stopping by. Yes, it's the 'holycownowwhat' moments in life that define us as parents - as someone on twitter just suggested, he'll probably just blow over the period stuff anyway but then blindside me some other even more difficult to answer question (ie. more holycownowwhat stuff! :)

  6. I can no longer stay ahead of my son. He is ten and he quickly ingests a 350-page book in just days. I try to have some book club time with him, but there is no way to stay ahead of him with all the other reading I do.

    As for letting him read about the period, I say let him read it. If he asks, just answer him in the clinical explanation about the mechanics. My son handled that explanation just fine, and because my son has two sisters, I am hopeful he'll continue to be comfortable with it.

  7. Dear Sayantani,

    I had your same worries and issues.

    I first recommend what I know, but I do not preread novels. I am lucky in that we all love books in our family and just about weekly talk about the books we are reading. So, when the kids come to things they 'don't get' or find heart-wrenching, we talk about it. It is a wonderful way to stay connected with and to each other.

    HOWEVER, I blog about parenting and education. Currently I am blogging about kids' graphic novels. FOR GRAPHIC NOVELS - WHICH I HIGHLY RECOMMEND - THERE ARE SOME GREAT ONES - PARENTS MUST PREREAD!

    However, if you don't have time, I have a few blog posts with some excellent recommendations and age guidelines: http//

    Feel free to use my recommendations and I would love for you to post and recommend your own.

  8. I don't think I usually pre-read...but I do tend to read books that my 12yo daughter will most likely be picking up in the next few years. My shelves are full of mostly YA stuff right now, which is edgier and edgier these days. So maybe I am reading ahead without really realizing it. There are some I'd rather she wait until the later teen years to read! But I may change my mind as time goes on.

    We're very free and easy with movie watching at our house...and my 8y0 watched the blockbuster "Transformers" when it came out a few years ago. Nothing like having your barely-in-elementary school boy ask "What's masturbation, Mommy?" because he heard the word in a movie! Talk about a "holycowwhatnow" moment!!

  9. Thanks Meryl, I do think MG/YA book bloggers are a great source of knowledge about what's appropriate reading level-wise or content wise for your child...
    And Kari - wow, that's quite a holycowwhatnow moment! How did you respond? (after you finished blushing)yikes!

  10. Oh, and Megan (just saw your comment) thanks for visiting! Comforting to hear your son did well with a factual explanation - my son has a younger sister so part of my leeriness is definitely about that too - when they are older it's clearly great for him to appreciate and understand and support his sister's experience (and she his) I'm just not sure I want to much appreciation, er, just now! :)

  11. Not one of my stellar moments of parenthood. I responded to the "M" question with some vague "I honestly don't have any idea how to explain this to you right now. Can I think about it and get back to you?" It worked. He asked a couple more times...and I did eventually tell him he was very young for this specific topic and so that is why I was having trouble figuring out how to explain it. He seemed satisfied with the idea that I would...some about it with him. (But I'm going to have his Dad do that. I know. I'm a chicken.) :)

  12. Ok, so follow up to my kerfuffle: Son reads "Millicent Min" - makes not 1 comment about tampon/maxipad section. Not one. Doesn't even blink I think. Now reading "Stanley Wong Flunks Big Time" the companion/second book - written from a boy's POV so I don't think any menstrual content! :)

  13. Very interesting discussion, Sayantani. I've done both pre-reading and looking up a content/ratings on parent websites before. I think it's really on a case by case basis: age, maturity level, reading level, etc. I have four kids, so have four different ways of looking at what they are reading and whether it's appropriate for them. I don't really censor anything, but do try to guide them in their choices. Sometimes I'm overruled ;)

    Amanda Hoving

  14. thanks for your note amanda - i know the feeling of getting overruled as I too try to "gently guide"... :)