Monday, March 31, 2008

The challenges of choosing books for children

I have written previously about the importance of reading to and with your children. In the previous post I talked a little about the need to help children choose varied books that match their interests and reading levels. There are many issues to consider:
  • is the book at the right reading level;
  • will my child (or children if you're a teacher) enjoy it;
  • is the content appropriate developmentally?
The task of helping children to choose appropriate books is common to parents, teachers and librarians. A recent article by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post Question for the ages: What books when? discusses some of the challenges that teachers and librarians face every day just choosing books to read to their classes.

In an age where children are often introduced to ideas at younger and younger ages - something I see as problematic - just how do you make wise choices? For example, is the book too violent? Does the child need to be introduced to that life issue (e.g death, war) at this age? And how do I match my professional judgment as a teacher against the rights of parents? Is it a book that the children can handle emotionally?

Parents at Green Acres School in Rockville (USA) complained when the teacher read the book "From Slave Ships to the Freedom Road" by Julius Lester to third-graders. The book tells the story of African Americans and is a popular book acclaimed for its historical accuracy.

It begins like this: "They took the sick and the dead and they dropped them into the sea like empty wine barrels. But wine barrels did not have beating hearts, crying eyes, and screaming mouths. . . . No one knows how many millions died. Except the sharks."

Such a graphic opening would certainly raise lots of questions; including moral questions. Is it appropriate for 3rd graders. My quick reaction is maybe, it depends on the 3rd graders. However, if parents don't like it then teachers have no choice but to respect their views on this and to talk with them about it and to perhaps try another book.

The National Council of English Teachers (USA) has issued guidelines to help teachers make wise choices. But this is not an easy task for teachers. Some of the helpful comments within the guidelines include:
  • There should be balance in the books chosen.
  • They need to be age appropriate (language and concepts that children can understand) - this will include consideration of the complexity of the plot, abstractness of the language, familiarity of vocabulary, and clarity of syntax.
  • The children should be able to relate to the content - there needs to be some connection between their life and that portrayed (this might be as basic as the age of the main characters).
Our children need to be introduced to a wide variety of books, the challenge is to help them to make good choices. As part of this we need to model how we make choices as well and explain to them why. This is an important task when supporting young readers which parents and teachers need to consider carefully.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Trevor. It's always good to be reminded of issues that one may not have considered when making book selection for kids.

Among my criteria is one a little selfish (I suppose): Will I enjoy it? Will I look forward to reading it the 30th time?

Thanks again,


Trevor Cairney said...

Agreed Jason. The interesting thing is that usually quality books work for both adults and children. Mind you, I can recall driving across America with our two daughters who were 4 and 7 at the time with Green Eggs and Ham being played as a readalong story so many times that eventually we all knew it without the tape, and the book, and three of the four people in the car wanted (in spite of its qualities) to pitch it out the window! I might do a post later on some of the other criteria.

Surfer Jay said...

I was raised on the scriptures. The first book I can remember reading was the bible. Before I could even read a full sentence without having to stop and ask how to pronounce a word I was reading the bible with my family, nearly every day. We read of wars, beheadings, famines, pestilence, obliterations of societies, and slavery. In elementary school I was reading beyond any other kids ability, I was articulate and never stammered when reading aloud in class. I was called on often to read, and often helped other kids to pronounce words while they read. I was raised on difficult and graphic reading material, and I was an articulate, humble, and mostly good kid. My parents being doctors, had thousands of books lining our homes’ walls. I would scour the shelves and pull down whatever title or book covers color seemed the most appealing. My favorite was National Geographic, especially when they showed photos of third-world peoples wearing no clothing, and photos of wars and famines. Again I was reading, and now seeing photos of death, destruction, and now nudity.
Also as a young boy I discovered my father’s books with illustrations and nude photos of the human body. They were books on the subject of drawing, painting and sculpting, of which he had many. I of course was excited to find these. But I also had heard my father many times talk of the human form as a work of art, a functional tool, a masterpiece of creation, something to be cherished and taken proper care of. He studied, painted and did charcoals of the nude form as works of art. After having heard him openly discuss what the books contents signified, I was no longer interested in viewing them for sexual fantasy. I never browsed them again. But most importantly I gained a wonderful viewpoint of what the human form meant and its worth.
Once, while traversing one of the bookshelves, at the very top I discovered an illustrated book about Freud, (yea a comic book!), which was full of all sorts of explicit sexual cartoons, based upon his fantastic ideas of sexuality. I must have been seven to ten years old. I was not traumatized, but excited and guilty. I returned to the shelf many times to grab quick glances at the dirty book. Some days later I sat and listened to my mother explain Freud’s outlook on sexuality, and how absurd some of them actually are. The point is that we openly discussed the issue, and discerned what was seemingly right to us. I walked away from that book, never having the desire to look at it again, simply because I no longer viewed it as mere pornography, but as an educational tool to better understand the human mind.
I was but a little kid. And yet, I believe the circumstances under which I was revealed these books made the difference in how I reacted to them. I was tutored in the ways of good and evil, right and wrong, poverty and wealth, what it meant to murder and what it meant to give charity and love. If I was not taught these standards and meanings by an adult while I had access to these books, I may have seen the nudity as pornographic and the violence and wars as an example of how I should act.
I believe that books with more explicit material in them are not necessarily wrong to introduce to children (such as the book you use as an example) as long as the adults supplying those books have open discussions about what the content means. Although, I agree that it depends on the child, which can be hard to discern when there is an entire class to treat as a whole unit. Of course my view is very general, as all books need to be critically considered prior to allowing children to read them. On a lighter side, when it comes to children reading comic books, fairy tales, fiction novels and the likes, I think it is great at any age. Nearly any exposure to reading will only further that child’s interest in books which can lead to more educational and informative material, as well as increasing his mental abilities.
You bring up some valid points, and I have now put much more though into how to go about introducing books to my boy. I appreciate you bringing up this subject, (as you can tell I have a lot to say about it), and Io will surely delve deeper into it as I prepare for the birth of my boy.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your detailed comments Surfer Jay. Your experience supports the point I made in the blog that decisions parents make with their children about books will depend on the child. You also point to a couple of other points that are worth making. First, that children can (and will) find books that we wouldn't choose for them (so what we do as parents and teachers should aim to help them make good choices as they mature). Second, non-fiction can be very significant for young children learning to read so we shouldn't just read literature. Third, that family values vary and will influence the choices parents would want to make for their children. The latter will cause teachers much grief because in a pluralist society the values of the families won't always align. As an aside, the importance of the Bible as a source of reading material is well known. How children deal with the violence in books like the Bible (and fairy tales for that matter) might be the subject of another post.

Surfer Jay said...

On further reflection of this topic, I better realize the scrutiny of which books are chosen for schools to offer. As you said, ‘family values vary’. It must be quite difficult to choose books which will be acceptable for all the kids as a whole.