Let the Children Read Whatever They Want

I was just chatting with my sixteen-year-old son yesterday about reading. “Remember how everyone loves reading when they’re in second, third, and fourth grades?” he asked.

I mean, yes. I remember this quite well. My little cherub was a voracious reader, downing series after series — Percy Jackson, The Secrets of Droon, Warriors, My Weird School, and a million other things.

“What happened?” I asked him. Because now, he reads very little for pleasure. For years, I required him to read a book per week in the summers (this is the first summer I’ve gone lax on my quota, and that’s only because he’s gone down a rigorous study plan for the ACT), and though he enjoyed individual titles quite a lot, the whole endeavor was more or less a battle.

He laughed. “You just figure out there’s better stuff to do.”

Better stuff to do?! No one told me that when I was a kid. I was a faithful library patron all the way through high school. I loved the summer reading programs promoted by the librarians and the thrill of finding a new title by a favorite author. I remember reading so many books: E.L. Konigsburg, Judy Blume, The Tillerman Cycle by Cynthia Voight, all of Madeleine L’Engle, The Logan Family Saga by Mildred D. Taylor, V.C. Andrews, the mysteries by Mary Downing Hahn, and the Earth’s Children series by Jean M. Auel (yes, I read all that prehistoric sex as a preteen, and I don’t regret it). Earlier it was the Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High (hundreds of these). Later it was the Brontes, Mary Higgins Clark, John Grisham, Louise Erdrich, and also lots of poetry in anthologies by everyone.

My mother always let me read whatever I wanted. Whatever I wanted! No censorship, no hiding, no shame, no discussion about whether the exploits of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield were more or less worthy than those of Jane Eyre. I’m so appreciative of her stance on reading, and with the exception of a few snooty English-major years as an undergrad, I’ve adopted it myself. All reading is good reading! I’ve repeated this over and over again to the parents of my students. I don’t believe in “guilty pleasures” when it comes to books. (It wouldn’t make any sense, as my own debut novel falls into a light-reading category, and I wrote it like that on purpose.)

Now, if I could just get my own two kids to love reading. Maybe someday. Maybe some books. In the meantime, I can always make them read on threat of unplugging the Xbox.

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Kathleen West

Kathleen West is the author of the forthcoming novel, Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes, out 2/4/20 from Berkley. She lives in Minneapolis with her family.

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