Throwing Away The Classics

I ran into this post–which talks about why not to give children a particular book– on Carol Nissenson’s Blog the other day and despite the post’s title, it took me three or four read throughs to figure out exactly which book she was talking about. The Secret Garden. One of the books I read as a child, and enjoyed. And probably would have handed over to the next generation without a second thought. The truth is, my initial response was something more along the line of “What is she talking about?” than “Oh, she’s right.”

But she is right.

It took me a while to think of the negative stereotypes she was talking about. But, of course, they didn’t make as direct an impact on me as they would have on other children. And, in time, my memory glossed over them.  So, I went back to Padma Venkatraman’s interview, and kept reading.

Oh. Yeah. That. Well, yes.

Leave a comment and tell me if you knew right away what scenes she’s talking about, or if it took you a second.

Revisiting old stories… old songs… old anything and consciously thinking about the messages in them has been a recurring thought lately.

For instance… Pretty Woman (the song, not the move)… It’s street harassment, but kinda catchy, and you can dance to it. Still… Should little girls’ brains be marinating in the idea that you’ll hurt a stranger’s feelings if you don’t smile at him?

Return to Sender… A stalker classic. No amount of pelvis shaking is going to change the fact that the woman in the song is giving Elvis a clear NO! and his next step will be… to show up on her doorstep. Not a great example for little boys.

And The Secret Garden? Well, damn it, I liked the Secret Garden. But moving forward… I liked a lot of books. And I still want there to be time in childhood for kids to discover their own favorites. I don’t think every childhood needs to be a blow-by-blow replay of my own to be a good childhood.

The Great Hierarchy of Children’s Books

  1. Books Recommended by A Parent, Teacher, or Librarian. In my family, this included Caldecott and Newbery winners and nominees, and a large number of dog stories. Books received as gifts from any of the above. And things on school reading lists. That recommendation–the moment when someone actually hands a child a book and says “Read this”–is a high level of approval. And not all books deserve that seal of approval. This is the pinnacle of all children’s books.
  2. Books Not Recommended, but Still Enjoyed by Parents, Teachers, or Librarians. These would be the books of no particular social value (or detriment) that your mother is willing to read to or with you. Your parents aren’t holding them up as anything special. You probably brought them home, yourself. Good for you.
  3. Books That Annoy the Shit Out of Adults Not actually harmful, but your mother is not willing to read them to you or with you because she just doesn’t like them. Because, at some point, you’re old enough to read that to yourself, if you really want to read it. My family? Well, this would be any Ramona book.
  4. Books That Will Result in a DISCUSSION. These are the books that will need some parental guidance. The ones where your parents seriously disagree with some of it, or where clarification will be necessary. The family medical encyclopedia. That thing about the circus sideshow. And anything where the expectations in your family are dramatically different than what’s shown in that book. For instance: The Secret Garden is really old fashioned, isn’t it? Wow, that child is horrible.
  5. Books That Will Result in Someone’s Career Ending There weren’t a lot of books that fell into this category, when I was a kid. (We’re a fairly information-positive family.) In one notable instance, however, a really lazy grade-school teacher decided that a movie about World War II would be just as good as a more formal lesson. Her career ended somewhere during a scene with a couple f—udging* on the porch.

I believe that books can move up or down the hierarchy of children’s books without any actual censorship or book-banning taking place. I don’t think I owe a recommendation to anything, and I certainly don’t think I should recommend everything to children. Plenty of books I read myself–and enjoy, and recommend to adults–that I wouldn’t recommend to a ten year old or a six year old.

Most of the books I read, I wouldn’t recommend to a young child.

And if I do recommend a book, I want it to be good–not just enjoyable, but good–a step in the direction I believe the world should go. I want it to be something that represents something I can stand behind, and something that will give that child–and the children he comes into contact with–a better life.

*If you know how to use euphemisms, thank a teacher.

 

The School Year is Coming…

And that means school supply lists and last minute shopping sprees.

I don’t even have kids, and I know that much. The terror of last year’s school supply lists is still fresh in my mind, and later on, I’m going spelunking to see if I can track down an old scientific calculator to loan a friend’s kid. I’m not sure it will be worth the trip. There’s a very specific model number they’re supposed to have, and I’m probably a model or two behind.

Not that math has changed all that much.

Last year’s list added up to a couple hundred dollars in things like a couple dozen red pens, crayons, pencils, and Kleenex, and included the admonition not to write the child’s name on anything, because… delicately worded, of course… we will share the supplies in the classroom hoard.

In other words, don’t get attached, ’cause you ain’t getting them back.

This year’s requests include the very same items the kids bought last year–many of which would still be perfectly good–and significantly angrier parents.

So, thoughts…

1.) The up front expenditure is memorable, and for a lot of families, a real blow to the budget. (Remember, this is one list for one child. Many families have more than one.) It’s ridiculous to have families buying an entire year of notebooks (or anything else) all at once, when the expense could be budgeted through the year.

2.) I’m a writer. I use a lot of red ink. I will not be exhausting twenty-four red pens this year. A ten-year-old certainly won’t. This massive over-supplying is a waste, and irritates the people paying for them.

3.) Not having personal supplies eliminates personal responsibility for those supplies, and also makes them a recurring, ridiculous expenditure.

4.) Not having personal supplies means the actual expense is double, because the children will still need the same supplies for homework. Children whose families don’t have money for this will be disadvantaged by the very system that was (presumably) intended to help them.

5.) It’s a lot easier to tell a parent “Billy” is out of red pens than to tell him that “the class” is out of red pens. (Particularly if they still remember spending money and buying twenty-four of them.)

6.) Teachers will not be able to figure out why they wind up buying supplies “out of their own pocket” when they run out of something halfway through the year. (It’s because kids didn’t take care of class supplies, and parents aren’t going to replace them.)

 

In Praise of Children’s Booksellers and Librarians

Children confuse me.

When I was a bookseller, I spent a lot of time in the Children’s Section. If I wasn’t actually in the character costume for an event, I was behind the desk, frantically searching for the by-age-and-grade-level cheat sheets the children’s specialist kept.

The character costume part was easy. All you  have to do is fit in the costume, keep your mouth shut, and pretend to be a dog. (Or whatever.)

The book part? Virtually impossible.

In the first place, nothing you read when you were a child is relevant. What was I reading in third grade? Not Captain Underpants. So, for a child-free soul like myself, that’s going to mean rote memorization. A lot of it.

And in the second place, none of the kids you’re talking to are reading at their age/grade level, anyway. Well, I guess those cheat sheets were more a set of guidelines, anyway. Does fifth grade mean fifth grade, or second? Does “gifted” mean the standardized test score shows him at a 4.6 reading level (And only six months into 4th grade!) or does it mean college physics?

Then, on top of that, there are the parents.

Let’s be honest… half the time, what you’re really looking for is something the parents like. Child friendly, with good values, and wholesome adventures. Maybe something where the dog actually survives, or the kid grows up to be an accountant… you know, just like his mom. But nobody’s gonna give you a wish list. Nope. You have to guess.

And if they don’t like what their kid’s reading?

Oh, boy. They’re gonna track you down.

Your name’s on that receipt, and they will find you. Were there talking animals in that book? An abomination. Sex? Violence? Fart jokes? Run!

Oh, no. You will not speak. After all, you should have known the moment an over-21 type adult tried to buy that manga–the shrink-wrapped one with the giant age-rating on the cover–that it was clearly a birthday gift for her eight year old.

So, to all the Kids’ Specialists, Children’s librarians, and **gulp** school teachers…

For all your hard work and dedication…

For all the time and energy you expend trying to expand the minds of the next generation, and for the effort you put into encouraging them…

Thanks for taking the bullet.