One of my favorite memories growing up was when my grandma would take me to the local library. She’d arm me with a juice box, Goldfish crackers and my library card, and let me have free reign of the place, letting me wander and explore and get lost in the stacks (sometimes literally–my library was HUGE, yo!). My fascination and obsession with all things books started at a very young age–a lot of it I think came from my grandmother who could devour novels, going through them like the giant tub of Good & Plenty she kept on the table by her recliner. I was entranced by the endless possibilities books offered, the adventure and power and magic they held. To this day, anytime I walk into a bookstore or library, it’s so overwhelming that I don’t even know where to begin–there’s just all of the options! Often times I would (and still do) just choose a book at complete random and go from there.
I truly believe that discovery through reading is a universal experience, one that enables readers to imagine other incredible lives and worlds. To me, is just doesn’t get much better than that.
For this reason, I won’t place any restrictions on my personal library when my future kiddos learn how to read. I’ve already decided that I’m going to introduce them to Harry Potter in utero because duh. With nearly 1,000 physical books and e-books, my tiny apartment is
almost most definitely groaning under the weight of all those words. Poetry, fiction, history, biography, drama, anthologies: they’re all there on my bookshelves (and floors and couches and nightstands and kitchen tables). All of them, each and every last one tell stories that are uplifting, disturbing, real, inspiring, thought-provoking and hilarious. They reveal the kaleidoscopic diversity of the human experience. And they will show my future sons and/or daughters that the world is an infinitely fascinating and amazing place.
But, some might say, you’d let your 8-year old read Lolita? You’d let your 10-year old get his Scarlet Letter on? Or anything by Stephen King???
Yes. Yes I would. You want to know why? Because I believe that you connect with books that you’re meant to connect with at a specific time. Reading Thomas Hardy, for instance, informed me how to read Salinger and Faulkner, Morrison and Mann. I had my nose in a book pretty much on the regular. My friends and family still make fun of me for having paperbacks and hardcovers wherever I go; stacks in the living room, bathroom, bedroom nightstand, car, desk at work and of course my purse. Have books, will travel, as they say. Or maybe it’s just me who say’s it?
My mom and dad who never were big readers, let me read until my little heart was content, whatever and whenever and wherever. (I still remember the time they caught me reading a Babysitter’s Club book in church—that was maybe the only time they told me to step away from the book.) My mom listened over Corn Flakes during breakfast and on the ride home from school as I told her about the books I was reading, and while she lifted her eyebrows and asked questions, she never, ever told me I wasn’t allowed to read anything. And for that I’m eternally grateful.
This smorgasbord of genres and time-periods and styles ultimately enriched my understanding of the world and my place in it. I realized through my reading that “the good ‘ol days” never really existed, that human nature never really changes, and that I must keep an open mind if I wanted to keep learning.
Growing up, my family never really traveled much. My dad was in the military so both my sister and I have seen almost all 50 states, but never have I been outside of the country. I used books to explore these places I couldn’t otherwise access, bouncing between the wild jungles of Asia, the savannas of Africa and the beautiful and romantic cities of Paris and Rome. I built up a list of literary pilgrimages I wanted to make when I was older, and while I still haven’t actually made it to any of those places, yet, I have every intention on doing so.
As a librarian, I’ve seen the excited looks and wide smiles on the faces of kids who pick up a book they love, or one that they are discovering for the first time. I’ve also seen the disappointment when their parents tell them that they can’t check out that copy of “Captain Underpants” or “Diaries of a Wimpy Kid.” It’s every parent’s prerogative to raise their children in anyway they see fit, and I’m in no way trying to negate that, but I urge them to rethink the censorship they put on books.
I think the key to having your kids’ reading be free-wheelin’ and unfettered but also informative is your ability to answer their questions and listen to them figure out what they’ve read. You won’t need to schedule specific times to have “Big Talks” about various issues because those issues will naturally come up in their reading. They’ll read Ralph Ellison and ask you about racism and injustice and identity; they’ll read Charlotte Perkins Gilman and ask about feminism and equality; they’ll read Dickens and Orwell and ask about poverty and surveillance and war. They’ll read histories of World War II and plays about apartheid and poems about faith or sexuality or despair. They’ll read graphic novels and comic books and screenplays. You’ll realize that answering their questions is a full-time job and that your books are making them smart and thoughtful and pretty soon they’ll be outmaneuvering you in debates about when and for how long they can take the car and whether or not they can get a tattoo or dye their hair blue. But you’ll be damn proud of them.
I have always had strong thoughts about censorship and book-banning. To put it blatantly, I think it’s a bunch of bullfunky. Kids are more mindful than they’re sometimes given credit for, and they should be allowed to browse and sample and explore. Who cares if they don’t understand a book they read in 6th grade? They’ll read it again later, maybe, and then it’ll all start to make sense, maybe. One of my favorite things about books is that you can read the same one every three years and each time your life experiences will make you see it differently.
So, to my fellow parents or soon-to-be parents, unleash your kids in personal or public library or bookstore and watch the magic happen!