What did I learn this week?

Freedom to read…everything

I have been thinking lately about how much control (or not) we as parents choose to exercise over our children’s reading material.  I come from a very literate household, and we read all kinds of things to C in particular.  She makes it clear what she is interested in having us read to her, and we give her wide latitude in her choices.

We stocked the house early on with a huge assortment of fantastic children’s books, and I find her taste for the most part reflects an appreciation for good writing and creative illustration.  I do not make hard and fast rules about what I will or will not read to her.  I do not say that I won’t read any Disney books to her, although I will not buy them, and I do point out that they are not original in content and reflect only a particular aesthetic style.  I happily read versions of Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs which (claiming to reflect accurately the original German tale) end with the Queen having to wear red hot iron shoes and dance around until she falls down dead.  Another favourite of C’s is The Wizard of Oz, which includes some graphic descriptions like the story of how the tin woodsman became what he is — his axe was enchanted so that he ended up cutting off each of his limbs and then his head in succession so that they needed to be replaced by tin versions.  Gee, I wonder why that part never made it into the movie!  My point is not that every story I read to C has graphic descriptions, but that I do not shy away from classic stories that include them.

However, my approach apparently differs from that of many other parents.  A couple of recent incidents brought this to my attention.  The first happened a month or so ago while visiting a friend’s house.  She has a copy of  a Disney storybook of Peter Pan.  Clearly, this is quite far removed from J.M. Barrie’s original, but for the purposes of this story, that part does not matter.  In the story, Peter Pan and the Lost Boys want to help rescue the Indian Chief’s daughter, Tiger Lily, who has been kidnapped by Captain Hook.  Can you see the issue coming?  I didn’t until I listened to my friend read the story out loud to the children.  Every time the word “indian” was used in the story, she replaced it by saying “First Nations” instead.  My problem with this is twofold.  Firstly, the term “First Nations” is what we use here, it is not a term generally used to describe American Indians, which is what J.M. Barrie had in mind when he wrote Peter Pan.  Secondly, I do not believe in changing the words of a story like that, I believe the words should be read as written, and then, if need be, there can be an age appropriate discussion about the author’s choice of language.

The second incident occurred a few days ago when another friend was visiting and telling me the latest news about her Kindle.  She told me that she had downloaded a copy of Heidi, and was now “pre-reading it for objectionable content.”  Ever the diplomat, my immediate response was, “Objectionable content!  Oh my goodness, you’re one of those people.  Next thing you know, you’ll be burning copies of Catcher in the Rye in your barbecue!”  Well, luckily this friend is someone who wouldn’t take my little outburst personally, although not surprisingly she did not go on to tell me what that “objectionable content” might be.

While I definitely believe that it is important to introduce stories to children that reflect core values like equality and kindness, at the same time, I do not believe this requires parents to prevent children from accessing classic literature.  All stories reflect the cultural, economic, and political placement of the author and his or her time in history.  If you look hard enough, you can always find “objectionable content.”  As a parent, you don’t want any stories where women are not treated with equality?  Say goodbye to Edith Wharton and Jane Austen.  You don’t want anything that might raise issues of racism?  There goes Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling.  This is not an argument about the fringes of free expression, this is classic, dare I say mainstream, literature we are talking about.

Children are smarter than most adults, including their well-meaning parents, give them credit for.  They have a right to an open mind, which means giving them access to all kinds of literary content.  I wholeheartedly agree that parents should stay involved with their children’s choices of reading material, but if there is something about the content that bothers the parent, it should be discussed instead of hidden.  This takes more work on the part of the parent, but it is absolutely necessary in order for children to develop the ability and desire to read a variety of literature both appreciatively and critically.  I already find C to be an interesting, thoughtful and inquisitive person.  I suppose what I am really trying to do by giving her such freedom in her reading material is to make sure she stays that way.

2 Responses to “Freedom to read…everything”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you on this one. I wrote a post a while back about Enid Blyton who wrote children’s stories in the 1940’s. Our libraries won’t carry them because they are deemed “inappropriate” for children. I wrote a post about it if you are interested…

  2. Heidi-pre-reader here. I was not actually reading for objectionable content, but things that were likely to raise questions that would require thoughtful responses on my part. Rowan is really keen on picking apart anything dealing with disease, dismemberment, death, etc. and I vaguely recalled that Heidi’s little buddy had some sort of issues… I wanted to get to that part to see exactly what the book said so I could go and look up tuberculosis or whatever it was that she was suffering from so I could provide accurate answers. As it turns out, the book is vague about the exact nature of Clara’s illness and given her diet at home (soft white rolls) and her diet on the mountain (raw goat’s milk, cheese and dark rye bread) it seems likely she was suffering from vitamin deficiencies.

    However, it’s all a moot point because I got about two pages in and Rowan objected to the book on the grounds of “BORING” because the first part had a lot of nattering and gossip between Aunt Dete and some random lady. I should have skipped that bit.

    I do actually agree with you, Justine – I just like to prepare myself in advance. I was using the term “objectionable” somewhat ironically. And yes, sometimes I am a lazy parent and if there are going to be issues coming up in a book, I sometimes save them for a time when I feel up to dealing with them. I haven’t censored her Little House on the Prairie at all, with the Indians and mean kids and pig killings (and subsequent playing with blown up bladder) and bullying and corporal punishment. good times.

Leave a Reply