A few days ago, I told my son that one of the books I suggested for his summer list had been pulled from a public-school reading list in New York City.
My son’s first reaction was to shrug. Well, he confessed sheepishly, the book did have a lot of cuss words in it.
The book wasn’t, however, pulled for its “bad” language. And fortunately, my son didn’t mention anything about the two sentences on masturbation that did get it yanked — apparently, this caused a parent to liken Sherman Alexie’s book to Fifty Shades. (Anyhow, that’s a talk for his dad.) My son did evince some surprise when I added that the book was yanked from a sixth-grade reading list. After all, for him, sixth graders are pretty nearly old enough to vote and drive.
The current conventional wisdom is that what kids read doesn’t matter — so long as they read something. (After all, it’s not video games! They’re really picking up books!) However, I have never been able to open my mouth wide enough to swallow this. As a social being, I wonder: Isn’t it different if we grow up reading Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson vs. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart? As a literary being, I wonder: Isn’t it different if my son reads Pride and Prejudice or The Tombs of Atuan or Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian vs. a diet of just Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid?
I am not suggesting — as apparently some have — that Diary of a Wimpy Kid be restricted or banned. Nor am I suggesting that my son can’t read Captain Underpants, his five-year-old brother’s picture books, a thousand Asterix comics, ميكي , his two-year-old brother’s board books, and all sorts of things found in dentist’s offices and other people’s houses. I’m not suggesting that he can never eat potato chips, either. But I do think it’s important to curate good reads for our growing children. It doesn’t hurt to read some of them aloud together, either.
Good, of course, often means inappropriate: When I handed my nine-year-old The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, he asked if I realized there were three cuss-words in the first two pages. (“Do you know you’re not supposed to say them out loud?” “Yes.” “Well, then.”)
He is free to salt in as much of his own reading as he likes — Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass trilogy, loads of comic books, other things — but in addition to Alexie’s and Haddon’s books, I have asked that he read these:
Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie
Where the Streets Had a Name, Randa Abdel-Fattah
The Voice That Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights, Russell Freedman
Birmingham, 1963, Carole Boston Weatherford
Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders, Neil Gaiman
If you have any suggestions for this age, I’d love to hear them.