Crunchy Moms strive to make informed decisions for our families, but the challenge increases as children gain independence.  Reading material is one such area that becomes harder to monitor once children become an independent readers.  While ideally, you would preview each title yourself, it’s often not an option.  Keeping up with the volume of reading is difficult, and we wish to encourage a child’s excitement to start a new book immediately, not diminish it.  We don’t want to rob our children of motivation to read, but we also want to ensure the books they choose are appropriate.

While I strongly support choice, I don’t advocate free reign of the bookstore.  This post was partly inspired by overhearing a conversation about a father not wanting to censor his daughter, so he allowed the fourth grader to read The Walking Dead.  That material isn’t written for a child, and as such parents need to set limits.  But how can parents create limits when they aren’t familiar with all the choices available?

Parents’ reactions to inappropriate books in schools receive a fair amount of media coverage; however, books you may disapprove of are at the library or bookstore as well.  Each parent has the right to limit what her child reads, but not the rest of the community’s reading material.  The best course of action is to be informed and proactive about your own child’s choices in a world where inappropriate content exists.

First, here are some ways of evaluating reading material to avoid using in isolation:

  • Reading level or lexile score.  While reading level indicates if your child can comprehend a book, it doesn’t generally cover content.  Lexile scores and other reading levels are complied by looking at the complexity of individual words and sentence structure.
  • Best sellers.  Just because a title sells well doesn’t mean it will match the content or values you desire for your child at this time.
  • Inclusion in educational programs.  Some programs cover as many books as possible; for example, Accelerated Reader quizzes for over 150,000 titles.  Other programs focus on fewer titles, but may not use the same criteria as you would for your family.  One such title frequently challenged is Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison included in the Common Core exemplars.  While it does exemplify excellent literature, it isn’t the right choice for every family
  • Adult recommendations.  Adults sometimes forget to adapt their own personal preferences for children.  Material that parents find unsuitable might barely cause a blip on an adults’ radar.  For example, when I read 19 Minutes by Jodi Picoult, which recently gained so much publicity, I did so for myself.  Reading as an adult, the challenged material did not bother me, and I didn’t focus on its graphic nature.  Thus, my recommendation for a teen would have been skewed by that perception.
  • Film adaptations.  My husband is currently reading Stephen King’s It.  We often talk about the differences between the TV movie and the novel.  My husband saw the film in middle school.  Its scary, but appropriate for that age.  However, most parents would agree the original novel is not appropriate, as it contains language, graphic violence, and sexual material not included in the film.  This is a perfect example of how the movie adaption might mislead a parent, so use caution.
  • Comics or graphic novels.  Graphic novels are a wonder genre with appropriate titles for all age ranges, but don’t think that because it’s on the same shelf as Peanuts and Garfield it’s by default similar in content.  Graphic novels in the children’s section will range from about ages five to thirteen, and the young adult room will have adult content including nudity and violence.  These texts need to the same attention as any novel.

While keeping the above in mind, the following are places to find more information to help you guide your child’s reading choices:

  • Online reviews.  Amazon or Goodreads are good places to start for a plot synopsis, age recommendation, average star rating, reviews, and recommendations for similar books.  Also, sometimes author information and reviews from predominant publications are included.
  • Award winners or book lists.  Look for Caldecott medal for picture books, Newbery medal for children’s chapter books, and Printz award for teens.  The Young Adult Library Services Association (part of the American Library Association) publishes book lists for teens annually.  You can search other awards online, including state awards.
  • Librarians in the Children’s and YA departments.  These adults read books for children for a living.  They are wonderful resources to ask questions about a particular title or to ask for author or book recommendations.
  • Parent of an older child.  We ask parents who have already been there about everything from toilet training to child care recommendations, so why not ask about books too?  Better yet, ask the child!
  • Blogs and websites like Common Sense Media, Focus on FamilyThe Literate Mother, and Mamma Bookworm.  You can either research the book your child is currently reading, or read reviews to find titles to recommend to your child.
  • Stick with a series or author.  This approach is especailly good for younger readers as the content of a series usually stays pretty uniform.  Also, an author’s style of using profanity or graphic material will probably stay similar from book to book.  Exploring an author or series gives your child a lot of material to read while you explore what choices to offer next.

Books open the world up to our children, both the beautiful and the ugly.  Children need parents to guide their choices as well as make further sense the content through discussion.  Whether you offer your child a pre-screened selection or you research books as your child chooses them, stay involved in what your child reads because what we read and when, shapes who we become.

(Photo courtesy of Yellow on Flickr.)