On Kids Reading Terrible Books

This isn’t really a review at all, or even so much about kids or any specific book. It’s about how people read, and how to deal with people (kids included) when they like awful books. As usual, if you want titles or gossip about books I’m convinced are terrible, you’ll have to take me out for coffee. I don’t do that here. (And, if you comment, you don’t, either.)

But this is a topic I’m asked about and seems worth discussing: what do I do if my kids are reading godawful books which should never have been printed, so help me?

Well, the simple answer is: unless it’s empirically objectionable, let them, and leave better books lying around. {Yes, empirically objectionable is hard to define: I trust you to navigate that on your own. I’m not going into that here.}

There tend to be two strongly opposed ways of thinking about book quality: a) books are not inherently good or bad: every book has its audience, and if you don’t like a book, then you simply aren’t the right audience; b) books are good or bad quality according to certain principles of writing, and if you don’t like a good quality book then you should be deeply ashamed and learn better.

Both of these positions are utterly incorrect.

There are, certainly, good and bad books, but they are based entirely on taste, which is to say, and here’s the rule, If I like a book, it is a good book, and if I dislike a book, it is a bad book.

The difficult part is that, secretly, almost everyone agrees with that rule but doesn’t agree that the pronoun is in reference to me; they persist in thinking it applies to their taste. Of course, you are all wrong. That series of books falls apart completely in the final half of the final book, and yet, bafflingly, you think it’s great. I’m right, you’re wrong, but I can hear you sanctimoniously mouthing the first position specified (“oh, how sad, I guess you aren’t the right audience, indeed, too bad…”) while harbouring, deep in your heart, the firm belief that If you like a book, it is a good book, which means that you (incorrectly) think I’m wrong. Meanwhile, don’t be smug, you over there are pulling out your pen to start a Letter to the Editor of Whatever Publication regarding why I’m wrong and you can prove it based on the following rules of whichever stylist or author you admire.

And, despite both of you, my conviction is unshakable– except, maybe, by the passage of time and development of my views as time goes on, but at any point in time I’m correct.

Right. So here’s the point.

Children aren’t exempt from this. They have taste, too, and, all too frequently, they don’t understand any of the debates above, haven’t learned to mouth any rules nor do they pen outraged, huffy op eds about Declining Quality in Literature (well, thank God someone isn’t writing one) but they do jump straight to liking what they like and firmly believing that what they like is good, and, no, you will not be able to reason them into liking my taste. Or even yours, though mine is better, so you should probably stick to mine.

But actually, you shouldn’t, so don’t try.

This does, to an extent, depend on age and exposure, however. Here are examples, and, yes, this whole post is very light on titles for the reasons stated above, but I’ll slip in some good ones as I go:

The Changeling is now age 9. She really likes, well, a lot of books: nonfiction, folk tales, slice of life novels, and, among everything, novels that retell fairy tales in topsy turvy ways. I flipped through one volume in a series in that style, from a battered volume read half to death, dropped in the bath but dried again, and by then lying on the bathroom floor. A book which was certainly loved, and yet I found the writing so banal and forced that I wondered the printing hadn’t gotten tired of holding itself to the page and tumbled into the bathtub while she read it.

It took force of will not to poke my head, incredulous, into her room: “you really like these?” But I knew it was a useless question. So I took a deep breath, told my husband what I thought, and texted friends. Meanwhile, the Changeling and I talk about books we do like: Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series and Osmo. She’s also a massive fan of Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon trilogy, so we sometimes do fun activities based on those. We can discuss plenty of books we do both love forever and if she’s telling a bookseller what she likes, the ones I’ve named here are some of the titles she lists. I hope, fervently, she’ll forget the others with time, but I have to admit, sorrowfully, that my ability to get her to acknowledge the rules of good literature is as limited as my ability to get my husband to see the truth. (I had to walk him page by page through a picture book once– it was devastating. Why is the world at large so slow to accept my taste as law?)

Toddlers are, to some extent, easier. With very small babies, before they can move too much, you can read them anything you like. I’ve had great success with Eleanor Farjeon, John Milton, Oscar Wilde, and so on. Toddlers are tougher critics and will grab books from your hand and throw them aside saying “no no no BUGS BUGS” and you have to figure out of they’re saying “no, stop it with the bugs” or “no, not that, I want bugs,” not to mention ascertaining what “bugs” is in reference to. It can take a while, and they can be really determined for you to get it exactly right.

Of course, the flip side is that toddlers are great because they’ll let you read In the Night Kitchen as often as you like. (As I’ve stated with firmness elsewhere on this blog, and in any other venue which still tolerates my presence, if you don’t like that book, you are wrong.) In my case, the Spriggan and I have yet to hit an upper limit on our mutual tolerance for repeat readings of that masterpiece. (Has it occurred to you that the bakers are, in an odd way, presented as house spirits, like brownies or domovoi or lares or penates…? They are threatening yet important to the home comfort, but in a bafflingly unreal way.)

But what if your toddler starts going to daycare and is surrounded by other kids who like trucks and you, sensible reader, notice that: a) it’s a bit absurd to have so many books for toddlers and small kids glorifying the internal combustion engine while the world is burning, and, more importantly, b) every book about trucks and so on is written in an abuse of the iamb so severe that you can’t read it without stumbling over the unscansion and then flopping into to rhymes that make you feel like you should thank the ceiling for not caving in from sheer misery at having to listen to that.

I’ve been lucky with the Spriggan. They probably have those at daycare, but I just don’t buy them. He certainly plays with the cars and trucks there, though the kitchen is always a favourite and let’s not forget the enchantment of the broom the daycare keeps to clean up after them. Oh, the broom! Glorious broom.

But so far it hasn’t transitioned to our house beyond identifying vehicles in books we have, so we’re simply sticking to the ever-wonderful Freight Train by Donald Crews. He has many other interests at home: animals, of course, and kitchens and brooms and, now, The Snowy Day is relevant as December is here, and so I bring out old favourites anew. He’s learning lots of things: shapes, colours, animal noises, and that he’ll absolutely get me to laugh if he answers “moooo” to every question about what various animals say. Then I say “I know what you’re doing! You KNOW what a horse says!” And he cackles.

And I’m treasuring this time when, although he can toss a book aside if he’s done with it (and then pick it back up with equal eagerness 37 seconds later), I don’t yet have to remind myself that a ranting lecture on why If I like a book, it is a good book, and if I don’t like a book, it is a bad book will be incredibly counterproductive, so I absolutely must not try…

Even though, deep down, I know I’m right.


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