Monday, July 11, 2011

Censoring Books for Kids

by Jemi Fraser
(Source)
I've been teaching MG and lower YA aged kids for a lot of years now. The first day of every school year, I tell the kids that if they don't already love to read, they will before winter break. They always prove me right.

One of the keys to encouraging kids to read is to have a lot of books available. Not just a lot of books, but a wide range of genres, levels and styles. You have to find the 'home run' book for a reluctant reader if you want to create a lifelong reader out of him or her.

In every class there are always a few kids who read way ahead of the rest. Kids who read voraciously and devour every book in sight. These kids almost always read books that are 'too old' for them. In my classroom of 10 and 11 year olds, that means they're reading books most 13 and 14 year olds read.

Is it a problem? Should we be censoring what they read? What they have access to?

For the most part I believe the answer is no. I think parents should have lots of conversations with their kids about what they read and make those choices together. At school I do the same thing. We talk a LOT about books. But to take away their freedom of choice, stifle their interest and curiosity because we're afraid of what they might read? No.

I think most adults would be surprised at what kids read when there is freedom of choice. They don't automatically head to the books that have sex and swearing and violence. In fact, most of the kids avoid these. Even when an advanced reader raves about a mature book, most of the kids totally ignore it. Kids gravitate towards books that match their emotional maturity. They don't enjoy books that are above it. If they're not ready for the book, no matter how popular it is, they just don't read it.

In my class, I've got my books sorted into buckets. The buckets are identified on the front by genre and some buckets by author. They also have labels: At Level, Below Level, Above Level. I explain this indicated reading level and that reading level and subject matter match. They choose their reading material accordingly.

I've taught hundreds of MG & YA aged kids over the years and I've NEVER had a kid read more than 2 or 3 pages of a book they're not ready for. NEVER. EVER. On the other hand, I've had dozens and dozens of kids give up reading certain books because they were 'boring'. You guessed it, those 'boring' books are the ones with the sex and swearing and violence. If they're not ready to read it, they don't.

I think we need to trust kids & teens to make choices. They're much smarter than many people give them credit for.

Emotional readiness and maturity are the #1 factors for kids in choosing books. They make great choices. Trust them.

So, what's your opinion on censoring books for kids?

64 comments:

Laura Pauling said...

I think each parent knows their own children and can offer suggestions, but I agree with you. If kids aren't ready, they won't keep reading.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I think most kids wouldn't be at all interested in a book that they're emotionally immature for.

My children tell me what genre they like, and I bring in gobs of it. I only research the reviews to make sure I'm bringing home a treasure with each book--they choose the content of the books they like. This approach of making sure there's always a large number of books in the genre the kids like best has made my children into readers.

You sound like a wonderful teacher!

Jemi Fraser said...

Laura - I feel the same. It's great when parents read the books with their kids. Then they can discuss and really get it! :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Elizabeth - thank you! What a kind thing to say :)

I followed the same philosophy when my kids were younger - and I do the same thing in my classroom. If there are lots of choices, I hope to turn them all into eager readers!

Old Kitty said...

The short of it? No. Kids have far more intelligence and sense than what we adults credit them for.

Take care
x

Jemi Fraser said...

Old Kitty - I totally agree! Kids are so much smarter than most people think. If you ask a kid why they will or won't read a book, or what they think about it, they'll amaze you with their thoughts.

welcome to my world of poetry said...

Having 3 adult children I had no problem as each had interest which didn't include reading, eg: soccer, dancing, and walking.
Oh they did read the odd book about their interest but as far I as knew that was that.
The grandchildren are a different story altogether, I only have contact with one at the moment who will be 12 yrs this year,My daughter has always been honest and open with whatever questions he has asked and knows the facts of life, he always ask her what book is suitable for him when out shopping, he loves reading and like his uncle soccer, so I guess he reads plenty of those.I think parents ought to know what their children are reading, not to the exclusion of censoring but knowing what their inteests are,

Have a good day.
Yvonne.

Jemi Fraser said...

Yvonne - I agree - parents should help to nuture that love of reading by discussing books and helping kids find more. I have a few 'soccer nuts' in my class. I pick up every soccer book I can find. One boy is a very reluctant reader, but he pores over the nonfiction books I have on his favourite sport :)

Karen Walker said...

Jemi, I would have loved my child to have had you as a teacher. I don't believe we should stifle our children's curiosity at all. We just need to communicate well with them.
Karen

Jemi Fraser said...

Karen - thank you! What a lovely thing to say! :)

I agree - curiosity is one of the ways we discover new things, make new inventions and create pieces of beauty. Why would we want to stifle that??

Anita said...

I trust my kids to make age-appropriate choices for themselves. Buuut I did see way too many really young girls (ones who, frankly, didn't have fifth-grade reading skills) reading the TWILIGHT books. That bugged me. And as a young girl (about 12), I read my mom's copy of WIFEY. Hmmmm. Not a good idea. So my answer is, "I don't know." :) But I like discussing this topic.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think the same can be said for movies. Kids are smarter than we think - they understand what's not real and aren't interested in what they don't understand.

Renae said...

Kids are smarter than we give them credit and they do need the freedom to choose what they read. If there is a book they want to read that has a sensitive topic, read it with your child and discuss it. Simply banning a book only makes them more set on reading it.

Jemi Fraser said...

Anita - good point. A lot of my students read the Twilight series too (ages 10 & 11 at the time). It was interesting to discuss it with them. Most of the them told me they skipped through it because they didn't understand some of it - but they wanted to read it because 'everyone' was reading it. Very few went on to read more than the first book - until they were older.

Jemi Fraser said...

Alex - you're right. They are able to make good choices and decisions. I think we need to trust them more :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Renae - exactly! When the Twilight books were at their peak of popularity I advised a lot of the parents to read the books first to see what they thought. Many of them were surprised & said they hadn't thought of reading it themselves :)

kathrynjankowski said...

I think kids are more savvy than most people realize. They'll find a way to read banned books no matter how you try to shield them. But, as you note with your classroom baskets, if they're not ready for a book, they won't stick with it.

Matthew MacNish said...

As a father I don't censor anything my children profess an interest in. If I'm concerned about it, I read it myself (which ended up in an embarrassing moment a few years ago when I was spotted reading Twilight at Soccer practice). I think that if a kid is curious about something, there is probably a good reason for it.

As a neighbor and a member of a society, I respect the fact that other parents have the right to control what their children read, but I think it's ridiculous to believe that sheltering them from something will actually protect them from it.

Jemi Fraser said...

Kathryn - you're right. They might try a few pages and skim to make it LOOK like they're reading, but they don't read what's emotionally above them...in my experience anyway :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Matthew - totally agree! I think as parents we need to ensure we know what our kids are reading and discuss it with them. And read it ourselves. I LOVE that you read Twilight for them - that's awesome!! I also think that squashing curiosity has dreadful consequences.

Julie Musil said...

You are totally right, Jemi. My 14 year old reads YA books, but he's ready for them. I've read what he's reading, and those books are fine. My 11 year old twins love things like Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy kid. They wouldn't get past page one of Hunger Games. My 14 year old did set aside one YA book, I won't mention the name, but he was uncomfortable with the subject. Heck, when I was their age I was reading adult books, and I didn't turn out so bad.

Rowenna said...

I agree--kids will choose what appeals to them not only in subject matter but in maturity level, and they're usually much more intuitive and understand more than we think they do. I think giving them a wide range to choose from is wise--that said, I have no problem with a parent or teacher editing that selection for the outliers (ie, adult books with graphic violence or overt sexuality. At least until high school :) ). I do see it as a parental responsibility to know what kids read and to discuss anything that might be of concern--difficult subjects in books can open doors to great conversations and learning opportunities.

Jemi Fraser said...

Julie - that's what I figure too! I was reading James Herriot & Agatha Christie in grade 6 & I moved on from there. :)

Sounds like your kids know themselves well as readers - and that's the kind of readers we want to raise! Awesome :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Rowenna - thanks! I agree - I hope parents know what their kids are reading and I hope they're discussing it. I do have a couple of baskets that tell me they have to check with me before they read them. I photocopy the blurb & a couple of pages & send them home. If the parents sign off, I let the kids read the books :)

VR Barkowski said...

I'm not a parent, so I probably shouldn't comment, but I will anyway. :)

I agree, that censorship is not the way, but as you mentioned, parents should be aware of what their children are reading. The bottom line? Being an involved parent, staying aware, and maintaining an open dialogue requires a lot more effort than censorship.

Natalie said...

Your class sounds AMAZING! I would have loved to have a teacher like you when I was a kid. I think you're right, most kids know what they're ready for and when. I had a couple of English PUSH books with too-mature-for-me themes and I think that was negative. I was an advanced reader, but also kind of a sensitive kid.

I think different books are appropriate for different kids. I love the idea of letting them have all the options (within reason) and make their own choices.

Jemi Fraser said...

VR - I'm glad you did!

I agree - I don't think censorship makes sense. Kids aren't going to read stuff they don't 'get' anyway. They'll just get frustrated and put it down.

Parents should really chat with their kids about what they read - they'll be surprised :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Natalie - thanks!! You're so kind. I do have a lot of fun with my students - best job in the world! :)

I agree - they are kids - so we're certainly not going to have certain books available! But I do like to give them lots of choices and options in order to help them find those great books!

Mary Campbell said...

I don't believe in censorship, but I do believe in monitoring what my kids read and watch. I do believe that there are appropriate books for the appropriate age group, especially the 9-13 age group. As an adult I don't want my mind filled up with filth and i don't want my children's minds filled with that either. What I do want is some kind of system that tells me before I start reading a book what sort of content will be in it. Like a rating system. I do think a variety of genres is important to have available and yes i do think it should be age appropriate. Remember the saying - garbage in, garbage out? I think that's a good rule to follow with children.

Jemi Fraser said...

Mary - good points! I agree that we need to monitor what kids read and guide them. I don't have garbage in my classroom, so I don't worry about them reading it from me :)

I do think we need to expose kids to a wide variety of books (fiction and nonfiction) in order to expose them to different styles of writing and thinking. If there were only one world view it would certainly be a boring place, wouldn't it? :)

M Pax said...

You're right. I recall enjoying books most that matched my interests and maturity level.

Getting kids to read is more important.

Jemi Fraser said...

M Pax - I think it really is! We need to ensure we have literate kids - and the ONLY way to guarantee it (in my opinion) is to give them access to books they're going to love!

Becca Puglisi said...

Hi, Jemi! Your experience in this area is interesting to hear. I taught elementary school for years, and the only time I had to deal with this was when one of my students was reading on a 7th grade level. And you're right--he didn't want to read any of that stuff. He stuck mostly to non-fiction.

This is where I think the PARENT just has to be involved. It's our job to know what our children are reading and to talk to them about why they want to read it and what's appropriate. As parents, we need to stop outsourcing our rightful responsibilities to overworked educators.

My three cents :)

Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

Jemi Fraser said...

Becca - and worth every cent!! :)

I agree - parents should be very involved in their kids' lives - reading and otherwise. I hope parents are reading what their kids are, and discussing it with them. That's one of my pet topics at parent-teacher nights and during conferences!

Lydia K said...

I don't believe in censorship, but I do believe in keeping an open discussion about the content with kids. Great post Jemi!

Jemi Fraser said...

Lydia - thanks so much!! I agree - open discussion is vital if kids are going to be lifelong learners and readers - and make those great choices!

Budd said...

at some point, I thought that I was going to be able to read every book that my girls wanted to read before they did, to make sure it was appropriate. My 10 year old rips through 3-4 books a week sometimes and has for years, I just can't keep up with her. I look back and realize how foolish I was.

Jemi Fraser said...

Budd - yikes! She would be hard to keep up with! And I'm pretty sure you didn't want to ONLY read books 10 year old girls are interested in!! :)

It's hard to keep up with voracious readers - but I bet you had a great idea of what kind of books she liked :)

Jenn Greenleaf said...

I allow my kids to pick what they want so they have a firmer understanding of WHY some books just aren't the right "pick" for their age. They'll get 40 pages in (give or take) and dump the book if it's too graphic, violent or whatever. They are their own censors.

Jemi Fraser said...

Jenn - that's wondeful! I think a lot of people would be surprised at the books kids put down because they don't work for them. They do have amazingly astute judgments!

KellieM said...

I really appreciate this post. My boys are both advanced avid readers and sometimes finding a book that matches their ability with their maturity is tough. When one son was in first grade he read "There's a dead dog in my locker". It had so many cliche's and word puns that he had never heard that he routinely came to me because he didn't understand. He knew it was funny but didn't know why. We talked a lot and I think he learned a lot about books and that his mom had a sense of humor too.

Jemi Fraser said...

Kellie - thank you! That's an awesome example! Without you he would have missed out on a fun experience. It's so important for parents and teachers to be involved in the reading of life of kids!

Medeia Sharif said...

I remember reading a violent scene in a book when I was twelve, and I put the book down.

When I was ten I tried reading a sexy book and put it down.

You're right, kids won't read things that they're not ready for.

Jemi Fraser said...

Medeia - exactly! Thank you for those great examples. I've had kids bring books from home that I KNOW they're not ready for. Sure enough, they'll leave them on top of the desks to show people they've got them, but they don't read them for long.

Rebecca said...

As a general rule, I don't believe in censoring. Though, as one who works in an elementary school library, I know that we do make decisions about what books to have based on common sense and age-appropriateness.

As a parent of teenagers, if I know of a book that I don't really "approve" of, I tell my girls why and then let them make their own decision.

Lynn said...

I like how you said that kids gravitate toward books that match their emotional maturity. I find comfort in that statement.

chelleyreads said...

well written and i completely agree. yes, if a kid is not ready to read a certain book, he/she will stop reading it--that's how i was back in middle school and high school.

Jemi Fraser said...

Rebecca - I think that's a great way to do it. I always explain to the kids why they probably won't enjoy a book if I think that's the truth. They almost always make terrific decisions. :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Lynn - thanks. I've been teaching for a lot of years now, and I find that to be the simple truth. Kids and teens just don't enjoy books they're not ready for.

Jemi Fraser said...

Chelley - thank you! I appreciate the affirmation. I think a lot of adults would be surprised how astute kids/teens are about their reading and their own readiness.

Rosalind Adam said...

On the whole I agree with your arguement but I do worry about no censorship at all. I suppose to some extent we none of us enjoy books we're not 'ready' for. I hate books that take me to nasty places where people do horrible things so I avoid reading them but I worry that there might be certain children/teenagers who, at that impressionable age, might just find the possibility of for example rape rather attractive. They're being given the description of how to. If they're that way inclined all they then have to do is go out and do it.

I know this is a negative but it does have to be considered.

Jemi Fraser said...

Rosalind - I'm the same way. I won't read books with excessive cruelty or abuse of kids of any kind.

I do have some books in my class of kids dealing with tough issues (abuse & rape etc) but I think those are helpful for kids who are in those kinds of situations.

Our kids are our most precious resource - you're right that we have to consider all sides of every issue that affects them.

Talli Roland said...

I'm with you, Jemi. I think for the most part... no. But then, parents do know their kids and can kind of 'help them along', so they don't read anything they might not be emotionally ready for.

Jemi Fraser said...

Talli - I agree - there's absolutely nothing wrong with guidance and support. That's what parenting is all about, isn't it? :)

Stephanie Thornton said...

I hope my daughter is one of those voracious readers, but I'm not sure I'd censor much. Instead, all those books would provide great fodder for conversations with her.

At least that's my hope.

Jemi Fraser said...

Stephanie - I bet your daughter will love to read - probably a lot of historical lit too! :)

I never censored what my kids read, and my parents let me read whatever I wanted as well. It does make for some fabulous discussions - and it keeps those lines of communication open. So important not only in families, but in society.

Talei said...

Kids are a lot smarter, savvy, and aware about life than we like to think.

My son is 5years old and asks questions about everything, I can't see that changing. But I do think if he's not interested in a certain topic, he'll ignore it.

Censoring is part of being a parent, sometimes you'l do it and get it right, other times, you won't. I'm leaning towards not censoring because they can find stuff on the internet 24/7 these days that we wouldn't dream of. And reverse psych generally works and I don't question my sons intelligence.

Jemi Fraser said...

Talei - you're so right. Kids suck up a whole lot more knowledge than we think a lot of the time. They also ask a lot of questions when they're comfortable - and that's a very good thing.

Reverse psych is always a good parenting skill! I think I've done that a time or two myself :) It's hard to be a perfect parent, but listening to our kids is a great start! :)

Lynda R Young said...

Yep, totally agree. It's not right to censor books. We can grade books, but not censor them. I think it's more important for parents to know what their kids are reading and to have conversations about those books with their kids.

Jemi Fraser said...

Lynda - I agree. Having a conversation about it takes a lot of the mystery out of it - and therefore the subversive allure kids feel about it. Hush Hush (which is pretty intense for 10 & 11 year olds) sat on my desk all year. Only 2 kids asked to read it. I photocopied the blurb & 1st 2 chapters & sent it home for parents to decide. Both said yes - and the kids started it - but only one finished it. The kid who returned it said, "Maybe next year" :)

Lindsay N. Currie said...

Fantastic post. I agree with it entirely. My children are voracious readers and my 9 year old, personally, would never continue reading something he felt was too mature for him. He's aware of his limitations as a reader and truly wants to enjoy the experience so while he's young, he's level-headed about it. Do I still keep an eye on him and help guide him? Of course, but I agree with you that for the most part, kids are much more responsible than we give them credit for sometimes:)

Jemi Fraser said...

Lindsay - thank you! :)

Sounds like your son is going to be a fabulous reader - I love that he's able to make those decisions for himself - often the sign of a lifelong reader! It's great that you have an open dialogue with them about their books - love it! :)

Laura Marcella said...

I think it's okay if a parent says, "You'll probably enjoy this more if you wait until next year." A year makes such a big difference in children emotionally, socially, psychologically. What they wouldn't understand at 10, they will at 11, and so on.

A friend if mine had a 10-year-old who wanted to read Twilight, but my friend wasn't so sure. Her daughter is very smart and has a high reading level, but emotionally she just wasn't ready. She thought 10 might be too young, so I suggested she wait 2 or 3 years and recommended Anne of Green Gables and Sharon Creech's books. There are so many age-appropriate books out there kids can enjoy, and there's no good reason to push children to grow up too fast!

Keeping an eye on what your kids are reading (and watching) is just good sense. But you're right: it's important to trust their judgement too!

Jemi Fraser said...

Laura - I've done that too - I usually preface it with something like... "Read the first chapter and see what you think - but I'm betting you'll like that more if you wait until next year. Why don't you try...instead"

Helping kids find the 'just right' books is something I feel strongly about. :)