Wouldn’t it be nice if it were as easy as that title suggests? “Here’s a nice list of books that will be appropriate for your child. The violence and sexuality are downplayed; there’s nothing inappropriate; and rebellion is handled in an appropriate manner that neither leaves the child beaten down nor suggests that they should rebel against authority whenever possible.” Of course, the list would be neatly divided by reading level, age-appropriate material (which is entirely separate from reading level), and genre, since different children are fascinated by different books. Oh, and your child would be sure to love every book on the list, because they’re all excellent books!
If that were the case, unfortunately, bookstores would not be filled with books of all different genres; there would be no need for book reviews that go beyond the most basic; and there would be no debates over “Team Edward vs. Team Jacob” or “Team Twilight vs. Team Harry Potter.” Besides, even some of the books that have been slammed on all counts (rebellion, violence, and sex in one volume!) may well have redeeming value in its themes, writing style, or character development. In addition, many perfectly acceptable novels that are required reading later in school—Lord of the Flies, for example—have dark and violent themes that may be upsetting for sensitive readers, but contain great redeeming value (of course they do, or they wouldn’t be on the reading list, right?).
However, there is a solution to these problems. Children who constantly read books filled with violence are desensitized to violence. Children who constantly read books filled with sex are desensitized to sex, and may acquire the all-too-prevalent belief that it’s “nothing special.” Children who constantly read about rebellion may begin to rebel against their parents and other authority figures without ever realizing that they’re doing it.
On the other hand, children who read a wide variety of different books from a wide variety of different perspectives attain something different: the ability to look at life through different lenses and develop their own perspective as a result. It’s all about balance.
Introduce the classics alongside the contemporary novels. Have a vampire lover? Consider reading Dracula together. How about a boy who is fascinated by action and adventure stories? Pull out the Hardy Boys series. Fantasy? The Hobbit and A Wrinkle in Time are excellent places to start. Animal lover? Black Beauty and The Black Stallion have endured for years. Discuss the differences between the books that are commonly marketed today and the books whose plots and stories have lasted for generations. What is different about them? What themes remain constant, and what themes tend to change over time?
Know what your kids are reading. If your children are checking an entire series out of the library, read at least the first couple of books yourself. If they are fascinated by a particular genre, read enough of it to know what it is that they’re obsessing over. No, it may not be to your particular taste; but you may also discover something to appreciate about it. Besides, if you don’t know what they’re reading, you can’t do anything about the ideas that are filling their minds.
Talk about what they’re reading, even if you haven’t read it. Most kids will be glad to go on and on about the newest book that’s caught their attention. They’re fascinated by the story; therefore, they want to do more with it. Talking about it gives you the opportunity to ask questions—not just plot questions, but feeling questions. “Do you feel that that was appropriate?” “How did you feel when that happened?” “How do you think the character felt?” Reading can be as active or as passive as your child wants it to be. It is entirely possible that, while they “love” the book that they’re reading, they’re giving it little more conscious thought than that. By asking questions, you re-engage the thinking portion of their brains and force them to examine their reading material in a different light.
Tell them about what you’re reading. How passive are you being about your own reading choices? Do you read romances without ever stopping to think about how the actions of the male lead might affect your perceptions of your own relationships? Do you read violent mysteries without ever noticing that when you’re deeply involved with one, your temper becomes shorter? What about your sense of humor? You can’t expect your kids to make good choices with their reading habits that you aren’t willing to make in your own.
Let your kids know where the hard lines are. When should they stop reading a book—even a good book? At what point should they put it down and come to you to let you know that they think it’s inappropriate? Those criteria are personal to your family. Should your eleven-year-old know that books with sex scenes are inappropriate? What about books dealing with homosexual relationships, or religions other than your own? Be sure that your kids know where you stand on those issues—and let them see you put a book down because it’s inappropriate every once in a while.