Should You Condone Your Children Reading Trashy Young Adult Fiction?

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Yesterday I had coffee with a friend who was visiting DC. He brought along his precocious 10-year-old daughter. I used to babysit her when she was 2-years-old and I’m not exaggerating when I say her intelligence even then shocked me. Her parents would have me do flash cards with her where she would look at pictures and describe what she saw. I was sure she’d be stumped on some of them but that literally never happened. She’d identify the “krill” and then give me facts about them. At 2-years-old. Her parents are brilliant and know all sorts of things about child development. I tried to emulate them for about 3 weeks into my parenting odyssey and then I realized I was just not that kind of parent. My kids still have no clue what a shrimp is probably, much less krill.

What I particularly like about the way these parents are raising their children, however, is that they’re pretty cognizant of the different skills each child has and how to nurture them. And they spend as much time on their physical and emotional development as their book learning. It shows. These kids play hard, are nice to their friends and can discuss topics with adults. I’m not saying they’re perfect but they’ve broadened my understanding of what children are capable of.

Anyway, this beautiful girl just finished sports camp where she learned to improve her archery skills. She told me that she’s reading a lot and I asked her what she’s reading. Biographies, mostly. She just finished Condoleeza Rice‘s memoir about her childhood. I also enjoyed biographies at that age, as well as history and some lighter fiction. My interest in fiction exploded by high school and that love has kept me going. But I do remember some rather tawdry stuff I was given to read as a child.

Who remembers the V.C. Andrews series? You know what I’m talking about — Flowers in the Attic? I seem to recall there were some ghastly scenes dealing with torture, incest, cannibalism of a type, etc. It’s exciting, certainly, but not exactly focused on higher things. And I am still confused about why my 6th-grade teacher gave me a Sidney Sheldon book to read. She was a fantastic teacher and I’m sure she was exasperated with me and my tendency to read everything. But still, Sidney Sheldon is not really appropriate for a 12-year-old.

Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote in the Wall Street Journal that young adult fiction has gone a bit too much in the Sidney Sheldon, V.C. Andrews direction and today she reports that the response to her lament has been most unkind. She says she was told that she fails to understand that adolescence is just one long period of racism, homophobia, constant bullying, pervasive eating disorders, sexual abuse and other unpleasantness.

She rejects the view (sometimes it’s the adults who are a bit melodramatic, isn’t it) but points out that there is a subtext to the act of condoning particular books for reading by our children. She mentions that some anti-drug programs have the effect of telling kids that adults expect them to take drugs, for instance.

Anyway, she defends her initial argument and writes:

If you think, as many do, that novels can’t possibly have such an effect, ask yourself: When you press a wonderful, classic children’s book into a 13-year-old’s hands, are you doing so in the belief that the book will make no difference to her outlook and imagination, that it is merely a passing entertainment? Or do you believe that, somehow, it will affect and influence her? And if that power is true for one book, why not for another?

She then goes on to describe an advance copy of a book she received that praises cutting.

Yeah, I’d sure as heck rather my child read Laura Miller‘s “Unbroken” than a book going rah-rah about cutting. I mean, “Unbroken” is probably much more graphic and violent anyway, but at least it serves some purpose and probably has better writing to match.