What are the kids reading? Two sides of the kidlit fence.

Gatekeepers of children’s literature tend to come down on either side of a position. The first goes like this: As long as children are reading, this is good. Functional literacy is the goal here. As long as the children are having fun, and enjoying their childhoods.

On the other side we have adults who care not just about what children are reading but about what they are reading, based on the idea that literature is powerful, and can be as damaging as it can be enriching.

The value of telling tales to children has been a subject of debate for centuries. There is a well-known expression in English which seems to serve as a marker to determine whether a tale should or should not be told to children. We generally say that something is not fit for children’s ears when we hear foul language or when the story contains a disturbing and horrid event. Ever since the twentieth century—and this has not always been the case—we have sought to protect our children from hearing and seeing what we deem to be inappropriate and harmful. Exactly what is appropriate and harmful has always been a matter of taste and a matter of social class, just as the mastery of language, spoken and written, has been subjected to taste and class. Storytelling for children in America became at the end of the nineteenth century the domain of librarians, schoolteachers, church educators, and recreation workers, mainly women, up through the middle of the twentieth century. It was also regarded as the mother’s duty to tell goodnight stories to sooth the souls of children before they went to sleep, although fathers sometimes participated in the goodnight ritual.

Jack Zipes, Sticks and Stones

I fall into the second category, though nothing is as clear cut as it first appears: Trashy books which present sexist ideas or the symbolic annihilation of certain groups can be ameliorated if read by young people who are fully aware of these issues as they read. How often does that happen, though? One joy of reading as a child is that you can be more fully immersed in a story. I’ve never managed to reproduce the feelings I had when immersing myself fully into the tales of Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl in the 80s.

Other adult readers, like me, can recollect exactly how reading material has shaped their lives. Here’s a review of The Women’s Room from Amazon:

an Amazon review of The Women's Room
an Amazon review of The Women’s Room

Perhaps if you fall down on this side of the fence—the side which cares greatly about quality—you’ve had a similar experience yourself.

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