Who is a Book for Anyway? by Cassie Beasley
My parents never said no to a book.
Every year they said, “No, we can’t have an extra week of vacation.” (You’d think they would have given in at least once.) And they said, “No, you can’t stay up until midnight. You’re sleepy.” (I wasn’t.) And on one memorable occasion my mother shouted, “NO! Did you just bite her?” (“Her” was my sister. It was an accident.)
But they never once told me I couldn’t read a book. In fact, it didn’t occur to me that someone might object to any book at all until I was in the sixth grade. That was the year our homeroom teacher decided she was going to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to us. After describing the book, she explained that we would only proceed if our parents were okay with us hearing about witches and wizards.
I was baffled by the whole idea. I was an avid fantasy reader. Who on earth would have a problem with wizards? Convinced I had somehow missed the point, I spent the night trying to imagine what sorts of horrors the book might contain. Torture? Instructions for ritual guinea pig sacrifice? What?
I thought it must be something truly gruesome if we needed permission. All reading was good reading, right?
We were halfway through the book with nary a damaged guinea pig in sight when a friend from the other homeroom finally explained to me that I had it all wrong. Her mother would never let her read Harry Potter, she assured me. There were rules about books. You couldn’t just go pick something up off the shelf at random. Some books were for you. Others were not. Didn’t I know that?
Like pretty much everyone else, my classmates and I became obsessed with Harry Potter. A few years after our teacher read that first book to us it was challenged by some concerned parents and, as far as I know, quietly removed from the school library.
I was in high school, and the idea that someone thought a book I loved wasn’t good for me offended me on every level. It still does sometimes.
But I’m all grown up now, and I get it. Or at least I try not to worry about it. As awkward as it can be, I don’t argue when people tell me they think it’s immoral to read fantasy. We all have our own values, and most of us aren’t too comfortable with the idea of some stranger with a pen telling the children in our lives that we’re wrong.
At the same time, I’ve become aware that the “rules” of reading for some people are so much more complicated than I ever imagined they could be. I hear adults in bookstores and libraries telling children they can have a book, but not that one. That one, they say, is not for you.
That book is only for girls, obviously. See the pink on the cover? Or it’s for boys. Or it’s got too many pictures, so it can’t be a real book. Or it’s a movie tie-in, which is also not a real book. Or they are willing to pay for The Catcher in the Rye, but if their daughter thinks they’re going to leave the store with a copy of Twilight she’s got another think coming.
And now that I’ve written a book, I find myself fielding questions about whether or not it is “for” certain children. I smile. I tell people Circus Mirandus is a middle grade novel about a boy trying to find a magic circus.
But that’s not always enough.
Some people want to know if their daughters will like it even though it’s about a boy. Other people want to know if their sons will be interested, since I have never been a boy. One mother told me her children were only allowed to read “the good books” over the summer. Maybe she meant classics. Maybe she meant award winners. Perhaps she was concerned about swear words. I told her mine was one of the good books because I wasn’t sure how else to respond.
I don’t know. These are wonderful, dedicated parents who care about what their children are reading, and the world could use a whole lot more of that. But has it always been this complicated?
How does anyone ever find the right book if the right book has to have a certain ratio of words to pictures, a certain number of starred reviews, two girls, two boys, a dog that doesn’t die, and at least a paragraph about the importance of brushing your teeth?
I want kids to read great books. Doesn’t everyone? But so much of what I read when I was growing up wasn’t great. It was just easy to get my hands on. As far as I was concerned, every book was for me even if it wasn’t perfect for me. And I was an awfully happy reader.
Who is a book for? I’ve come to think of the question as something that unnecessarily narrows a book’s potential. What if the story that turns a child into a lifelong reader is the one that has the wrong colors on the cover? What if it’s the one filled with pictures? What if there are wizards?
I’ve noticed lately that many of my favorite superheroes—librarians, teachers, booksellers, other authors—are adept not only at helping people find the book they need but also at convincing them that it’s okay to read that book. It’s a skill I’m still developing. For now, when people ask my opinion about a story, I tend to fall back on my standard answer.
A book is for anyone who wants to read it.
Cassie Beasley is from rural Georgia, where, when she’s not writing, she helps out on the family pecan farm. She earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Circus Mirandus is her first novel. Find her online at cassiebeasley.com and follow her on Twitter @beasleywrites.