Some Books for Now and Some Books for Later by Donalyn Miller
I learned to read at a young age, and my parents soon lost the ability or will to monitor my reading choices. They trusted me to find books and navigate the ideas in what I read with little parental oversight. Occasionally, I would ask my mom about specific words or scenes that I didn’t understand, but I approached most books at whatever access point I was ready to approach them.
In middle school, I read a lot of Stephen King. It was the 80’s. King’s books and stories were made into successful movies like The Shining and Creepshow, and King was a popular cultural figure. Beyond the violence—which was expected—King’s books had a lot of sex, drinking, and cussing in them. I regularly gave myself nightmares falling asleep while reading books like Cujo and ‘Salem’s Lot. For almost a year, I wide-stepped from my bedroom doorway to my bed each night—afraid of what lurked underneath.
You might have suggested that I read something more suitable for my age, but I didn’t know any young adult authors beyond S.E. Hinton. Like many of my peers, I jumped from children’s books to adult books. I don’t remember a librarian or teacher every talking to my parents about the books I read. No one thought my reading choices were strange or inappropriate.
Reading adult books outside of school wasn’t that different from what we read in school. The texts we read in English class were written for adults, too—To Kill a Mockingbird, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest Gaines, and scores of short stories, poems, and plays. Classroom discussions about these texts reinforced that reading serious works helped prepare us for our adult lives. We were unsophisticated, unruly teens, but reading would civilize us. If a parent complained about the texts we read at school, my classmates and I never knew about it. Teachers determined what texts we read.
Undoubtedly, I read books during my childhood that I wasn’t ready to read. I read books that bothered me. I read books that exposed me to mature behaviors and ideas. I read some books that I didn’t really understand. When I talk with other adult readers, we all remember books that we shouldn’t have been reading, but passed along to our friends like contraband. We joke about hiding V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic in our closets and recall sneak reading Go Ask Alice in between the covers of our history textbooks. We know that lots of free-range, unmonitored, less-than-literary reading experiences during childhood helped us keep reading into adulthood. There’s room in a reading life for Flowers for Algernon and Flowers in the Attic. As Neil Gaiman says, “Read. Read anything. Read the things they say are good for you, and the things they claim are junk. You’ll find what you need to find. Just read.”
If you want your children to read for a lifetime, you must accept their questionable book choices from time-to-time. When we control children’s reading diet or communicate disdain or fear for their choices, children are unlikely to find reading personally meaningful or enjoyable. On the other hand, we cannot knowingly expose children to themes and situations beyond their emotional and intellectual development. As adult reading mentors, we walk a thin line between encouraging children’s reading choices and supervising access to mature content.
Parents have the last word in whether their children can read a specific book or not, and we must respect individual families’ boundaries for book selection. As a teacher, parents have communicated their concerns about what their children should or shouldn’t read over the years. I’m always respectful in these conversations whether I agree or not. As long as parents don’t claim jurisdiction over the book access or reading choices of other people’s children, I support their points of view. If a parent doesn’t want their child to read a particular book, there’s always another book to offer.
When teachers or administrators require all students in a class or grade level to read a specific text, however, book selection becomes more challenging to navigate. I think we paint ourselves into a corner when we assign controversial or edgy text to our students without considering potential objections to a book. Someone is going to complain sooner or later. Evaluating a book through our personal lens doesn’t value our students or their families’ belief systems. We shouldn’t self-censor our classrooms and libraries because we fear complaints or questions, but we should be smart about it. One size does not fit all. Individual children may be ready to read texts with more violence, sexual content, or adult themes, but this doesn’t mean everyone in a class is ready. Some suggestions for using controversial texts in the classroom:
- Read every text you require your students to read. It doesn’t matter that your department chair or curriculum director approved a book when parents start calling you. Reread it every year and consider your current students’ perspectives and needs. Several high profile censorship cases in recent years involved episodes where teachers assigned books they hadn’t read and were caught off-guard by upset parents. Administrators should know about any potentially controversial texts required by your district or classroom teachers, too.
- Read professional reviews and publisher’s guidelines for any books you consider for required reading, and follow credible advice about age-appropriateness. Buzzwords like “rigorous” and “complex” don’t give you carte blanche to assign middle school books to elementary kids.
- Research your district or school’s book selection policies. If you don’t have a policy, work with your administrators, community members, and colleagues to create one. Strong policies consider diversity, age-appropriateness, literary merit, and reading appeal. Discuss differences between books promoted and offered for independent reading and those assigned as required texts.
- Send a letter or e-mail home to families explaining your book selection policies and why specific books were chosen for all children to read. I suggest Kate Messner’s Heading Off Book Challenges letter as a guide.
- Identify controversial language and themes and determine IN ADVANCE how to address questions or concerns about a book’s content. If you cannot justify a book’s value as a required text, consider alternative choices.
- Don’t assume that because a book is a “classic” you are in the clear. Canonical texts like J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men regularly receive challenges from local communities.
- Don’t assume a book is OK because it was made into an age-appropriate movie or TV show. In order to secure PG and PG-13 ratings, screenwriters and directors often alter scenes and dialogue from mature content books like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Fault in Our Stars.
- Consider whether reading a particular text best serves your curriculum and students. Offering readers choice from thematic texts sets, topical lists, or genre studies differentiates for students’ needs, preferences, and experiences while meeting curricular goals.
There’s a difference between the books children choose to read and the books we choose for them. There’s a difference between adding a book to our library and adding it to our syllabus. Some books are for now and some books are for later. As Kristine Mraz says, “When we are selecting which books to read in the classroom (and library), we are making ethical choices.” The text we require students to read should value their emotional needs and family mores to the degree possible.
Please share your experiences and thoughts about this topic. We can all learn from each other.
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp) and the Best Practices Roots (#bproots) chat with Teri Lesesne. Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.