Friday, March 14, 2014

Tales From the Library: Novel Concerns

Recently, a patron called me to ask for recommendations for her mother-daughter book club in which the young participants are third-graders, most around nine years old. This patron and her daughter, a voracious reader, had suggested “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’Dell as their pick for the club. The patron told me that her daughter loved the book and wanted to share it with her friends.

But another mother in the club objected, saying that she had read on Common Sense Media that Karana, the main character, in “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” witnesses the deaths of her father and brother, and that the book contained a fair amount of violence. This mother felt that would be too much for her daughter and asked that the club read another book.

The patron who called me was frustrated by the situation and also concerned, as it seemed that the other mother’s concerns could greatly circumscribe the club’s reading. We talked about the “dead parent syndrome” in children’s books, so many of which feature at least one dead parent, which allows kids to be more adventurous. But she wasn’t sure that her mother-daughter book club would be able to read even classic books in which one parent was dead (“The Penderwicks” by Jeanne Birdsall as a recent example). “I know that kids mature at different ages and that can be hard,” the patron said to me. The patron added that she had talked to her daughter about the issue and that her daughter said, “Mom, I know that people die. That’s sad. But I just read those parts and move on.” Clearly, the patron said, her daughter is at a different place than the other mother’s child, but everyone in the club – both mothers and daughters – are good friends and so they really want to try to accommodate each other.

So the patron decided to call me, and ask for recommendations that might work for everyone. I’ve had this type of situation occur before, with parents asking for “gentle” fiction that contains no elements likely to upset their children. It can be extremely tricky terrain for a librarian to navigate, as every parent/child combination is likely to consider different elements as “upsetting.” For some, there can be no deaths that occur (I even had one mother tell me that she was reading “Charlotte’s Web” to her three-year-old child. (!) When I asked how she was going to explain Charlotte’s death to her child, the mother said that she was going to change the ending to a “happy” one where Charlotte lives. Aaarrrgh!) For others, the concern focuses on violence, which most likely means no fairy tales or graphic novels. Even our library's “all ages” comics, for example, usually have some kind of cartoonish violence. (If it’s the violence is more realistic, we put the graphic novel in our “older readers” section as a way of signaling that to parents).

 Certainly I believe that parents have the right to determine what their children read (although I also believe that parents should work to transfer that right to their children as the kids mature). With that parental right, however, comes a responsibility to ensure that you, as a parent, aren’t needlessly limiting your child’s ability to read books that may important for them to read. Fairy tales are a good example of this, with the classic thinking (Bruno Bettelheim, et al) that the violence in these classic tales (Red Riding Hood’s grandmother eaten by a wolf, Hansel and Gretel left in a forest by their father) can actually help kids work out some of their fears.

Full disclosure: I have to acknowledge that it wasn’t easy for me as a parent to refrain from trying to “protect” my kids from books that might upset them. One of my children had major sleep issues and so I thought that by limiting her reading of books with “upsetting” elements, I was helping her. My wise pediatrician, however, eventually convinced me that I couldn’t – and shouldn’t – try to sanitize the world for my daughter, and that it truly might be helpful for her to read about death and violence in a children’s book and see how the characters worked it out, and think about how she herself might work it out. By letting her read books with “upsetting” elements like death and violence, I was giving her some of the tools needed to function in the real world. Today she’s a well-adjusted 23-year-old, and I give some of the credit to the books she read as a child and teen.

Two other things: First, I recognize that my daughter was lucky that she grew up in a stable environment, emotionally and economically. Not every child is so fortunate, and books with death and violence may actually mirror their own experiences, not be something just to read about in a book. They may not have a choice of knowing about death and violence at young age. Second, remember that we are talking about children’s books! Even if there is a death in the book – often offstage, before the story begins, as in books like “The Saturdays” by Elizabeth Enright -- or some violence, like the way the title, canine character is stolen by some ne-er-do-wells in “Ginger Pye” by Eleanor Estes – these are children’s stories, and there will be a happy ending, at least of sorts.

 With all of this in mind, I came up with a list of possible books for the patron to suggest to her mother-daughter book club. They were specifically looking for fiction, so I didn’t include non-fiction or graphic novels – although I did include “Ellie McDoodle,” a “hybrid” book that features a mix of words and illustrations. Many of these books feature some element that might be considered upsetting by some parents (i.e. the divorced parents in “Flora & Ulysses” and the mostly unrepentant behavior displayed by the title character in “Harriet the Spy.”) I had a tight deadline to develop the list, which is by no means exhaustive, and so would love to hear more suggestions from others! This is an issue that comes up regularly for both parents and librarians, and it’s always good to be armed with recommendations. Meanwhile, here's my start at such a list:

__ "The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp" by Kathi Appelt

__ "Whittington" by Alan Armstrong

__ "Ellie McDoodle" by Ruth Barshaw (Hydbrid book, “Wimpy Kid”-style, half illustrations, half text)

__"The Penderwicks" (and follow-ups) by Jeanne Birdsall

__"Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing" by Judy Blume
__ "Masterpiece" by Elise Broach

__ "The Enormous Egg" by Oliver Butterworth

__ "The Cheshire Cheese Cat" by Carmen Agra Deedy

__ "The Cats of Tanglewood Forest" by Charles DeLint

__ "Flora & Ulysses" by Kate DiCamillo

__ "Half Magic" by Edward Eager

__ "Ginger Pye" by Eleanor Estes

__ "The Saturdays" by Elizabeth Enright

__"Harriet the Spy" by Louise Fitzhugh

__ "Bo At Ballard Creek" by Kirkpatrick Hill

__"The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate" by Jacqueline Kelly

__"Rabbit Hill" by Robert Lawson

__"Ella Enchanted" by Gail Carson Levine

__ "Rules" by Cynthia Lord

__ "Betsy-Tacy" by Maude Hart Lovelace

__ "Anastasia Krupnik" by Lois Lowry

__ "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" by Robert O’Brien

__"Tom’s Midnight Garden" by Philippa Pearce

__"The Cricket in Times Square" by George Selden

__ "Young Fredle" by Cynthia Voight


  1. How about the "Marty Maguire" books by Kate Messner, "The Grand Plan to FIx Everything" by Uma Krishnaswami, "Penny Dreadful" by Laurel Snyder, "Junonia" by Kevin Henkes, "Smile" by Raina Telgemier, "All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor...and some nonfiction? Perhaps something from the Scientists from the Field series, or Amelia Lost?

    1. Hi Sylvie -- All great suggestions! I didn't have time to list any non-fiction like the books in the always-excellent "Scientists in the Field" series or a graphic memoir like "Smile" (which was checked out of my library nearly 100 times last year!) so thanks for mentioning those. And your fiction additions also are right on point. Thank you!

  2. Thanks so much for including Ellie McDoodle. I'm pleased see her listed among such noteworthy books.

    1. Hi Ruth -- You're quite welcome. Your "Ellie McDoodle" books are terrific, and also quite popular in my library.