“How can I be sure that my children are reading the right kind of books?” Ensign, Apr. 1978, 42–43
Berniece Rabe, author of children’s books, mother of four, and a Relief Society teacher in the Elgin Ward, Wilmette Illinois Stake One can never exercise complete control over the behavior of another person, a free agent. I’m assuming that your concern is for help in choosing “good” books for your very young children, with the hope that such exposure will influence them to seek out the best books themselves when the choice becomes totally theirs.
When my children were less than a year old, and the choice was totally mine, I began to choose books to read to them. Children are fascinated with words and sounds and rhymes and color before they have learned to talk. The cuddly closeness of the mother and her exciting voice inflections all add to building a love for books. (Also, when I was tired or ill or out-of-sorts, it was a relaxing and beneficial way to bring harmony to the household.)
Often, when hurried, I took advantage of our librarian’s judgment by selecting books from those she had displayed on tables and counters. It is her job to keep abreast in the children’s book field. She has access to various recommended book lists and critical reviews that she will gladly show you on request.
If a certain book delighted the children and met my own criteria on values, information given, aesthetic delivery, and good art and layout, then on the next trip to the library we’d find more books by the same author.
Sometimes the books were just lots of good wholesome fun, an escape into fantasy or the giggly world of humor, and sometimes that is all that is needed by child or adult. Or perhaps the child with the singular concern for what-happens-next chose books whose main essence was plot. When my oldest son was nine, he read twenty-two Hardy boy books one summer. He got a great sense of accomplishment out of this. He also achieved a several-words-per-minute increase in his reading speed and was vocalizing something—a pride in books; that pleased me. This same son became an avid Shakespeare fan while yet in high school.
Occasionally, a book would appear that not only let my children escape into fantasy or laughter, or had a fast-moving plot, but also was filled with rich cultural background material and touched our souls with its moral lessons. We dubbed it a classic. Often the critics had dubbed it the same. We would discuss this book at length. I would ask questions like “What do you think about … ?” and we’d talk our way to the dinner table and let Dad join in, too. It was a great way for a child to feel he had something important to say to grownups. It became a pleasant training ground for the child—he could freely express his very own opinion of a thing and have it heard. The daughters in one family I know, which discusses books, authors, and philosophies routinely, can hold to their own convictions with ease when a crowd tries to sway them.
One approach I used with Dara on a difficult book was to read the first chapter aloud and then enthusiastically discuss it with her. The first chapter of a novel is the most difficult, for so much has to be established—the setting, the characters’ traits, and the issues. With all this being fed in, it is difficult to also make it entertaining. Our discussion helps her become familiar with strange terms, places, and ideas, and my own eagerness to continue the story often makes her grab the book and keep reading. Subsequent chapters are easier. If she runs into depth and wants assistance, we’ve already established a mutual interest in the book and she feels free to continue the discussion. Recently I held her close while she wept for the wife of Wang Lung in The Good Earth. “Oh, Mother,” she wailed, “she lived all her life and never knew she was worth anything!”
So I would like to recommend that you discuss books with your children, be taken in by their excitement, read the books they read, and let your opinion be heard. Many children’s books are written on more than one level and become great reading for the adult. If discussion is a common occurrence, when a son or daughter comes home with or mentions a controversial book read by others at school, it will not gain undue attention. It will merely be another book to accept or reject, in part or entirety.
If I am selective in what I myself read, I’ve set the example. Subtly, I have announced that I believe that books do influence for good and evil. Church leaders have admonished us to seek wisdom out of the best books. (See D&C 88:118.) But I am sorely aware that we cannot protect our children from the world, as they increase in years, except by our love, example, and teachings. They will come in contact with what I consider undesirable books. When this does happen, I have the hope that evil can be used for good by making them appreciate good all the more (for having been made aware of the hurt of evil). Perhaps my discussions with them can help this awareness grow. That would be so much better than having them gain an awareness of evil through direct experiences.
My daughter came to me and asked about a certain word in a child’s book. I stopped my work to discuss it with her. This little bit of bad exposure gained, she commented, “Why did the author put that in? It had nothing to do with the story.” This gave me the chance to explain that some authors write for money only, that certain things mean more sales and are exploited. She was disgusted. Now she has her own censor honed for future reading. Where unpleasantness arises, she may just close the book and not read that author again.
Publishing is a business. As in any business, the object is to make money; unfortunately with some businesses it may be the only object. Children often believe that no company would publish something untrue or immoral. Because of the innocence of youth, there used to be fairly strong censorship of children’s books. The trend is away from this. A book may be extremely well written from a technical point of view but expose some philosophy you would find offensive because it is out of harmony with gospel principles.
In spite of our concern for our children, we still wish to give them training in the art of making wise choices. In the vicarious world of books, a child may have hundreds of thousands of chances to choose, collecting gems of experiences out of which great wisdom and knowledge can grow. We can read and pray, study and decide.
With the help of respected librarians and critics I made choices for my children when they were very young; later I allowed them to choose and we discussed; and finally the choice was all theirs. I’m delighted now when one of my adult children tells me on the phone, “Mom, I’m sending you a book you’ve just got to read,” and I find they’ve made an excellent choice.