I was never encouraged to read as a child. I never heard of Caldecutt or Newbery. I never saw a reading list. I read randomly. I read classics and trashy novels. I read plays and books of cartoons. I read science fiction before I knew there was such a thing as genre. I read biographies and history books and (with great confusion) Naked Lunch.
I work now as a librarian in an elementary school. We have reading contests and prizes for whoever reads the most, as if reading has to be rewarded. And we have lists of books recommended for children, as if reading is anybody’s but the reader’s own business.
I think reading is deeply personal. I think whatever happens when someone reads, whatever goes on between the reader and the book, is nobody’s business.
A woman once told me that her daughter only wanted to read Babysitter’s Club books, and she had told the girls’ school not to let her do it anymore. The girl needed something more challenging. She needed something of better quality, her mother thought. Sometimes kids have bad taste and, while it’s natural to give our opinions, or to suggest books they might like, I think basically we have to leave them alone. I thought of my friend’s daughter a few years later when a girl in my school spent the whole year reading only Babysitter Club books. The girl’s father was in jail, her parents in the middle of a divorce, and then one day her uncle had murdered his family. For a while, I made gentle suggestions of other titles she might like, but one day it occurred to me that maybe she needed the calm predictability of The Babysitter’s Club. Maybe she needed to inhabit, if only for a little while, a wholesome world of natural consequences and small, solvable predicaments.
I thought of those girls with their Babysitter Club books after the last election, when I found myself reading only mysteries. Mysteries—stories driven by the pursuit of truth and justice. In mysteries, the good guys almost always win. In mysteries, the world is set straight for a moment.
My humble opinion: Recommend books to children, just as you’d recommend them to a friend, but then get out of the way.