What Do We Do with Difficult Books?

The following is part of a quick response I sent to a mom who emailed me asking about allowing her children to read literature that has outdated language or ideas about race. It does not encompass all of my thoughts about these issues, but it gives a good start that I thought might be helpful to other parents.

I recently had a question from a mom about which curriculum to use to create lifelong readers, and I told her that no curriculum—not even a literature-rich curriculum—can guarantee to develop children into those who read and learn from reading for life. The biggest factor in determining whether children develop into readers is if their parents/caregivers are readers. If WE show our children how important books are to us—if we create a culture in which the great ideas and great conversation are accessible and vital to all—then our children will imbibe that belief for themselves.
As I was thinking about your question, a similar notion came to mind. As you probably inferred from your conversations with my daughter, they read widely, but they read well. How one defines that is a personal decision. I define reading well as reading that contains ideas that are good, true, and beautiful. But that does NOT mean they never read about anything that isn’t good, true, or beautiful. There are some “beautiful” books out there that contain really ugly experiences or events. A couple of books I’ve read recently that immediately come to mind are “A Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde and “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Nora Zeale Hurston. These books were not all wholesome. They contained terrible events or dark views of human nature, but ultimately they revealed a piece of truth within the great conversation. I think our children’s books can do the same, albeit on a much milder scale. 
The Little House series is a family favorite. The lessons about family, forgiveness, hard work far outweigh the racism they contain. I also think we need to be careful about judging books and people based on our values today. In Ma’s day, her views on the Native Americans were valid in that they *were* in danger (or at least she felt so). In a century from now, people will surely take umbrage at many of our notions that we feel are quite enlightened! That’s why CS Lewis advocates for the reading of old books, to allow the “clean sea breeze of the centuries” to blow through our timely viewpoints and perspectives.  
For that reason, I limit the modern books my children read. Current books may be more “right” from our modern perspective on views of race or culture or religion, but they often are more “wrong” on the truth or beauty they are emphasizing. If a book is *truly* good and beautiful, those lessons will be loud and clear above the things we deem as negatives. 
I also think it is great to have those discussions with your kids. Not to beat them over the head with what’s “right” to think and what’s “wrong,” or as Charlotte Mason said to not get in between the children and their books, but a simple, light discussion. “What did you think about that?” “Do you think what she said was kind?” “Should he have done that?” It’s great to talk about that people are not all good or all bad. It’s great to discuss WHY people had those views, not to condone them, but to give more nuance to our kids’ understanding of history. We don’t want our kids to grow up as so many children are these days seeing everything in black or white and that people have to be all on one side or the other. That creates the opposite of tolerance and understanding. 
We are actually reading To Kill a Mockingbird with our three oldest children right now. While it is a hard book, it is absolutely beautiful too. The truth is that sin is ugly, and it’s important for our children to see how ugly it is through story. That lesson will be so much more poignant than us *telling* them how ugly it is.
The main thing I’d like to say is that I think it’s important for our kids to read difficult things while they are under our roof and we can discuss them. But I think we also need to be careful of sermonizing too much to them. And now I’m finally bringing it back to the story I started with about choosing curriculum! If we have taught them through our own lives about love and tolerance, then they will be loving and tolerant, regardless of the literature they have or haven’t read. 


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