Cari Rerat already has a reading plan set up for her child, who is due in a few weeks. She knows what books she’ll let her son read at what ages. She knows what kind of things are too offensive for his eyes.
And when it comes to selecting material, her son is the only person she should control.
The expectant mother is also the teen librarian for the Joplin, Mo., Public Library.
Though she has strong views about what her child can read, she would never tell any other parent what her child is allowed to read.
“I dictate what my child reads,” Rerat said. “Not what other children read. I don’t know them like I know my own child.”
Saturday marks the beginning of Banned Books Week, organized by the American Library Association. The week celebrates and showcases books on the organization’s Top 10 Most Frequently Challenged Books list, released each spring.
While the actions of motivated parents and school boards make headlines, what gets lost in the shuffle is what goes on in each of our homes. Parents may find themselves daunted when they think about what their own children are reading -- especially when they recognize so many titles in their kids’ own book collections.
From a librarian’s point of view, Rerat said the best thing a parent can do is to read the book in question.
About a year ago, the Stockton, Mo., school board banned “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie. The part that generated the controversy, a section where the main character writes about masturbation, goes for only about 15 sentences, Rerat said.
“And that’s not what that book is about,” Rerat said. “It’s about a boy who lives a powerful life.”
Many times books find themselves challenged for simply a small part, which distracts from a larger message. But parents may not have time to read every book that gets challenged.
Rerat recommended things people can do short of waiting for a good reading day:
- Read the jacket description. The way the book is sold will give a great indicator of what the book is really about.
- Look at professional reviews. Rerat said the library’s website has links to professional reviews by established literary critics.
“These reviews will tell you what the book is about, for what age group and a lot of times will clue you in on controversial things,” Rerat said.
She also said reviews on sales sites such as Amazon.com are almost as reliable. Reviews to be aware of are random interviews that come up at the top of a Google search. Many reviewers may have agendas or motives that may not be in line with parents’ views or morals.
Also, maturity level is not the same thing as reading level, Rerat said. A book at a fourth-grade reading level may not be intended for fourth graders.
- Talk to friends. A parent’s circle of friends will likely share the same view on a number of things. Maybe one of them has experience with a questionable title.
- Ask librarians. Rerat said she hasn’t read all of the library’s titles, but she has read a lot of them, and talks about books with others. Librarians will be able to give details that help a parent make an informed decision.
- Tell kids why you don’t want them reading certain books. Rerat said that kids do a great job self-censoring, if they know what parents don’t like.
“True, some know what parents want and read the opposite,” Rerat said. “But if they know your guidelines, and you explain why you feel this way, the kids will take charge, especially the older they get.”
The most ironic thing about the banning or challenging of a book, Rerat said, is that it has the opposite effect. Demand for those titles skyrockets -- when “Part-Time Indian” got banned, Rerat said she couldn’t keep the book on the shelf.
Rerat remembered, as a student in middle school, when one of her friends brought in a trashy romance novel. Her friends kept the secret and took turns reading, she said -- they even marked the good parts of the book so that they wouldn’t have to read the whole thing. All that energy went into a book they knew they shouldn’t read, she said.
“Parents will have to get involved sooner or later,” Rerat said. “If kids want it, they will find a way to get it. So why not read a banned book with your kid?”
Joe Hadsall is the features editor at The Joplin (Mo.) Globe