Judge Not

It's been a bit tricky choosing what books to write about for this blog. Because the truth is, children's
books are for…children. I may like what I like and pride myself on a coolly measuring eye in assessing whether a book is "good," but what matters
more, I think, is whether a book is loved. Only connect, right? And
connection isn't something that takes well to being mediated.
I suppose what I am trying to do is remind myself of being a child reader. This will, I hope, allow me to
watch calmly as people devour the Berenstain Bears, and act unconcerned
when they select the Mary Kate and Ashley mystery series at the library
(sob!). I hope to remind myself that for every classy British
children's book I read, I read an equally edifying piece of trash
(and still do!), and the moment that books become prescribed and thus,
medicinal, is the moment I want out. I mean, I may not want to read
Barney for my own pleasure, but DEAR GOD is he loved by the two-year-olds who are his rightful audience. And I don't think it's right for
people to crap all over him just because he's big and purple and
annoying and boring. I mean, he's not talking to you, all right? He
knows whom he's connecting to, and he's doing just fine with them. And
it is not a good thing a love of books that transforms aesthetic
arbiter isn't good. I know people think that literary traditions and
great works of literature need protectors and defenders, but I don't
think that's true. I think they need lovers.
It sounds like I am fighting with someone, and I think I am probably fighting with myself. Because the truth is that I do value things that are good (if there is such a thing as objective good). But there is something particular and off-limits about that personal space that happens between a reader (no matter what age) and her book. And I'm trying to figure out a way to talk about books for kids and respect that.
Did I just write a pro-Barney post?

11 thoughts on “Judge Not

  1. I just stumbled onto your blog tonight, and I am thrilled. I don’t even have kids… but it’s so wonderful to be reminded of all these books that I loved so much as a little girl. Also, helpful for when I am buying gifts for the little ones that belong to my friends. Kudos!!


  2. Go ahead, be pro-Barney.
    When I was young and child-free, a friend with a two year old was reveling in how much his two year old loved Barney. “There is NO edge, nothing difficult, everyone is kind and gets along and kids LOVE it,” he would say. “It’s their perfect world! And it drives the grownups crazy and TOO BAD. Plenty of the world is all about the grownups. I’m thrilled my two year old has found a ‘place’ he loves.” And I have tried to remember that always.
    And yes, the key is just Keep Reading. For relief from Gone With the Wind, I would read Sweet Valley High. In third grade I read Bonzo Buries a Bone one week and Freaky Friday the next. Even now, some nights I read for book group; other nights I read O magazine’s beauty column. Good for you for (working hard on) letting go.
    Love love love your blog. Thanks.


  3. I am sending this on to my husband. We have been having arguments about what makes a book “good.” I love your take, that it’s all about connection. I believe this is definately true for me. I do have a hard time not pushing “good” books on my daughter, but blissfully, she seems to do a pretty good picking job all on her own.


  4. I work with a kids band; we pride ourselves on being real and connecting with kids and parents on a deep level while bringing the authenticity of good music to young ears, filling a void in the electronic age, blah blah blah… And I completely agree with you about Barney. I can’t personally stand the big purple dork, but he’s not hurting anyone and kids love him.
    The Berenstain Bears, though? I’d rather poke out my eyes with an oyster fork than have to read them ever again! And my daughter LOVES THEM. Bad drawing, patronizing, gender-stereotyping, preachiness and all. We go to the library and the bookstore and that’s ALL SHE WILL READ – I mean, let me read to her. I try to walk the line between acknowledging that they’re not my favorites, gently contradicting the worst of the messages and not ruining her enjoyment of them because after all, they are books and at least they’re not Barbies.
    But really, Yech!


  5. I’m generally in the read-whatever-you-like camp. However, one of my professors was the head of children’s services at NYPL and her explanation of why they wouldn’t buy any Disney stuff was that childhood is short and there is only a small window of time for when a child will connect with a particular story. If they’re just reading product-placement books, they’ll miss out on all the quality stuff. That’s why a lot of libraries buy the Disney movies but not the related books. Of course, I say this as a mother whose daughter treasures her Hannah Montana books.


  6. I’m fine with trash…(such as the mysteries I gobble up three at a time) but I do hesitate to have my child read books that are basically commercials.
    And maybe I’m just a little bit of a reading nazi, too, since I also want to read books to my daughter that I don’t mind reading fifty times.
    But I hear you: being any kind of reader is preferable to never finding a connection to the page.


  7. Maria: Yes, the Berenstain Bears are…problematic. My husband, in particular, detests them (he has a real problem with Pa’s whole style with the overalls and all) but nonetheless they are truly loved. And Heather, I know, it’s horrible to see how sweet and vulnerable and demographic our children are, real targets to the foulest marketing and advertising schemes. There’s always the inadvertent recycling run (and if you’re caught just say “Now how did that get in here!”).


  8. “The salient fact of an adolescent girl’s existence is her need for a secret emotional life—one that she slips into during her sulks and silences, during her endless hours alone in her room, or even just when she’s gazing out the classroom window while all of Modern European History, or the niceties of the passé composé, sluice past her. This means that she is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading.” – Caitlin Flanagan


  9. Not Flanagan: That’s a really interesting idea, but I shy away from putting reading into the arena of girls even more than it is already there. Neither of my girls are adolescent (yet) but both (and others I know, of both genders and a wide array of ages) seem to enter that secret quiet space that reading creates.


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