Thursday, May 31, 2012

Controversial Reading Material for Teens

Hunger Games is considered Young Adult Fiction and is marketed to the teen population, yet is set in a dystopic future where kids are pulled into games where they are required to kill each other.  The series includes war as well.  Some Controversy has risen as a result.  Here is what I have to say about it from the perspective of a former teacher of adolescents and teens and the future parent of one.  

Many great pieces of literature have controversial aspects to them. Even Grapes of Wrath and The Diary of Anne Frank are on some banned book lists. With books about future dystopias there is often violence, death, disease, and other sundry taboos. It is part of the story and therefore, part of the comment being made about human nature, the nature of technology and the consequences of our use of it, or the nature of our society the author is trying to make.  Of course some books have these thing gratuitously or in such a way as to be too far over the top, or too mature for our kids.  At the same time though, these kinds of books are often making a strong point, and to make that strong point controversial things are said or depicted. Frankly, if my reading options had not included books with controversial material, my love for reading would have ended at about age eight (maybe sooner) because one of my favorite authors for kids, Roald Dahl, includes a number of things in his books that some parents feel shouldn't be included in books written for that age group.   

The first thing parents should know about reading material for kids and young adults is that reading level is not determined by subject matter, but by a complicated equation that factors vocabulary words and sentence structure complexity to come up with an R.L. or reading level.  Many books written for adults are at a Young Adult reading level, while some books written for young children in terms of the subject matter and content, might be given a higher RL than what the author really intended because of vocabulary and sentence structure.  With picture books, these simply become the read-aloud books where the teacher or parent reads it to the child.

For any age level, as the concerned and loving parent I know you are (or you wouldn't likely be reading this), I recommend you familiarize yourself with what your kids are reading, but rarely would I suggest flat-out banning of certain books they want to read - especially at the teen level.
Reading books ahead of your kids allows you an opportunity to decide not only if the material is just material you don't think they should read at all, but also allows you to have some say in the timing of what they do read.  It allows you to decide if they are developmentally ready for certain books. For example, Alice knows I loved reading the Harry Potter Series and has expressed an interest in reading them too.  At the same time, she is 5 and definitely not ready yet.  At her age, I can put it off and tell her she's not ready yet.  As long as I follow through and recognize when she is ready and let her read them then.  I can guarantee that if I flat out said, "no-way, not ever" she would eventually read them anyway.  If I can read a book with her that may contain things that are hard for parents to want their children to even know about, I am putting myself in the position to also be the one to discuss that topic with her in the context of the book in question first - instead of friends or whover else she may decide to turn to.  Part of my job as parent, is to act as guide - why not with controversial books too.  With preteens and teenagers this becomes even more true, even putting it off by saying, "you're not ready" won't usually work - least not for long.  Instead, insisting the two of you read something communicates that you can respect thier maturity but also puts you in the drivers seat in regard to making sure thoughtful discussion occurs about questionable subject matter.
This discussion thing really is a HUGE advantage.  You can discuss it with them, find out what they think, how they are thinking about the material and the two of you can learn about each other through discussing what you've read.  They might surprise you and have insights you would never have expected.  Maybe you'll discover your kid is more mature than you thought (it happens to me all the time)  At the teen level, they are getting ready to be adults and their brains are ready for ambiguity as well as challenge. If you want your children to be thoughtful, they need thought provoking material. Obviously, not all reading material that includes violence, sex and other taboo-for-kids topics provokes thought and not all thought-provoking material needs to include a lot of violence, sexual content etc.   My Sister's Keeper is a great example of a highly controversial book without violence and sex, but it is also on certain banned book lists. Instead of fretting over the subject that gives you pause about which they are reading, read these books again WITH your kids.   If the book you read is something that offers up a treatise on a controversial political issue or one side of a historic event, follow the book up with reading another book that uses an opposing perspective.  This can be especially easy to do in a home school setting, but can be done as a "supplement" to mortar and brick schooling as well as a "family activity" you do together.

Whatever you are reading, make sure to ask them what they think was necessary to move the story along and make the point. Ask them if they felt anything was gratuitous. Then make sure you really listen and they know you have listened and understood BEFORE offering up your viewpoint, but offer up your thoughts too. Be open to discussing it in a respectful and thoughtful way - as you would with someone else's kid or with another adult. Use resources like and have access to great discussion questions to get you talking to each other about what you encounter while on your reading journey. Just be sure to listen to the responses your teenager gives as much as you want them to listen to yours.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your comments!