As a kid, all I wanted to do was read and make up stories. Despite frequent library and bookstore trips, I quickly chewed through everything for kids and young adults I could find in my house and at school. I turned to my parents’ shelves, where I’d find grown-up books that looked interesting.
I recall one parent-teacher meeting when my first-grade teacher brought up the fact that I hadn’t been adding as much as usual to my reading log lately. My mother turned to me and asked what I was reading that week. “The English Patient,” I responded. I’d found it on my mom’s nightstand and wanted to tackle a big book. Not skipping a beat, my mom asked, “Do you understand it?”
“Not all of it,” I admitted. In fact, there were a lot of big words I didn’t know and concepts and allusions I hadn’t yet learned. I didn’t have the background knowledge for such an ambitious book for a seven-year-old. But I was hungry to learn. My teacher and mom resolved to find me more age-appropriate books, but I still longed to read the big, grown-up books my mom read. I soon devoured Jane Austen and Little Women. We’d talk about them over dinner or in the car, the latest plot twists and surprises.
When I was in fifth grade, my dad introduced me to Stephen King and I was hooked. His dark imagination drew me in, and, despite a few nightmares, I was captivated by his short stories and horror novels. I remember one day in sixth grade, it was silent reading time and I’d been looking forward all day to digging in where I’d left off the night before in "Hearts of Atlantis." A classmate glanced over at the tome I was reading and called out, “Erika’s book has swear words!”
“Of course it does, it’s Stephen King,” I replied, which seemed to be lost on her. I don’t remember the teacher doing or saying anything. After all, I was quietly reading while most of the boys flung paperclips at each other and the girls chatted. It wasn’t like I was spouting King’s vocab words. And yet this girl was implying that, by reading a grown-up book, I was somehow breaking the rules. It had never occurred to me that reading should be censored, as my parents had always encouraged me to read whatever I wanted.
I do understand when parents balk at their young kids reading more mature materials and being exposed to violence, sex, or certain language. But I recommend you use the book(s) in question as a learning tool to have difficult conversations without discouraging your child from reading. In fact, reading can be one of the best ways for them to learn about the world. If they’re tackling difficult topics, it’s a good idea for you to read the book, too, and have a dialogue about it, helping them contextualizing what they’re reading.
"Speak," by Laurie Halse Anderson, which addresses sexual violence, and "The Hate U Give," by Angie Thomas, which talks about police violence against Black communities, both made the list of the top ten banned books in 2020. Speak was one of the first chapter books I remember reading in a day, tucked under my covers as a young teen and absorbed in the character’s pain. It taught me to speak up about my own trauma and not feel ashamed. I was struggling with an eating disorder at the time and that book made me feel seen, understood. "The Hate U Give," didn’t come out until I was an adult, but it still helped me contextualize what I was seeing on the news and better understand the struggles of BIPOC communities and how to be an ally. Parents have taken issues with these books because they don’t feel children or young adults should be exposed to such uncomfortable problems, but the reality is, they already are, and reading stories from people who’ve experienced traumas like racism and sexual violence helps develop their understanding of the world.
If your child wants to read a book, do everything you can to encourage them, whether it’s your idea of the right book for them or not. They may rise to the challenge and stretch their abilities and understanding, and you can use books to discuss what they’re learning. I believe I wouldn’t be a writer, editor, and literacy advocate with an MFA in Fiction and my first book coming out next spring if my parents hadn’t let me read whatever I wanted and given me the opportunity to explore others’ worlds — and my own — through books.
Erika Nichols-Frazer is the Communications Manager of the Children’s Literacy Foundation, which serves low-income, at-risk, and rural youth in New Hampshire and Vermont. She is also a Developmental Editor for New Degree Press and a staff writer for The Valley Reporter in Waitsfield, Vt. Find her work at www.nicholsfrazer.com.