Summer vacation started about a week ago, and if your life is anything like that of the parents I know, it's become a montage to the tune of "I'm bored. I want a snack. I'm booorrred. Can I have a popsicle? I'm boooorrreeed." Beautiful and soothing though this tune is, you need a respite (if not a margarita) and Aunt Paige is here for you.
Summertime is the ideal time to invest in a hammock and a stack of books. But kids' books and getting kids reading aren't challenge-free subjects. Here are some of the most common questions I get asked about what children should read and when.
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Dear Aunt Paige,
I love old-fashioned children's books like Anne of Green Gables
, Little House on the Prairie
, and Betsy-Tacy and have looked forward to reading them to my kids, but they're not always in line with modern understandings of gender, race, religion, or history. Is it okay to censor those sentences when I read to my children? Should I treat them as an entry point into important conversations? Or, should I be avoiding these books altogether?
Dear Storytime Nostalgia,
Oh, this is a fraught issue! Some professional educators believe books with dated content should be left wholly in the past. Others think it’s important to read these books with kids and use them to have tough conversations. To give you the least satisfying response possible, I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all solution.
Some books are so dubious, they might be more appropriate for your dust bin than for your little ones, while others might be worth enjoying at storytime with the knowledge that their content will spark conversations about the ways our cultural norms and values have or haven't changed since they were written. The line between those two categories isn't always easy to define. Deciding where that line is for your family is personal. It takes thoughtful consideration and may change as your children age and are better able to grapple with complex issues.
Do consider spacing out the old-fashioned books with more modern and inclusive reads. Anne of Green Gables
, while also one of my childhood favorites, has old-fashioned views about gender roles and religion. Try following it with Amina's Voice
or The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
. Little House on the Prairie
is full of racist depictions of Native American peoples. Make sure you are also reading books by Native authors that accurately depict their cultures like The Birchbark House
or In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse
. If you’re really keen on books with a nostalgic, wild childhood feel to them, The Penderwicks
and The Vanderbeekers
series have tremendous charm while featuring a more diverse range of people, experiences, and families.
I don't recommend glossing over or omitting racist, sexist, or otherwise problematic content that you run into while reading together. It might feel better in the moment, but those things are a part of our history. Kids are so much brighter and capable of nuanced understanding than we give them credit for. We do them a disservice if we aren't willing to have those conversations.
And besides, it is impossible to fully protect your children from sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, fatphobia, and all the other evils of the world. They will find them anyway. (Does anyone else remember smuggling an illicit copy of Flowers in the Attic
between lockers as a tweenager?) Having those conversations with a trusted adult when they are still young enough to be read to helps prepare them to grapple with these issues later when they are reading and encountering them in the real world, on their own.
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Dear Aunt Paige,
My preschooler asks me to read the same book every night. I'm sick of it! Why do children insist on hearing the same stories on repeat, and is it ethical to "lose" the worst offenders?
Tired of Grumpy Monkey
Oh, how well I know your plight. Your Aunt Paige, who adores a good picture book, has nevertheless spent long, frustrating hours locked in the endless loop of Cars and Trucks and Things That Go
. Don't get me wrong. I don't at all dislike Richard Scarry, or vehicles of transportation, but you can only find Lowly Worm so many times (464 to be exact) before you're looking for a good place to lose the book for a month or two.
Try high cabinets. Or crawl spaces. Don't forget to make a spreadsheet of which book is hidden where so that when you're good and ready for Grumpy Monkey
to reemerge you can simply sort by the Gs and…
I kid, cinnamon bun. Children love repeat readings because they bring comfort and joy, but they’re also beneficial for vocabulary and word recognition, fluency, comprehension, and understanding the pattern and rhythm of language. Here’s another solution you might try. Offer to read another book by the same author or illustrator. If Grumpy Monkey
is the current favorite, maybe try Grumpy Monkey Up All Night
. It will feel familiar and build on what she learns reading Grumpy Monkey
, but it will give you something fresh to read.
Or, offer to read two books: one old and one new. This way, your little one gets the benefits of repetition and a broadened horizon, and she just might find a new favorite, or two, or more.
And if you’re still finding yourself driven up the wall by one particular book, yes, it’s OK to tuck it away for a bit. After all, what good is storytime with a grumpy monkey as a reader?
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Dear Aunt Paige,
Is there such a thing as too many graphic novels? My kids love reading them, and I love that they’re reading, but I worry that spending too much time with “easy reading” will prevent them from learning how to grasp and enjoy more complicated writing.
Dog Man or Dostoevsky
Dear D or D,
The very short answer is “no.”
I understand the instinct to be wary of graphic novels. After all, “book with pictures” sounds remarkably close to “picture book” — something it feels like young readers have to grow out of in order to become proper book-loving adults. (As an aside, if we’re supposed to grow out of picture books, nobody told your Aunt Paige
. Why do they make them so beautiful if not to be enjoyed at every age?)
There’s been a genre explosion over the past decade when it comes to graphic novels for young readers. I don’t know exactly which graphic novels are monopolizing your kids’ time, but I’ll take a wild guess and say your bookshelf has probably seen some Raina Telgemeier
, all eight volumes of Amulet
, or maybe a Dog Man
These books are wildly fun to read and give kids the pleasure of finishing a full book. An addicting combination! But they aren’t necessarily “easy reading.” Kids’ graphic novels often deal with nuanced topics and complex narratives. I wish I’d had Telgemeier’s Guts
in my elementary school backpack to keep me company when dealing with my own anxiety. Jerry Craft won a Newberry in 2020 for New Kid
, which explores microaggressions and privilege. Beautiful stories like Mai K. Nguyen’s Pilu of the Woods
make tough emotions like grief and loss accessible.
Don’t fear the picture to word ratio either! Not only are these books wordier than we often give them credit for, they are also great tools for building vocabulary and reading comprehension. While your kids are blazing through their latest graphic novel, they’re also training their brains to look for context clues in art and then using those context clues to puzzle out new words and concepts in the text. I won’t tell them if you don’t!
Of course, a balanced literary diet is important. Graphic novels are a medium, not a genre. Look at the types of stories your kids are drawn to and seek out some picture-free narratives that match (If you need help, your local booksellers are great at this!). Lots of Dog Man? Try something caper-based with a dash of humor like Stuart Gibb’s Spy School
or his Belly Up
series. All Raina all the time? Look for relatable, slice-of-life stories like Celia C. Pérez’s The First Rule of Punk
or Jessica Kim’s Stand Up, Yumi Chung!
Encourage your kids to branch out, but if graphic novels are making reading a joyous experience for them, don’t forget to let reading be fun!
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Dear Aunt Paige,
One of my friends insists on reading every book her son selects or is given before letting him read it. I let my kids read... anything. Who's right?
More walkie-talkie than helicopter
I’ve always been of the opinion that children, just like adults, will gravitate towards the stories they need, which sometimes means choosing books with themes or characters that they’re not ready to share with other people. Kids with more advanced reading skills might grab books with mature content, but in my experience, what they don’t understand will either go over their heads or lead to good conversations with friends and parents. Most of the time, letting children choose what they want to read without judgment or interference demonstrates our respect for them and our trust in them, and helps them associate reading with pleasure and support.
That said I think it’s unfair to assume that parents who assert more control over their children’s reading do so out of prejudice or censorship. I remember talking to a mom who didn’t want her daughter reading books with sad endings; another didn’t want her Latinx and Native children reading about racism in elementary school. In both cases, I think it’s because living is hard and every parent wants to delay the moment when their child’s openhearted wonder is shaded by pain or cynicism.
Have you asked your friend why she reads her son’s books? You may disagree with her reasons, but it could lead to a fantastic conversation about the limits of parental control and the value of reading that will change how both of you think about kids and books and what it means to raise readers.
One day, all children grow up enough to take themselves to the library or the bookstore or the bookshelf in their parents’ bedroom to select what they want to read. The important thing is teaching them to love and trust in the power of words to make them laugh, allow them to cry, see through another’s eyes, and find answers and companionship when the hard questions about who they are arise.