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No Bad Books

April 10, 2012
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There are some books I cringe at when my children pick them up at the library or bring them to me at the bookstore. I have held my nose and read books I thought were of almost negative literary value. I confess—I have hidden some at the back of the shelf, actively navigated around yet another read, returned early to the library, and refused to buy books that I couldn’t stand. Every person who spends time with children has their own list of books they can’t abide.

It’s hard to say what makes a book whose pages make us recoil—maybe it’s a mind-numbingly predictable plot, maybe it’s simplistic dialogue, maybe it’s annoying dialogue, maybe it’s just a lack of anything that we find to be redeeming. But what we think about a book our child is excited about is not really the most important thing.

There’s a big disclaimer here: if a books has themes you don’t approve or content you don’t think your child is old enough for or that goes against your values, don’t feel any compunction about finding a more appropriate book.

But if we’re talking about books that you just don’t think are good, well-written books, well, maybe it’s time to take a step back and think about the bigger picture. This is something we’ve had to confront in our own houses and also at our book drives. And after some book-soul searching, we arrived at the following conclusion: the book that we think is the literary equivalent of a Twinkie may just be the book that sparks a child’s interest in reading.

Maybe the predictable plot is easy to manage for a child who is learning to navigate longer sentences and bigger chapters. Maybe the basic dialogue or mindless jokes make the book easy to manage. Maybe the silly words take second place to illustrations or characters your child feels are wondrous. So what if the book isn’t going to win the Caldecott or Newberry award? If it gets a child reading, it’s a book with value. (And who among us hasn’t read our share of books that wouldn’t have won the Pulitzer?)

So what do we do when our child falls in love with a book (or worse, series) that drives us crazy? Watch with happiness as they enjoy reading that terrible work of writing. Smile as they read it three times. And then introduce them to books that are better. Take the opportunity to let them read to themselves those books that interest and excite them, but make sure their shelves and bedside tables have other options. Use reading together time to introduce more challenging books.

One of my least favorite fairy-themed books was also one of our most popular at our last book distribution. Seeing a child’s face light up with unbridled joy as she held this shiny book in her hand was enough to melt my skepticism. I shared her moment of joy. And since we were giving each child 11 books, I made sure she had a good mix in her bag.

What is important is that children learn to love reading. And whatever book can make that happen, well, is a good book.

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