My original task for this piece? Create a list of books NOT to read future feminists. As I started the process, I realized the idea of “banning” books is regressive and contrary to my own gut feelings about working with kids and the search for open and honest dialogue.
I’d be lying not to say I avoid princesses, commercial characters, and race/gender stereotypes in my own classroom. Kids really don’t have to look far for crap media. I also dislike books with stereotyped accents in the dialogue, illustrations with women and men in outdated and so-called “traditional” roles or where every family has a Mom and Dad with two kids and a perfectly clean house.
Instead, I choose books with all types of families, with all different types of art and with differing themes from all over the world. But the selection of quality children’s stories representing a more progressive view of the world is still scarce (and expensive) when reading to children on a day to day basis. This means we must find ways to make do.
I know a list would make it easy for parents and caregivers, but I often see families take screening and monitoring content too far to the extremes, so that they miss moments where relational forces are more important than content. What matters most for the growing brain is a child choosing to read. When children are drawn towards certain stories, I suggest following their lead, even if reluctantly. We want our future feminists to have a say in their own development, their preferences and their ideas.
Ultimately, it is not what you read; it is how you read that matters. Children make sense of the world through books. We help make reading safe and nurturing to their inner person when we find time to really connect through reading. When children read a wide variety of books, they can safely explore difficult themes, visit narratives outside their own limited world view and create connections between varying concepts. Books can and should open a child’s world to all kinds of ideas allowing them to sift through and explore those ideas over and over again in many different ways. Yes, repetition of the same annoying book may well be needed.
What about the themes important to the caregiver? This is the true stumbling block for even the best caregivers. We think our children are mini versions of ourselves. The funny thing is, we rarely think we are mini versions of our own parents, do we? So don’t be the gatekeeper of the content. Instead, be the ticket to new and different destinations. A child’s inner workings will never be obvious. As caregivers, we will always make best guesses. Most themes will work themselves out and we will never know why themes wax and wane. The whole nature-or-nurture debate is less important than just going with it. Join their unique process and the themes they are chasing and use your voice to encourage a child’s natural tendency to think critically about what they read.
How-tos for reading to your future feminist:
1. Read more than just the words. When reading to kids, it is time to get your drama on. Read with some pizzazz. There will be plenty of opportunities for your child to be bored stiff from monotone teachers. Your intonations, stops and starts and use of expressive language help your child understand both the intent of a writer and your own interpretation of the story.
2. Ask your child what they notice and allow them time to respond before you point out what you yourself notice. Stop and point out stereotypes and other dissonance noted in illustrations. Ask your child how they might change illustrations or words to make it look more like your family or community.
3. Create alternative endings. Or read two different versions of a similarly themed book. If your little femme loves princesses, stuff the disapproval. Grab a contrasting princess book like “The Paperbag Princess” or “Do Princesses Wear Hiking Boots?” After reading both, you can compare and contrast different types of princesses (and different types of princes, for that matter).
4. Offer books with a wide variety of illustrations, especially when the same story is adapted by different authors and thus has different versions and endings. Children need to see the many different ways to tell a story. Artists and writers, like children, have differing experiences of the same idea.
5. Wonder together and allow for interruptions. Stop talking and just let your child wonder about something. Many times a story brings up random ideas in the course of reading together. This is the magic of the experience. Stop the nonsense of having a specific goal. The relational process of wondering together sometimes takes on a life of its own. Get comfortable with letting your child think about lots of different ideas. This sometimes means saying, “Hmmm. I don’t know. What do you think?” or, “Let’s keep wondering about that.” If you don’t stop and listen to how your child is processing information, you might miss some ripe moments for learning.
6. Create a new book routine. When a book is new, you might want to examine the cover and make guesses about what it will be about. Flip through the pictures and think out loud with your child. What do the pictures tell you? Read the book. Did the words and pictures match? Things are not always as they seem. You can literally teach your child not to judge a book by the cover, even if sometimes you can.
7. Keep a permanent marker on hand for your home library. Rather than ban a book, you can cross out words that don’t work for you. Your child can be part of the process and learn about the power of words in the process of making edits.
The truth is, despite best intentions, censoring themes usually backfires. Kids choose the themes they choose and it is never as simple or complicated as what adults might think.
Skip the worrying about content. Focus on the journey of reading, thinking and being together.