‘What should I let my kids read?’: Guiding our young readers

By Christina Eberle, OSV News

When people discover I have a master’s degree in children’s literature, they tend to corner me with one impossible question: “What books should I let my kids read?”

These are primarily loving, caring parents with the best of intentions. They’ve been hearing, however, that most of today’s popular Young Adult (YA) novels include immoral characters, inappropriate situations or gratuitous vice, and they are looking for some Catholic literary guru to pronounce the “safe” YA titles that won’t corrupt young readers through subtle seductions.

Christina Eberle has a master of arts in children’s literature. Her young adult fantasy novel, “Brio” (published under her pen name “Chris Cross” in February 2022), is available on Amazon.

As a parent and an author, I do sympathize, and I am quick to point out that some Catholic-specific YA literature resources do exist. The Catholic Writer’s Guild has its YA “seal of approval” list; more than a dozen curated blogs (such as Catholic Teen Books) likewise have indie titles to recommend; and, of course, Our Sunday Visitor has options for young readers, too.

Parents should be warned, however, that — without discrediting those resources — such exclusively Catholic options will never fully address their concerns, nor best serve the children who will, inevitably, become adults. Preventing them from choosing books on their own may then prove to have been a grave disservice to their growth, maturity and judgment.

Instead of asking which books we should PERMIT our children to read, parents would do well to wonder: “How can I help my kids better discern what to read, themselves?”

When I was a teenager, one of the best things my dad ever did for me was to read the same books I’d brought home and then discuss them with me. He’d listen to my thoughts and share his own, casually pointing out what he found good and bad, positive and pernicious. He was curious before he was critical and, in this way, he subtly validated my ability to choose books while also teaching me to hone my standards.

My dad would never disparage my preferences outright, only critiquing stories after he’d read them and never belittling my own thoughts. As a prolific and more experienced reader, he helped me to interpret the subtler elements that I didn’t yet have the maturity to decipher on my own. I knew how to read, of course — but my father taught me how to see what I was reading, in fullness.

When parents are too quick to negatively judge a book based solely on form, not content, children aren’t being taught to judge rightly or well. Worse, when we dismiss our reader’s preferences outright, we too may miss out on something that shines with the beauty, goodness and truth we want them to encounter.

Teenagers are pictured reading a book together at their Maryland home. (OSV News photo/CNS file, Paul Haring)

I know a parent who rejected Kelly Barnhill’s fantasy novel, “The Girl Who Drank the Moon,” because the back cover copy mentioned magic and therefore could only be a gateway to the occult. (Tolkien and Lewis sob from their graves!) Another parent frowned upon Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novels, “Boxers and Saints,” believing them to be “low art” that mocked the Catholic Church — the tragic irony being that Barnhill and Lang are both faithful Catholics and award-winning authors. They’re quite brilliant at presenting timeless Gospel truths in richly poetic ways, but — much like Jesus’ parables — the truth is folded within the storytelling: you must unwrap the prose before you can receive it.

So, my advice to concerned parents is to take a breath, and then take a page out of my dad’s book: read along with your young readers. If you haven’t the time for that, you can still encourage them to discuss what they’re reading. What’s it about? Who’s their favorite character and why? How do they think the story will end? A parent’s genuine interest will mean the world to them, and their passion and questions will be met with insight and guidance. This is how we leave the door open for future conversations where, over time, our young readers will know how to recognize wheat from chaff.

Christina Eberle earned her Master of Arts in children’s literature in 2010. Her young adult fantasy novel, “Brio” (published under her pen name “Chris Cross” in February 2022), is available on Amazon.

Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

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