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Saying “No” to Books

How to react when your advanced reader chooses a title that’s inappropriate

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You've spent years nurturing your child's love of reading, starting with those delicious early days on your lap, patting the bunny. These days, he's reading well above grade level, savoring the adventures of Harry Potter and The Hobbit. He's now able to read just about anything, and that's been a source of unqualified pride and delight for both of you.

Until the day your 11 year old tells you he's heard Stephen King's Bag of Bones is the greatest book. You know it's way too mature for him, will scare him out of his wits, and keep both of you up for nights to come. Or until the time your 12-year-old daughter insists that Danielle Steele is just the best author, the babysitter told her so. At these moments, you are asking yourself why the library, the bookstore, or at least the school library doesn't have one of those rating systems for books the way theaters do for movies. A simple "R" on the cover would let you off the hook. How do you say "no" to a book after all those years of insisting that reading was the most valuable skill he'd ever acquire?

Not to worry. Not only can you say it, but you should. "Not every book is for every child," says Pat Scales, author of Teaching Banned Books and a middle-school librarian for 28 years. "It is perfectly okay to say 'no' to some books."

Even necessary, she insists, when you have a prepubescent advanced reader on your hands. "One of the biggest mistakes I see both parents and teachers making is thinking that gifted children or avid readers can handle anything. They can't," says Scales. "Some of the most gifted readers are the most immature children I have ever met."

So that's the why. What about the how? "Keep it positive, keep the conversation going and offer other, better options," says Larra Clark, a spokeswoman for the American Library Association.

Easy for her to say — she doesn't know your child. How do you make 'no' into a positive statement? How do you deflect the arguments of your very advanced reader — who also happens to be a very advanced debater? In fact, you're pretty certain he'll turn into a champion defender of the First Amendment the moment he senses you don't like his choice.

Try these strategies:

  • Accentuate the positive. "I would never say 'no' exactly," says Scales. "That can turn the book into forbidden treasure. I'd say, 'That's a good book, but knowing you, you'd like this other one better.'" That tactic raises your child's curiosity, redirects his focus, and also shows how much you care about him. "There's not a kid in the world — or an adult for that matter — who doesn't feel good when told that someone, especially a parent, is thinking about him and what he likes," says Scales.
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  • Zero in on what he likes. Figuring that out is both easier and harder than it sounds. It's not always the author or the overall subject. "More often than not, it's the emotional content that captures kids, and parents sometimes miss that," Scales says. "He may like a book about the Revolutionary War, for example, not because it's about war, but because the story is really about the relationship between two brothers. Once you identify the emotional hook, you can find other books about that issue."
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  • Check out the books. Check out reviews, book covers, and publishers' Web sites for information on reading levels, as well as the age level for the content, and see our advice on choosing books. The reading level cues you in to the vocabulary and language issues; the age level gives you the experts' rating on how old kids should be before they tackle the content. Be on the lookout for certain prizes and awards — the Newbery Award, for example, guarantees a consensus among experts that these books are terrific choices for any child up to the age of 13, and the Printz Award covers top young-adult choices. For more suggestions, see our collection of booklists.
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  • Know the authors. Once your child finds a favorite author, she'll probably want to read every volume that writer ever penned. That makes the search for new books easier for a time, but keep a watchful eye on the titles he chooses. Some writers cross over into adult material. Elementary-school favorite Judy Blume, for example, also wrote Wifey, definitely adult material. Author Carl Hiaasen published Hoot, a hit with the 9-to 12-year-old set, but his other books, from Strip Tease to Basket Case, are adults-only fare.
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  • Offer to share. When your child insists on reading something that gives you the willies, consider this sneaky, but often effective tactic. "Tell your child that you've been wanting to read that book, and so why don't you do it together?" says Scales. "Most often, that will be a turn-off, and she'll move on to something else."

 

What if she doesn't? What if she still wants to read Wifey or Stephen King? Then there are only two choices left. "You always have the right to set limits and simply say, 'I'm sorry, but I don't want you reading that book at your age,'" says Scales. Or, she suggests, treat it as one of those rare opportunities to explore values and issues that you didn't know, up until this very moment, your child was ready for. "In the end, I have great confidence in children," says Scales. "They often know what they are ready for, even though you didn't recognize it yourself yet. When that happens, I suggest to parents that they do read it together, talk about the issues together, and grow together. That can be the most surprising and best experience of all."

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