“Okay, you three . . .”
I’m at the library with my children, launching into my usual pep talk for the three-out-of-four who are solo readers. The toddler’s already happily pawing through the board books. She doesn’t need this little motivational speech.
“No computer games until after you’ve picked out your books to take home. And I want some good stuff in there, too. For every comic book or graphic novel, you need one chapter book and one nonfiction book. I don’t want to see a whole huge pile of . . . what does your teacher call them, again?”
“Cotton candy books.”
“Right. Not too many cotton candy books. Now, off you go!”
It wasn’t always this way. I used to let them bring home whatever they wanted from the library.
Who cares what they read, I thought, as long as they’re reading?
But after years of paying overdue fines on an unrelenting stream of gross-out comic books, Disney princess/Marvel superhero spin-offs, and Lego catalogs encyclopedias, I gradually came to the realization that I actually do care — very, very much — about the kinds of books they cram into their impressionable young skulls.
Books are powerful things, after all. They have the power to pry open minds and completely rearrange what’s inside them. Books helped to shape me into the person I am today. Books are helping to shape them into the people they will become.
Saying, Who cares what they read, as long as they’re reading? isn’t, ultimately, all that different from saying, Who cares what they’re putting in their mouths, as long as they’re getting enough calories? or, Who cares that they’re running naked through the neighbor’s yard, as long they’re playing outside?
I care, that’s who. I can’t help caring. I’m their mother.
I want them to read books that (and pardon me for cribbing shamelessly from the Eerdmans website here) “are honest, wise, and hopeful; books that delight with their storyline, characters, or good humor; books that inform, inspire, and entertain.”
Unfortunately, those kinds of books can sometimes be a hard sell to my young readers.
I experienced this firsthand recently when I tried to persuade my ten-year-old to read the juvenile biography of an eighteenth-century scientist. She loves science; she loves history. I figured it would be a great fit for her.
Three pages in, she put it down with an air of finality.
“What’d you think?” I asked her, as if I didn’t already know.
“Not really my thing,” she said. “It’s kind of . . . boring.”
“Well, okay,” I countered. “So it starts out a little slow. But you really should keep reading. It gets better later on.”
“Like, are there epic dragon battles?” she asked, looking newly interested.
“Sorry, no. No epic dragon battles.”
“Oh,” she said, and was gone.
I tell you: some days, my life feels like a 1990s-era Iron Kids Bread commercial.
Like the mom in that corny vintage ad, I’m always looking for good stuff to share with my kids that will satisfy both sets of discriminating tastes. I want books that make them laugh out loud on road trips without grossing me out later when they quote them at the dinner table. Books that expand their horizons — deeply into history, broadly into human experience — without shattering their youthful innocence. Books that give them the *ahem* earthy silliness and “epic dragon battles” they crave but that also nurture them intellectually and spiritually.
In short, I’m looking for those all-too-elusive, beautifully crafted, clever, wonderful books that manage to squeeze in both the ice cream and the broccoli.
And — every once in a while — I find one that’s a hit with the whole family. Cowboy and Octopus. The Story of Ferdinand. Bink and Gollie. The Book of Three. El Deafo. The Rainbow Goblins. A Long Way from Chicago. Children of the Forest. How to Train Your Dragon. Roger Is Reading a Book.
This last and latest treasure has been our favorite Eerdmans book of this year so far, and I love it every bit as much as my kids do.
It’s a regular and exuberant addition to our evening story time — a picture book that’s slyly funny, with jazzy, high-energy illustrations and a simple, noisy text that celebrates good-hearted neighborliness and the infectious joy of literacy.
It is also, like many tightly written picture books, over in about a minute and a half.
(We have, on occasion, been known to read it two or three times in a row, which I’ve never minded.)
But when, after twice or thrice or even ten times through, we do put the book down, the hunt — my everlasting quest to find books we all like while keeping the cotton candy monsters at bay — begins all over again.
* * *
About Rachel in Review:
Life for this kid lit enthusiast and working mother of four can be messy. Confusing. Painful. Funny. Breathtakingly beautiful.
Enter the Eerdmans books. So, so many of our books, whether they’re bedtime books for babies or coming-of-age novels for young adults, seem to have a single uncannily common quality about them: they just fit. These wise, wonderful books somehow manage to tie into — and by so doing, help me sort out — the knotty complexities of life as I actually experience them.
Thank you Rachel, I am feeling the same way as we enter summer, my son is a very good reader and I want to turn him on to more than just Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Big Nate. I like your rules, I may have to borrow a few for him.
I really admire the skill and ingenuity of writers like Jeff Kinney (Wimpy Kid) and — the long-time favorite in our house — Dav Pilkey (Captain Underpants). Those books are incredibly well done for what they are, and like all tasty treats, I think they’re great in moderation — so long as they remain part of a balanced literary diet. It’s lovely to know I’m not alone in feeling this way!