Yes, I said, “I hate that stupid book.” Don’t get me wrong, I am a book lover at heart. I’m always reading. I have read at stop lights, while walking down the street, and (embarrassingly) while half-heartedly playing a board game. I still have a 5th grade report card that declares, “Sarah might gain more from the lesson at hand if she didn’t always have her nose in a book.” Sorry Mr. Marino.

Because I aspire to help nurture the next generation of bookworms, I am also always reading to my child, aiming to build his pre-literacy skills and vocabulary. Boy is it working! My three-and-a-half-year-old is astoundingly articulate. New words and phrases appear on a daily basis. Beside the aforementioned “hate” and “stupid,” other gems I can attribute to kid’s books (think of well-loved authors: Kevin Henkes, Judith Viorst, Robert Munsch, and Lauren Child) are: “You’re mean!” “You’re not my friend,” “Go away!” and, “This is boring.”

itsabookAs much as we don’t want our children using foul or rude language, bad words abound in children’s literature. I recently perused the anti-technology story, It’s a Book, and found it hilarious. One page reads: “Can it text? Blog? Scroll? Wi-fi? Tweet?” “No…it’s a book.” But I wouldn’t read it to my little one since at the end one character calls the other a jackass. I don’t want to go there, even though he justifiably was…a donkey. In many tales, the subject matter isn’t so great either. How about the threats of corporal punishment in Bedtime for Frances or actual hitting with a stick in The Story of Ping?

Underlying messages in the stories themselves can also be questionable. Online, I found an interview by Madeleine Brand of NPR fame with children’s author, Laurel Snyder in which they discuss their most hated children’s books. Three titles are vilified for their twisted slants on the mother-child relationship: The Runaway Bunny (mother who can’t let go), Love You Forever (stalker-mother who REALLY can’t let go), and the biggest stinker of them all, The Giving Tree (mother co-dependently sacrifices everything she has, is left a shadow of her former self, and steadfastly maintains that she’s happy about it). They do have a point.

Just tonight I read the classic The Cat in the Hat with new eyes. They saw: Creepy cat in weird hat walks in on two legs, brings unwanted friends, trashes the place, cleans-up to cover his tracks, then leaves and doesn’t seem to want the mom to know about any of it. “What would you do if your mother asked you?” Indeed—that fish in the pot is the only voice of reason!

I am not suggesting that you stop reading to your child, or even that you stop reading these very books. On the contrary, I maintain that reading aloud is one of the most important things you can do. However, you might want to preview books before reading them to your child. Knowing the topic and text is a good preventative measure. Sometimes we wreak havoc by reading books to children before they are developmentally due. As well-loved as Where the Wild Things Are is, I confess I have yet to read it to my own boy. Knowing your child, and how they may react to depictionscat-in-the-hat (however benign) of larger-than-life monsters, is another good ounce of prevention. As fellow parenting educator Pam Leo said recently, “Why invite home problems you don’t even have? If your child isn’t afraid of the dentist, leave that book at the library!” Sound advice.

If you are like me, you won’t have time to pre-read every book that lands on your family bookshelf, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it. You can always alter the words on the fly, use even the worst storyline to start a rich conversation, or insert a bit of parent wisdom. I have asked questions such as, “What do you think that girl is feeling?” or, “That poor tree doesn’t seem happy—what could the boy have done differently?” I’ve made comments like, “’Hate’ is a very strong word,” and “That wasn’t a very kind thing to say.” Earlier this evening, I heard myself implore, “You could always tell this mother about anything—even that crazy cat!”

The Read-Aloud Handbook, by Jim Trelease
Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever, by Mem Fox

First Published in Parent & Family Jan/Feb 2012 issue