What makes a children’s book ‘good’ or ‘bad’?

Today’s blog post has been inspired by my university studies. I’m studying children’s literature and at the moment focusing on what people consider to be good or bad books for children.

For my own child, I often pick or suggest to her books that I read and enjoyed when I was young, such as the works of Roald Dahl. I’d like to introduce her to Enid Blyton next and I’ll probably recommend Jacqueline Wilson as she gets a bit older. As she gets into her teenage years, I’ll encourage her to read some classics, like Austen, Bronte and some more modern works like Orwell but I wonder how much she’ll ignore me and read contemporary books instead. How much should this really bother me?

One thing that’s really surprised me in my studies is discovering that Dahl and Blyton, the very books I’d consider to be very good books to suggest to my own child, were seen as having low literary and moral standards pre-1960. Debates from the time about whether these books might be bad influences on our children remind me a great deal of the debates over the influence of violence in films and video games that have been going on for the past couple of decades (and show no signs of ending).

On first thinking about it, I couldn’t really think of a book that I would disapprove of. But now I’ve realised that’s not quite true at all. I often steer her towards books that might provide her with more of a challenge, not wanting her to get something too simple. I might tell her and myself that it’s because I think she’ll get bored of something too simple but is it really because I’m drawn to the idea that every reading experience she has should be an improving one? I have once or twice surreptitiously gotten rid of books that I’ve found to have grammar or spelling mistakes, while despairing of whichever publishing company let these through the editing process.

Am I worrying too much about what my child reads? Or is this exactly what, as a parent, I should be doing? Isn’t it my responsibility to make sure she’s getting the best experiences possible? I find it difficult at the best of times to find a balance between guiding her in the right direction (or at least what I perceive as the right direction) and letting her be independent. She’s a very strong-willed person and I’m happy with that, especially as it took me years of purposefully forcing myself to be more assertive to be even slightly sure of the choices I make. But I know that being strong-willed might lead to a tendency of not listening to other opinions, of being blinkered to your own view of the world which you are convinced is the correct one. I definitely don’t want this for my daughter. Again, it seems to be a matter of balance.

I’m very interested to get opinions from other parents (and indeed anyone who chooses books for children in any capacity) on this. Do you choose books for your children or just let them pick whatever they like? Do you attempt to steer them in certain directions regarding what they read? Are there any books (aimed at children) that you would not let your children read or at least would strongly disapprove of?

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