Guiding children and book choices

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 September, 2012, 9:20am

Today's children continue to astonish me with their maturity, no matter what age they are. One example is the reading preferences of young adults, which I learned about from my friends' children during my summer holiday in Canada.

I have been recommending parents read aloud Mary Norton's
The Borrowers to the six to 10-year-old crowd, but it turns out that my friends' eight-year-olds are already breezing through
Harry Potter and
The Hunger Games, two young adult fiction series more appropriate for children over 10.

My friends were nonchalant about their children reading such macabre tales, although they wouldn't allow them to watch the movie versions of these stories due to their graphic visual scenes.

The boy who recently read
The Hunger Games also effortlessly ploughs through three books a day. When I asked about his favourite author, he didn't hesitate to name Anthony Horowitz.

Horowitz is known for a series of spy novels about a boy named Alex Rider. The murder, intrigue and evil villains in this series are no different from the plots of adult spy thrillers, except the lead character is 14.

My first reaction is that Alex Rider is more sophisticated than Ramona Quimby, Jacob Two-Two and Encyclopedia Brown from stories I read when I was eight.

As parents, when do we step in and tell our children what they can and cannot read? And who are we to say what content is appropriate or inappropriate for our child's age?

For starters, we can all agree that children should not be permitted to read novels that are sexually explicit or extremely violent.

But when we consider the slippery slope argument, I can't help but wonder whether parental guidance extends to also banning books that offend our personal taste?

For example, a number of my friends roll their eyes when discussing their daughters' adoration for Barbara Park's
Junie B. Jones series. Widely popular for children just starting to read chapter books, it is written in the first person through the eyes of an ill-mannered six-year-old, complete with poor grammar and "kiddie" vocabulary.

The following excerpt from
Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus is typical of the language that can be found in this series of books.

"I used red. But then a mistake happened. I made my JUNIE too big and there wasn't any room left for my B. And so I had to squish it very teeny at the bottom. 'I hate this stupid dumb circle!' I hollered," writes Park.

We don't want our children to emulate the behaviour of naughty Junie in the same way that we fear our children will be negatively influenced by the violence of
The Hunger Games.

But one of the tenets of reading with children is to let them take the lead. When they choose the book, they will be more engaged. This will hopefully improve their interest in reading, and lead to more of it.

Perhaps we just need to accept that our children are growing up faster than our generation did (and my theory for why this is the case can extend to many columns).

This way, we will be more relaxed when we see that they are choosing to read some of the same stories we have read, even if they are reading them at an earlier age than us.

If 40 is the new 30 among my girlfriends, then it seems that, for the new generation of children, seven is the new 11.

Then again, there's no harm in subtly guiding our children towards a greater variety of books, or ones that we ourselves love, or believe are good for them.

After all, we hone our craft of manipulation-in-the-guise-of-guidance in all aspects of our children's lives, from what they eat to what hobbies they take up.

Annie Ho is chairwoman of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong a non-profit organisation devoted to improving children's literacy through reading aloud to them and providing easy access to the best children's books for underserved communities in Hong Kong