A Question of Character

My daughter (7-and-a-half) has the auditory equivalent of a photographic memory. She could recite huge swaths of Mary Poppins and nailed Julie Andrews’ accent after just one viewing.  She had just turned four. She loves to try on accents, and can quickly mimic any dialect or lilt she hears.

Catherine plays with words and morphs them into new things the way other kids play with molding clay and action figures. She also likes to “become” the characters that she sees. For example, when she was five, we had to put away Cinderella because Catherine preferred to be the evil step sisters. The rest of the Princess stories followed suit … all shelved for months and months. It is one thing to take on those roles at home, playing in the tub or with your toys. It is quite another to replicate the scenes with/on your peers during play dates.

Now that Catherine is reading, she wants to do the same thing with the characters she discovers in books. She can instantly absorb, process, and repeat what she reads. She is reading well above grade level, in part because she loves words and stories and pushes herself to read “everything” she possibly can. She will lock on a word or phrase and repeat and repeat and repeat it until she has tested out all its possible uses and gauged every possible reaction to using them. It is both gratifying and terrifying.

As experts and teachers have told us – and as we have repeatedly observed – Catherine lacks the filters to understand what the rest of us consider basic social norms/acceptance. If someone laughs at potty talk, then it must be funny, and funny is good. If people are laughing, then they are happy. Isn’t it more fun to be happy? That is her logic. She cannot “automatically” recognize what is appropriate. On top of that, her brain doesn’t naturally have the ability to identify and react to everyday nonverbal signals or communication. She can’t read the facial expression of her best friend when it says “you’re invading my space” or “please stop saying that.” For most of us these kind of observations are instinctive (or have become that). Catherine is waiting for the most extreme reaction (verbal or nonverbal), because that is the cue that she has gone too far.

Several months ago, Catherine came home with a book catalog and a bunch of books circled. “Mom, can I buy these?” As you can imagine, we have more than a few books around the house and in my office. Still, we want Catherine to feel like she can have some independence from “Mom’s books” and create her own library. So we agreed to let her buy two books. One was a picture book about a princess, one was a chapter book for a very popular series. The first was completely predictable; the second was a surprise.

Given Catherine’s propensities, I was a little concerned about the chapter book because it is filled and illustrated with slapstick events and low-brow humor. These are not the people I would normally include in my reading community.  Still, I decided to think positive: this is a signal that Catherine was starting to select more challenging books. Hoorah!

She was so excited about that book and stayed up well past her bedtime reading it. She kept coming out of her room giggling, repeating the bathroom humor so that she could share it with us. Over the past several months, we’ve read other books – some Catherine picked at the library, some that come to me for the Reading Tub. I can’t tell you how many times my husband has asked “who writes this stuff?” and “do they really sell a lot of this crap?”

When I wear my parent hat, I can see his point. It seems that there are a lot of books for emergent and transitional readers that start with physical comedy and add in some lowbrow “jokes.” Some stir in poor spelling and grammar; and in a few, the path to a happy ending can be riddled with meanness and harmful pranks. Parents are frequently caricatures or victims. The characters in the starring roles talk a lot, and the majority of the text is conversation.

When I wear my literacy hat, I understand that these books have the “secrets” that can tip the scales in favor of reading (v. other activities). I grew up in a house with two uber-reluctant readers (my brothers). Had these books been around in the late 1960s/early 1970s, would they have reduced the daily struggles between parent and son about reading? Maybe. Probably. Would my dad, a devout Catholic and educator considered letting my brothers read these books in the interest of “progress”? I don’t know.

Wearing both hats, I rationalize that these books are just a phase. They are a stepping stone to helping kids become readers; that as they grow as readers they’ll find humor in other places and get hooked on richer stories.

This isn’t to suggest that these are the only choices. We read lots of different books, with lots of different stories.  Still, raises (for me at least) the question of character. How do you balance feeding a personally-motivated passion for reading with minimizing the impact of  people you hope don’t become her “friends”?

For now I sit at a crossroads. I want my daughter to keep picking books that get her excited about reading. I don’t want to police her selections, in part, because saying “no X books” achieves the opposite goal. I want her to enjoy all types of books; but I don’t want to shelter her, because books introduce her to worlds and people that stretch her imagination and help her decide things for herself. I want Catherine to be able to converse with her peers about the books “everybody” likes; but I don’t want her pulling some of those pranks or calling her classmates names.

We will do what we have always done: read together and talk about choices, feelings, and behavior. We’ll practice, practice, practice, whether it’s picking different words or acting out the scene in a different way. We will continue to balance her reading diet with other kinds of stories. And we will hope that she will find and connect with characters who help her grow and laugh and soar.

I’d love to hear your thoughts …

Sidebar. As I was putting the finishing touches on this post, this came across the reader this morning: 300s: Do the Right Thing: Series Nonfiction on Character in the School Library Journal.

22 responses to “A Question of Character

  1. Thanks, Jen, for the thoughtful response. I am so glad that young readers have a lot of options and can create all kinds of worlds. Who doesn’t like to be the “bad guy” every once in a while? And what better way to live that in a book? As you say, the key is for parents to remember that reading is a shared experience … it’s part of our job, at any age.

  2. I think this is an excellent and important post, Terry. The heart of it, of course, is: “How do you balance feeding a personally-motivated passion for reading with minimizing the impact of people you hope don’t become her “friends”?” It’s an interesting question for me. As a literacy advocate, I’ve always come down on this side of “let them read what makes them happy, and eventually they’ll move on.” But I’m not a parent, so it’s harder for me to see the other side. Something in the way that you phrased this, about people who become the reader’s “friends” made this aspect more real for me.

    I personally believe that the books that I read as a child helped to shape my moral code (along with parents, grandparents, church, etc., sure, but a very important piece in their own right). Some part of me still wants to emulate Sara Crewe’s response to adversity, and to have Anne Shirley’s sense of personal responsibility. Who would I be now, if I’d instead bonded with other types of books? Impossible to say.

    But what your post does suggest to me is yet another reason why it’s important for parents to continue to read the books that their children are reading. Because the only constructive answer I can think of to this dilemma is to let the the child read the books that engage her, but to also read and discuss the books, and compare negative behavior with positive behavior in other stories. Still a fine line (criticizing behavior in books that the child enjoys), but … it’s all I have. I’ll check back to see what other people think about this.

    Sorry for rambling on…

  3. Terry, I think you’ve chosen the balanced path. And I truly believe Catherine will make her own wise choices as she gets older.

    I also believe it is crucial for parents to have a wide open channel of communication with their kids. I tried to tell my son the truth as often as I could, and express my viewpoint without being condemnatory of his opposing one. I wanted him to believe that there was nothing he could not tell me. He knew when I didn’t approve of certain things in books- probably violence in his case more than toilet humour – but we discussed it, just as you are doing with Catherine. He’s 22 now, and he loves dark humour, while I love non-dark – but we both love humour in books, movies, poetry, stand up etc and it’s so fun to still share that passion and be able to discuss it. Yes, he still seems to be attracted to violence in his escapism, unlike his chicken mother, but he has never to my knowledge been violent or mean to other people in real life.

    I think Jen makes an important point when she mentions bonding with a book. I was groping towards that point in my review of Roadworks the other day, when I spoke of Tim’s obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine: ” Looking back, I think that obsession was one of the important stages in Tim’s pre-reading. Kids need books to love, just as much as they need soft toys or (gulp) trains called Thomas.” The secret is very much in the love. Catherine was so excited she stayed up past bedtime reading her new book. Tim wanted to hear and watch Thomas over and over because he loved it. Anne with an “e” was my friend, too – I loved those books, love them still, just as much as I loved some of the real people in my life.

    When you love books, any books, your are journeying along the path to the wonderful Kingdom of Reading! I am so glad your Catherine is on the path too. She’s a very lucky little girl.

  4. I love this post! You made me laugh when you said that you had to put away Cinderella because your daughter preferred to play the evil sisters! Sounds like you have a budding actress there. When you think about it, it’s probably is more fun to play the evil characters. I think you should enroll her in acting lessons right away! Here on Long Island, we have access to acting schools for children. I hope you do too. Maybe then she can separate the fantasy of acting from the reality of playing with friends. Either way, you definitely have a gifted and talented child on your hands.

    I do believe that we can use examples of poor behavior displayed by characters in children’s books as teaching tools. We can’t shield our children from negative behavior on the part of others, and books can spark some meaningful conversations about how to handle such realistic situations. How weird would it be if the setting of every picture book was Pleasantville?!

    I also like to surround my children with the very best books. It’s unfortunate that there really are some awful ones out there. Being that it’s so hard to get a book published, I’m surprised at the low quality of so many books. Fortunately, we’ve been able to find some really wonderful authors that my children love. My children are older now – 11 and 13, and I still help them to seek out the best authors. I know which ones I can trust on a consistent basis. So, if an occasional book slips through that isn’t so great, hey, it’s consistent with real life. Unfortunately, we often encounter people, places, and things that certainly do not constitute the best of the best. It’s the real world we live in.

    So, I’m sure your daughter’s taste in reading will grow with her. At this point, you should be dancing on cloud nine that she loves to read so much! It’s not easy being a parent. Be proud of the job you’ve done!

  5. This is SO interesting to me b/c this is exactly what I am experiencing right now!

    What can I say that Jen and Book Chook havent said already? They said what I would’ve said!!!!

    Thank you!

  6. Wouldn’t that be great! It would be such fun to reminisce about books we’ve read for a start. But to have the opportunity to share ideas and get inspired by everyone’s enthusiasm – I would just love it.

  7. Hi – I have a just-turned-seven reader. I’ve loved reading ever since I figured out how to do it, and I have read just about every kind of book there is. My brief .02:

    I do think some limits are good in that some issues (sex, drugs, violence) are just too old for young readers. Beyond that, I have to respect the adult that my child will become enough to let her read anything she wants to, and trust that in the years between now and then that we’ll be able to give her the good sense to filter the good from the bad.

    Even though she gets quite a giggle out of potty humor now, I’m pretty sure she’s not going to grow up into Beavis or Butthead.

  8. Thanks y’all for such thoughtful responses and support. I think it was Janelle over at Brimful Curiosities who recently talked about how parenting can feel so isolated. It doesn’t feel that way now … It’s good to know that odds are excellent that these characters will be comic relief and not part of her “forever” person.

    Dawn – Yes, she is quite the actress (and singer). We actually tried drama therapy as a way to help work through fantasy and reality. I highly recommend it for kids who are “very literal.” We’re hoping to engage her in community theater for similar reasons. Unfortunately, most places here want kids that are at least 8, usually 9.

    Helen – That’s an excellent point. There will be a time and place for more mature themes. By then, I’ll probably be wishing we were *still* reading some of these books.

    I was in a store yesterday and saw a plaque with a quote I had forgotten: We give our children two things: roots and wings. I know through books she can learn so much about herself and the world around her. When you read, you soar!

  9. Fabulous post, wonderful comments from everyone!
    My teenaged daughters read voraciously. Although I’m interested in what they read, I don’t actually care what they read – and I have never cared. I knew they would read the good stuff, so the not-so-quality stuff didn’t worry me. Sure enough, they’ve become more discriminating as they’ve gotten older – but even if they wanted to read nothing but paperback romances for a while, that would be okay with me. They’ll read anything and everything – cool!
    Strangely, as a librarian I find I care a bit more about what kids read – or rather, I feel a big responsibility. I believe absolutely in supplying kids with what they want to read, no matter how goofy and/or formulaic – one huge goal is to get them reading so that they will get better at it. And the better they get at it, the more they will enjoy it. And as they become more willing and skillful readers, that’s when I feel I need to push “the good stuff.” Because if I don’t, maybe no one will.
    So I promote the good and the not-so-good literature equally, just so long as all the titles have huge child appeal. Then, when kids are ready to move on from mediocre series to something more substantial and satisfying, they know where to find it – or at least who to ask for it!

  10. One important question that parents forget to ask themselves is “What do _I_ read?” Personally, when I am not reading YA lit, I’ll pick up Nora Roberts, not the latest National Book Award winner. Why should I force my children to read Newberys? While it is always important to discuss the content of the input children have, I am not as concerned about quality of literature. Some of my favorites, the books I would save from a burning building, are not literature. One thing I do hate is when parents push their children to read “more challenging” books. My son could read at a high school level in first grade, but everyone else was reading Captain Underpants, and that was what he liked, too. Reading Tub, you are WAY ahead of the game just by caring about this!

  11. What a great site! I am a children’s librarian and an artist/writer. I have often wondered about “evil characters” in kid lit, as mentioned above in reference to Cinderella. You rarely if ever see such characters (those without redeeming qualities)in picture books. In most picture books, if bad people exist, they always turn out to be okay, at least hopeful, in the end. Why is that? (Witches in Halloween stories, MAY BE the exception, but even then they usually end up being nicer that we first thought) In Cinderella, for example, her stepmother and sisters are horrid–nothing good to say about them except that they are so ridiculous, they’re often funny. Is it that young children can only accept evil in characters if the stories are “fantasy”? Most young readers of picture books mix “reality” and “fantasy” all the time. That is part of their make-up at that age. So, why are authors and publishers “afraid of” introducing bad people into picture books? I can see not making them too horrible for fear of scaring kids, such as Grimm’s Fairy tales might scare young children. But it is possible to introduce “bad” people (or dogs, or other animals representing people, etc.) who are not allowed to get their way in the story, so that children feel their own power–and what is wrong with that? These ‘evil characters’ such as those in Cinderella, can likewise be shown to be ridiculous, and therefore funny. Kids I think are looking to understand what is good and not good. Any comments? I’d appreciate it.

    1. That’s a very interesting question, Judy. I don’t think I looked at it on a picture book level. I have seen picture books that deal with “bad” people, like teaching kids about stranger danger; and picture books that show that police officers arrest “bad people,” but that’s about it. I would venture to say that the audience’s (short) attention span clashes with the sophistication of some of the content (not to mention parental comfort). The message would probably tend to be so direct that it would end up “sounding” heavy handed. Some, like a book about sexual predators for example, are probably not books educators can comfortably (or in some cases legally) share with wide audiences.

  12. Hi–thanks so much for your thoughtful response. I am not at all suggesting such heavy-handed themes for picture books. Basically, it’s a question of using “bad people/creatures” in the way that they are featured in countless fairy tales, such as Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, Little Red Riding Hood, Pinocchio, Snow White, etc. etc. etc. In all cases, the evil creature loses out in the end, giving the reader/listener the sense of satisfaction that “evil” can be overcome by good. Why is this not okay for picture books, those aimed I would say for four-six year-olds? As long as these characters get their just desserts and are shown to be weak, ridiculous, humorous, and/or silly? Are fairy tales the only venue for such “good and evil” stories? Perhaps it is the “once upon a time” aspect that makes them more appropriate, but why can’t we have “once upon a time” stories written now? Are fairy tales, also called folk tales, only those that are handed down through centuries of a particular culture? I have read that Wizard of Oz is considered a type of fairy tale, and yet it is relatively recent. So, anyway, my mind boggles. It is said that the audience for most fairy tales was for adults, and that the stories have been modified for children. Still, in that modified form, they play a pretty major role in literature for young children. Well, I will continue my inquiry through more research! Any thoughts on your part would of course be welcome. Thanks!

  13. Hmmm. Obviously I misunderstood your question. Kids do see that in fairy tales, and thanks to Disney, many of them are movies that 4 to 6 YOs watch. Is your question where are the non-fairy tale/folk tale “bad guys” (can be girls, too) in picture books? I can think of picture books for the 4 to 6 audience that show the consequence of an individual’s bad choices (e.g., No, David!) or inappropriate behavior (e.g., books on sharing where one child doesn’t want to share), but none that follow the character to the end (i.e., beyond the time out). Most of what I see in picture books is that the “bad guy” usually sees the error of their ways. For example, in Alley Oops, the bully learns why being a bully isn’t so great and becomes a good friend.

    We recently read an easy reader series where the bad-kid characters were so overblown they were more stereotypes than anything my child would recognize as a “real person.” They weren’t characters so changed their ways, and they ended up being the “class clown” character garnering lots of laughs from my 7YO.

  14. Hi–thanks for your email and the above reply. So, did the author intend the characters to be real or not? Did he/she get the response they expected? I think there is a difference between “archetypal” (sp?) characters and stereotypical characters. Stereotpyes, I am guessing, are characters that are meant to be “real” but collapse into tired, hackneyed and/or erroneous behaviors based on rumors and false impressions. The author hasn’t done the work to delve into human nature to make a fully individual person. Archetypal characters are meant to be extreme examples of either good or bad behaviors, so that the reader/listener can easily identify their roles. So, the story is plot-driven, and designed to be so. No one tries to psychoanalyze these characters, but they might be viewed as substitutes for famous people that the author chooses to lambaste, such as in Alice in Wonderland (to be read on different levels) I am clearly blabbering now…but I am thinking–why not have kids read a contemporary fairytale…wondering if anyone would publish it! (PS–I have written one! One of my “secret” reasons for all my questions! But now I have become interested in the broader topic)

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