Why Reading Matters

teen reading in a libraryRecent years have brought about a massive increase in book policing, particularly for young readers.  This can be as overt as legislation—Texas Law HB900, for example, though it is currently under review and cannot be enforced—or as subtle as requiring additional steps to access to certain books (parental permission, making books available only in certain grade levels, creating limited access "special collections" etc).  While there's lots of argument over what is or is not an appropriate level of oversight for young people's reading habits, there seems to be a major voice missing from the conversation: the kids themselves.  Legislators, parent groups, schools, librarians, professional groups, authors, publishers, even us booksellers get our say, but what do kids actually think about the books they read and how those books impact them?

There is some fascinating new research out by Gay Ivey (literacy professor at University of North Carolina Greensboro) and Peter Johnston (professor emeritus of literacy at the University at Albany).  They studied four classrooms of eighth graders over two years (new eighth graders each year, and also following some past participants into high school for further data).  In these classrooms, students were given access to a wide range of books written for young adults and time each day to read and, notably, to discuss whatever books they wished, but they were not required to do so.  Most of these students reported reading very little before the program began, which, as the researchers noted, is very typical of teens in general.  Once they were given the freedom to read and discuss whatever they wanted, however, their participation skyrocketed and kids were reading both in school and out of it.  The books they chose varied widely, but many were "those that don’t shy away from the complexities of being human or the different ways of being human in a diverse society."  In short, the kind of books often being banned or challenged.

teen reading in a librarySo kids want to read the kinds of books some adults are concerned about them reading.  All right, in that case, perhaps it makes sense that adults are concerned.  But what exactly is it that those adults are concerned about?  According to the American Library Association, one of the most commonly cited reasons is "to protect our children from sexually explicit material*," with other reasons including depictions of drug use, profanity, abuse, and content regarding race and racism.  However, the Ivey & Johnston study found that "students described characters’ questionable decisions as cautionary tales, not narratives to live into, a concept they found laughable, plausible only to someone who hadn’t read the book. The books helped them to see the consequences of problematic decisions and language."  The students in the study reported being better, happier people as their reading increased, a viewpoint that was corroborated by parents and teachers.  Reading, they said, "helped them become more empathetic, less judgmental, more likely to seek multiple viewpoints, [and] morally stronger...They reported improved self-control, and building more and stronger friendships and family relationships."

But it wasn't just the reading itself.  One of the key takeaways of the study was how much students wanted to discuss what they were reading, to pick apart the lessons and motivations and really understand what was happening.  They sought outside input and multiple perspectives from teachers, parents, and peers.  Parents in the study reported that these conversations were often welcome entry points to complex and sometimes fraught issues like sex, domestic abuse, drug use, and more.  Having the ability to discuss these things in the context of a book made them easier and more accessible for both parents and students to raise questions and offer advice without feeling targeted or embarrassed.

So this reading month, as we encourage young readers to expand their horizons and try out new authors, genres, and literary challenges, maybe we should also be including more space to check in with them.  What better opportunity to answer questions and challenge assumptions than in the context of a book?  Below are some of the frequently banned and challenged titles that are also high-interest books, especially for teen readers.  How many have you read?


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*This particular quote originated from a statement by the county board of Front Royal, Virginia, regarding the Samuels Public Library.  The books of concern here (more than 150 titles) included "And Tango Makes Three, Pride Colors, Prince and Knight, I Love You Because I Love You, Plenty of Hugs, and other LGBTQIA+ titles."  While I can't personally attest to the lack of sexually explicit content in each and every one of those 150 titles, I can confirm that there are no depictions or descriptions of sexual acts of any kind in either And Tango Makes Three or I Love You Because I Love You.  I double checked.  Therefore, it seems likely that "sexually explicit," in many of these book bans, is simply a euphemism for "inclusion of a character (or illustration of a character) who is either stated or implied to identify somewhere on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum."  That, I'm afraid, is a whole other article.  —Caitlin M.