By Eleah Boyd
According to statista.com, there are somewhere between 500,000 and one million newly published book titles every year in the United States. With the cost-effectiveness of small print runs and digital book publishing, self-publishing is easier than ever. Anyone with an idea and a computer can disseminate his opinions far and wide. And they are doing it. Our libraries are overflowing with new, un-reviewed, and unedited titles, and the popularity of digital book sales ensures instantaneous access to all. Our children are exposed to all of this at younger and younger ages. Recently the crisis has intensified because librarians and teachers who should feel a responsibility to help guide children to age-appropriate literature have become champions of the inappropriate and obscene.
Most people actually do judge a book by its cover and its accompanying flap text. However, unlike a packet of cigarettes, books come without warning labels. Their covers can be deceptive and conceal “adult” themes dressed up in family-friendly attire. Sadly, there are too few guards at the literary gate to defend the minds and hearts of our children. In a recent Lifesite News article, Anna Anderson commented on the discrepancy in the literary system: “The burden is first placed on children to bring up these sensitive topics with their parents if they had seen or read something they were confused or even embarrassed by.” It isn’t fair, but this is where we are. So what is our next line of defense?
Stop, Drop, and Roll
Just like we learned as children to STOP, DROP, and ROLL in case of fire, we need to empower this generation to know that when confronted with an objectionable book, they can stop reading, close the book, and talk to someone they trust.
One brave young man named Michael shared with UFI an experience he had when he found himself in possession of questionable material after a friend approached him with a story she had been reading. She was so disturbed by the contents of this book that she needed help processing her feelings about the contents. The story, marketed for teens, left her bewildered, and she wanted to know what her friend thought of it. After reading just a few pages of the book Gryphons, by Alyx Jae Shaw, Michael realized this was something he did not want any part of. He went to an online retailer and found nothing but glowing reviews. Shaken, Michael took the book to his grandmother. She too was dumbfounded by the lack of explicit content warnings. She described it as “pornography masking as an adventure story.” At first, Gryphons appears to be just another poorly written sci-fi/fantasy novel, but not far into the story, the reader is hit with graphic, deviant sexual content. Fortunately, this young man’s gut reaction was followed by the appropriate measures and he was not left alone to process his feelings and his questions.
What is being sold? Are you buying it?
At every age, our children are exposed to ideas and concepts which may be inappropriate and unfamiliar. A well-written narrative may, at least initially, seem compelling or exciting, and titillate the senses. This draws children in, but there may also be hidden dangers. Children need to learn to recognize the sometimes-dangerous messages they are being peddled through literature. There is protection that comes with developing discernment. Adults can start this process early by teaching their children to answer some basic questions about the stories they read, such as:
- How did what you read/heard make you feel?
- What do you think this book is about?
- What is real and what is pretend in this book?
- Who are the antagonist and the protagonist (the good guys and the bad guys) in this book?
- What does the protagonist believe and what is he or she doing about it?
- What do these themes tell you about the author?
- What feels authentic (good) about this book? What doesn’t?
Model and Teach Self-Advocacy
In addition to teaching our children to discern between good and bad content in books, they need to understand that they have a choice in the media they consume. They should never feel forced to read content that makes them uncomfortable, even when it has been given to them by an adult. Teaching children self-advocacy from a young age will give them the confidence they need to speak up for themselves when something doesn’t feel quite right. Child and Family Psychologist, Dr. Gail Gross, explains, “When your child is young, you do most of the advocating for him. You speak up on his behalf at his preschool, you interpret his aches and pains to the nurses at the doctor’s office, and you step in when necessary to help your toddler son negotiate turns on the playground swings. Eventually, however, all children grow up and must learn to fend for themselves. Learning to self-advocate during childhood is a skill that can help your child throughout his high school and college years, in relationships, and in his career.”
Armed and Ready
We won’t be there every time our children are confronted with objectionable reading material, but we can arm them with the tools they need to respond appropriately. We can help our children develop the power of discernment so they can recognize and avoid harmful messages. We can also empower them to advocate for their right to choose what they will take into their minds. But most of all, we can foster relationships of trust so that our children will know to whom they can turn when they are confused or disturbed.
Michael was fortunate. He had someone he knew he could turn to for help and advice. He had been taught to discern the good from the bad. And he had learned to stand up not only for himself but for his friend. It’s up to us to make sure we give our kids the skills and resources they need to protect themselves, and, in the process, help others as well.
Eleah Boyd is in the final semester of her Marriage and Family Studies degree at Brigham Young University-Idaho. She has been married to her husband, Robert, for over 26 years and they have 5 children. As a little girl, Eleah dreamed of a large family, but the death of their first child- and subsequent infertility and health problems- made her dreams feel impossible. In time, the Boyd family grew through the miracle of 3 adoptions, and 2 medically fragile pregnancies. Those early experiences of desperately wanting a family has driven home the essential role that the family plays in the individual, the community, and the world. Eleah is always on the lookout for ways to support and encourage healthy family connections.