We Need to Talk About Your Kid’s Book Diet

A girl curled up in a chair reading a book.

Lost in a good book! Rae Black

Have you thought about your kid’s diet recently? Not their eating diet, though a balanced one is equally as important, but their reading diet. What are they reading, or, more specifically, who are they reading about? Who are the protagonists on their bookshelves?

Take a look at their shelves, and look at their books that feature a human (or a humanoid). How many of those main characters resemble your child? Chances are that a fair amount do, especially if your child is of primarily Western European descent.

It’s not a bad thing to see yourself represented in your reading choices. Representation matters, and reminds you that you belong. However, if you’re only ever reading about yourself, or someone like you, is it easy to believe that others who may not look like you belong as well?

Think about the magic of reading. Books and other written works allow you to take journeys to places beyond your own everyday experiences. Books are TARDISes—they are bigger on the inside and let you travel to planets and times beyond your current reality. Books are the mutant gene—they get inside you and transform you, oftentimes leaving you forever changed. Books give you this power to go and experience new things. Why on earth would you not use that power to its full advantage? It’s a bit like receiving the chance to make a magic wish, and then using that wish to have a day exactly like the one you had the day before.

As the parents, guardians, siblings, teachers, relatives, and/or friends of younger geeks, we have a rare chance to be positive influences in their lives. So, I encourage you: be your kid’s reading dietitian.

Here’s how.

Step One: Stop gendering books.

Seriously. Raise your arm and make a scout sign, put your hand on your heart, or do whatever pose you prefer for taking an oath and repeat the following: “I will stop referring to books as ‘boys’ books’ and ‘girls’ books.'” First, there are plenty of kids out there who are gender nonbinary. Second, declaring a certain book to be suitable for only one part of the population is pretty harmful to the population at large, especially if it’s done with a tone that indicates a feeling that the book is lesser. I’ve written on this happening somewhat with Legos and fast food toys. I know this won’t be the last time I say this (though I wish it was), but stop gendering things that are irrelevant to gender!

I know there are some people out there who may be exclaiming at this point, “But what if my son reads about princesses?” So flipping what?! Why is this a bad thing? Horror of horrors, he might learn about a matriarchal ruling system? He might identify a girl as a sympathetic character? What does it say about us as a society if we are discouraging male-identifying children to read about anyone who isn’t their same gender?

Step Two: Reread old favorites and preread new books when able.

This is especially important if you’re selecting a book menu for a geekling reading way above their grade level. Understanding and appreciating a book requires more than just reading comprehension.

Additionally, the available social vocabulary has evolved, even over the past 20 years. You’d be surprised at what you don’t remember from old favorites. I was very excited when I saw an old favorite book from childhood (In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord) in my kiddo’s book order catalog for a great price. Fortunately, I decided to reread it before making it available to the kiddo, as she and I probably need to have a discussion on how words have evolved before she dives in.

Now, I’m not saying you should censor everything they read, especially as kids mature. Just be aware of the general content of a story, especially if it’s a book you’re providing. Having a working knowledge of the book will make it easier to discuss the book with your geekling, as well, creating the opportunity for bonding and greater literary understanding.

Step Three: For a diverse book menu, find diverse authors.

The reason I loved In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson so much as a child was because it provided a protagonist and story that I hadn’t encountered anywhere else. The author based some of the story off her own feelings and experiences of moving from China to the United States when she was a child.

If you find yourself stumped for inspiration, try browsing the shelves at a library or bookstore, or ask a librarian or bookseller. Oddly enough, people who work at book-dealing establishments tend to really like the written word. It’s almost like they were drawn to it or something.

Step Four: Make the books available to your kid.

Yeah, I know, it seems like a fairly obvious step, but this one may be the hardest of them all. Kids are fickle creatures. If you hand a kid a book and say, “Hey, you should read this. I think you’d like it,” and expect them to sit down and immediately read what they were given, then you are very optimistic.

See, kids are like adults and are not always in the mood for every book at any given time. Sometimes I want to read nonfiction, sometimes I want to read something brand new, and sometimes I want to read an old favorite. Kids operate the same way.

This is why we’ve implemented a “shared shelf” in our house. My spouse and I cleared a shelf in our living room, and we’ve made our kiddo aware that she’s welcome to read anything she finds on that shelf. As she gets older and more mature, we’ll keep opening up shelves until she has access to our whole library. At that point, it won’t just be us trying to find a varied reading diet for her, it will be all three of us doing it together.

Bon appetit, and happy reading!

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