Banning Books When Children Aren’t Reading

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The rise in book challenges and bans is disturbing for a number of reasons. In 2019, 566 books were challenged. That number has jumped to over 2500 in 2022, according to NPR. I don’t want to add to the spate of articles about this phenomenon except to say that the mark of a free society is that we mutually agree to protect the freedom of those who are saying things we don’t like. The arguments that those who are on the religious and cultural right use to challenge certain books can be used by others to challenge or ban the Bible and religious texts.

Instead, I want to address another aspect of the reading lives of our children that I do not hear mentioned–children are reading less, especially just for the fun of it. Fewer are cultivating the lifelong love of reading that carries so many benefits from being lifelong learners to greater empathy and expanded horizons. For example, in both 1984 and 2012, 53 percent of nine year olds read for fun every day. That number has dropped to 42 percent in 2020, according to a Pew Research Center article. Meanwhile the number of children who never read for fun has risen from 9 percent in 1984 to 16 percent in 2020.

This seems to me what we should be talking about.

Instead we are sending the message that books (at least some of them) are dangerous. We are de-funding libraries, where generations have learned to love reading, especially among those of low and moderate incomes. Instead of books having warm associations of bringing people together around the love of story, we are fighting about books. I suspect the kids have noticed.

While these are good reasons to re-consider our culture wars on books, it is also important that we pay attention to the ubiquitous presence of screens in children’s lives. Tweens and teens are spending seven to ten hours a day using online media. While part of this is educational, a good amount comes in various forms of social media or video gaming. Now isn’t some of this actually a good thing? We are reading when we are on the internet in at least some instances. Yet there are real questions as to whether this is changing the way we think, and particularly our ability to focus and concentrate for extended periods, important for solving complex problems, learning intricate processes, and following an extended argument. This article at Online College offers a balanced perspective on this question.

It seems to me that there are some good places where we can begin

  1. Agreeing on screen free-times in households. You can do anything you want that doesn’t involve a screen.
  2. Read aloud together. So much of the love of reading comes in shared time reading stories everyone loves.
  3. We need to find ways to stop opposing reading for comprehension and reading for fun. It seems that the fun of reading ought only be enhanced by understanding what we are reading. Too often, I hear that the focus of reading comprehension is for the passing of standardized tests. I don’t think it was always like this. I loved reading, and I did just fine on standardized tests.
  4. It also seems that reading education is often focusing on parts of texts rather than whole stories. A recent Atlantic article asks if this is part of the problem. Children love whole stories.
  5. It seems that we need to help children find the kinds of books they like to read and at the level where they are able to read, or perhaps stretching that just a bit with something they are really interested in. Librarians are great at this and ought to have all the resources they need to do this.
  6. Perhaps we also need to consider our own reading habits. Children are great imitators. My mom loved to read and often we’d either read or talk about what we were reading at lunch times.
  7. Do we have books around the home and do children have books of their own? I remember Scholastic Book Clubs and being able to choose a couple books that I could order and have for my own. This is also the genius, it seems, of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in which children can be signed up to receive a free book in the mail each month. C.S. Lewis grew up in a home filled with books and loved reading from an early age.

Rather than talking about what books shouldn’t be available to our children, a matter over which various constituencies disagree, why can’t we focus on something I suspect most thoughtful individuals do agree upon–that cultivating the love of reading in our children, not just a proficiency measured by standardized tests, is a worthy goal of our educational efforts? We cannot leave this just to lawmakers, librarians, and teachers, however. We ought to give this attention in our homes and places of worship and in the various extra-curricular activities in which children participate. We could introduce children who love sports to great sports writing. For those who love the arts, there is a wealth of books on the arts. Budding scientists may find math puzzle books and science texts and biographies to be great fun.

Will we allow ourselves to be distracted by the purveyors of outrage into crusades against books or will we pay attention to the fundamentally important work of cultivating in our children a love of reading? If we do not, I fear those who would ban will be far more successful than they dreamed. It is not that children will not read books considered “inappropriate” or “woke.” It won’t be a problem. Children just will not read. Period.

One thought on “Banning Books When Children Aren’t Reading

  1. Ask anyone who works with children or families: parents have abdicated child rearing to TikTok and YouTube. Children are not being indoctrinated in school – it’s being done on the IPhone the parents purchased for them and the child isolates with open access to all the internet offers. It’s wildly beyond what a child can manage and the more a child drifts from the parent, the more vulnerable the child will become.
    Parents and society then look to the teacher or therapist to address the problem while they howl for budget cuts to these services. It’s not just our kids who are in crisis – it’s the family system itself. Unfortunately, our kids aren’t reading because the parents don’t read – Mom, Dad, and Grandma are also glued to a screen.
    Thank you for shining a light on this enormous problem.

    Liked by 2 people

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