Editor’s Note: This article was first published in July of 2013. It is being republished as part of a new weekend series at PJ Lifestyle collecting and organizing the top 50 best lists. Where will this great piece end up on the list? Reader feedback will be factored in when the PJ Lifestyle Top 50 List Collection is completed in a few months. Click here to vote for your favorites in the comments.
As a reader, the mother of four children, and an author, I want my kids to love to read and to approach reading as joy and nourishment. The following five works of fiction do not encourage and inspire the love of reading in children. They’re terrible books for kids. If you make your children read these they will develop a loathing for reading that will last their whole lives and may possibly poison their very souls. Let’s see why.
Note: Minor spoilers.
5.) The Red Pony by John Steinbeck
This is a set of four short stories set in the western United States and an excellent example of John Steinbeck’s famously spare, elegant prose. Beautifully written, with underlying themes of death and redemption, we can all agree that this is a classic. Did I mention the gruesome death of the title character, the beloved red pony? No? Want to watch your children sob in heartbreak and then continue on to read the next three stories with increasing puzzlement and despair as the complicated themes go over their heads and they must endure the agonizing death of another beloved horse? The Red Pony will not give your children a desire to read for pleasure. Just because a novel features a child doesn’t mean that the work is appropriate for them.
Yes, children should be exposed to stories of heartbreak, loss, and redemption, but there are much better novels than Steinbeck’s to share with your child. Hand over Old Yeller by Fred Gipson, Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, or Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Each of these books will make your child cry, but in the end will fill them with joy.
4.) Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
Oh, take that shocked look off your face. Of course this is a beloved classic and almost every school child has to read the story of Native American Karana and her tale of survival as a stranded young girl on an island off the coast of California. But why? Karana is an emotionless character who plods along in her adventure one grim day at a time. She makes a great sacrifice to save her brother, but her sacrifice is made useless when her brother dies shortly afterward. Scott O’Dell evokes the abundance of life and the beauty of the western coast, but Karana lives a spare, bleak life. She endures on the island for years, alone. In the end Karana is rescued by a passing ship, a passive ending to a sad tale.
Children need stories that teach them heroism, ingenuity, and success in the face of adversity. Try Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford, or My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. I never wanted to see Karana’s island after I finished Island of the Blue Dolphins. But Sam Gribley’s tree house in My Side of the Mountain? I wanted to go live there. Somewhere in my heart, I always will.
3.) Monster by Walter Dean Myers
Don’t be surprised if your twelve year old comes home from school with this book as part of her required reading. All of mine did, and I read the novel and admired the gritty, urban life that Myers evokes in the story of Steve Harmon, on trial for murder after a botched robbery of a convenience store. Myers uses a nifty movie-script format interspersed with diary entries. This is an excellent book but it’s terrible for children. Why do I say this? Does exposing your child to a description of a homosexual gang rape sound like fun? Later in the story, your child will read about an anal butt plug insertion. My twelve-year-old children were assigned a novel that describes sodomy and sex toys.
Even worse, there is the sympathy that Myers creates for Steve, a terribly misled youngster who was involved in a murder. Pre-teens might identify with Steve so much that they think it’s okay to be found innocent of murder as long as you “didn’t really mean to.” Myers wrote a terrific book and I recommend it for older teens who can understand conflict without confusing it for absolution. Don’t give your children this book.
If you’d like your child to read a novel that describes the complexity and heartbreak of the accused, try To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Homelanders series by Andrew Klavan, or the always wonderful The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
2.) His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman
This trilogy written by the English author Pullman consists of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, called the His Dark Materials series. They were written as an opposition to C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, a seven book fantasy series that intends to “inkle” a belief and love of Christianity in young children. His Dark Materials is intended to foster a belief in atheism in children. How charming.
Unlike an agnostic tale where God is not present, the His Dark Materials series is all about God, and is full of rage and bitterness at Him and His angels. Children often enjoy the tale of Lyra Belacqua and her Golden Compass, but they are really reading a revenge fantasy. Christian or not, this is not the kind of emotional bile you want your child absorbing.
If you want to show your children fantastical and wondrous worlds of magic and adventure, try The Chronicles of Narnia or the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan.These stories will uplift, entertain, and suffuse your children with the joy of reading.
1.) A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket
The worst of the five terrible books for your children is this one, and this is a story that your child will devour in delight. A Series of Unfortunate Events is a tale of nihilism and despair packaged in such a charming way that children and their loving parents will laugh and only wonder later why their stomachs feel queasy and strange. The author, Lemony Snicket, writes incredibly well. The three main characters, Violet, Klaus and Sunny, are orphan siblings who love and care for each other. Their adventures are thrilling. But this is a terrible, terrible series for your children. Why?
At the end of each book, Count Olaf, the villain, has successfully removed the children from a loving home, having killed the person the children have just learned to love, and has turned them back into orphans. In each book, Violet and Klaus come up with a brilliant plan to escape him, or to defeat him, but they always just barely manage to escape, and usually through some plot twist that doesn’t even come from their ideas. Ask a child who loves the series and they’ll tell you that Count Olaf is a great guy. He’s the winner, and who doesn’t love a winner? He never gets his heart broken, he is never sad, dejected, or lonely. He never cries himself to sleep. Violet and Klaus and Sunny survive, but in such abject misery that no one in their right mind would choose to be them. No child looks at Violet and says: “Look how beneficial it is to study and be smart and invent things.” No. The lesson is that no matter how smart you are, no matter how hard you work, the bad guys are always smarter, and will come out on top because evil pays. That is the overall message of these books.
Do you think children understand this? Let me share a story. As an author of a children’s adventure book for reluctant readers, I am often asked to speak at schools. I was recently explaining about heroes to a group of kids in an elementary school in Parker, Colorado, when a young girl raised her hand. She was a cheerful and sweet little girl with long blonde pigtails. I called on her.
“What about evil? I like books where evil wins,” she asked me. I stood speechless as the teacher explained with a laugh that, not to worry, her student was currently enjoying the Lemony Snicket books.
There are places where evil wins, but that place should not be in our children’s hearts. Want to share a wonderful tale with your children that teaches them that evil doesn’t pay? Read Holes by Louis Sachar or A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my list. Which books did you despise as a youngster or love with all your heart? We all want to give our children the love of reading by sharing books with them that will encourage and inspire them, and avoid the books that don’t. Happy reading!
images courtesy shutterstock / Sergey Novikov