choosing books wisely for kids

My family loves to read. From the oldest to the youngest, we share a love for sitting and reading away a Saturday, a spring break, or a summer. We’re the poster children for Amazon Prime, and my kids know exactly what time that brown UPS truck (aka Brown Santa) delivers to our street.

When my kids were in elementary school Harry Potter hit the scene and Christian parents everywhere hit the roof. A woman in my bible study wanted to warn me off of letting my children read them, claiming energetically that they taught children witchcraft and a love of the occult. It was the first of many opportunities for the Wilkin family to pronounce a verdict on a questionable book, and it helped us begin to focus in on what made a book acceptable or unacceptable in our home.

Here are some thoughts on how concerned Christian parents can make informed decisions about what to allow their kids to read:

Read the book yourself. I am amazed at how many Christian parents will not allow their children to read controversial books that they themselves have not bothered to read. As a discerning adult, reading Harry Potter will probably not turn you, the parent, into a witch. But it will give you solid ground for consenting or refusing to let your child read Harry Potter. Reading an article in Christianity Today or hearing a Mark Driscoll sermon may be a starting point for investigation of a questionable book, but it should not be the sum total of your inquiry. Form your own opinion, calling on Godly wisdom as your aid. Then you can exchange “because I said so” for “because I read it.” Your children will know you valued their literary intake on a personal level.

Know the difference between reading level and emotional maturity. Just because a child is capable of reading a book does not mean that he should. Our youngest son read the entire Lord of the Rings cycle as a third-grader in the span of several months. When he wanted to read Twilight in the fourth grade, we had to tell him no. Though he was capable of reading it, he was not capable of filtering it yet.

Though all protagonists are flawed, some are more than others. A late-elementary child can have beneficial dialogue with a parent about a protagonist who is dishonest or self-centered (we found this with Harry Potter). Books in which the protagonist is as flawed as he is gifted are probably better for children middle school or older. Evaluate your child’s emotional maturity to know whether to respond to a book request with yes, no, or not yet.

Know what message the author intends. C.S. Lewis incorporates characters from Roman mythology into the Narnia tales, but Christians don’t accuse him of promoting false religion to children. Why? Because his overall message is beyond question.

Not all messages are as easily discerned. Most books are a mix of desirable and undesirable themes. But do we say no to anything that’s not a perfect match with our worldview? Consider allowing your child to read the book in question and discuss it with you as he reads. Ask him where he is in the story and what he thinks about what has happened so far. This gives you a chance to speak into the way he processes the book’s themes, and it also provides a rich shared experience between the two of you.

At our house, our four avid readers have long passed the age where we are able to read everything before they do. As much as possible, we find opportunities to read books and book series together. Our kids know that any book they read could be picked up by Mom or Dad to be read. The result has often been a voluntary disclosure of a book’s less-than-desirable elements, which leads to good dialogue about why the author would include them.

Understand the most dangerous message is not always the most obvious one. For example, in Twilight, I was less concerned by the theme of vampirism than by the theme of a teen-age girl who defines her existence by the affection of a boyfriend (and a moody, troubled, creepy one at that). Conversely, while Twilight may win fans for promoting sexual abstinence in the technical sense, its use of strong sensuality makes it unsuitable in my view for pre-teen reading. Think about it: do we really think that raising a warlock is a greater potential danger than raising a sexually promiscuous or emotionally needy daughter? No wonder non-Christians make fun of us.

Know where children develop their worldview. There is widespread fear among evangelicals that our children will form their values based on the words of a teacher, a politician, a movie, or a book. And it is tempting to blame these outside influences when a child strays from the faith of her family. But the reality is this: children learn their worldview at home. A book’s worldview can only take root in uncultivated soil. Parents who carefully cultivate the worldview of their children have much less to fear from other influences than those who do not. Children do not learn values from books, TV, or movies unless their values have not already been firmly established by their parents. Our children are at far less risk from what a book says than from what we have left unsaid.

As with most parenting dilemmas, the issue is less about reading safe books and more about raising strong children: guide and participate in your child's reading choices as you develop in her a solid framework for choosing well on her own.