This is written by an adult for adults, about how we can better recommend books for kids.
My goals when recommending books to kids are: to share my love of reading, to deepen their literacy and engagement with both their internal world and the world around them, and to build a deeper connection with them as young humans. I’m not trying to make them read a specific book. I’m trying to learn more about them as a person, and trying to share things with them that I think they’ll love. Sometimes I’m trying to help them grow as a person, but I think that occurs more through their reflection and engagement than through me enforcing a specific reading curriculum.
This is a topic that I can’t cover in one post. But if you’re on board with my goals above…
Point 1: Children are not a monolith.
Children are young people, and just like older people they have different tastes and desires.
There’s no one thing you can recommend that every child will love. Forcing children to read something they detest while telling them they’ll love it is a good way to destroy your own credibility with them, and possibly make them like books less in the process. Relatedly, anyone who says “Every child will love this book” is full of shit. That’s okay, because that’s part of being human… but it follows that you should always consider what you’re recommending in the context of the specific child to whom you’re recommending it. This may seem obvious, but remember that the more you know about a specific person’s tastes the better a recommendation you’ll be able to make.
I can generalize this point further: people are not a monolith. Nothing that you recommend is guaranteed to be well received. You must accept that some of your suggestions will not work. Some things you loved when you were the young reader’s age will be meaningless or unappealing to them. Some things you thought were useless schlock will be exactly what they love. Try lots of different things.
Point 2: Talk with young readers about what they read.
Ask them about what they’re reading, without making your conversation into a quiz. Allow plenty of room for subjective interpretation. Make sure they know it’s okay to have negative opinions about a book. Heck, make sure they know it’s okay to have both positive and negative opinions about a book.
Did they like the book? What did they love? What did they hate? How did they feel while reading the book? What feelings or thoughts came up for them, and when? Did they have any questions about the book? Did the book leave them with questions about anything else?
This is about sharing an experience, about fostering engagement and excitement. This is not about testing young readers on their book report skills. Doing this establishes a pattern of communication that will let you make better recommendations going forward.
Point 3: Read the book!
At a bare minimum, learn what the book is about. Talk to other people who’ve read the book, or read others’ accounts of the book.
It’s hard to share your own thoughts on a topic, or ask specific questions about material, when you don’t know the material yourself. Would you want to participate in a book discussion without having read the book? It’s worth noting that your own experience of reading the book may be very different from a younger person’s. But, touching on the previous point, this is part of sharing a book with someone else and learning more about their ways of reading and engaging with the world.
When you can’t read the same exact book, try reading other things by the same author… ideally other things aimed at the same general audience.
Point 4: Children’s librarians rock.
Children’s librarians are an excellent resource. You should talk to them, and help the children to whom you’re recommending books make their own connections with them.
Children’s librarians are helpful in finding new material that you don’t already know. Children’s booksellers can be similarly helpful, but generally come with a price tag. Both are also exceptionally useful when you don’t have time to read a book yourself; they have frequently read the books they’re recommending, or have spoken with a large number of people who have read them.
It’s kind of like cheating, but it’s better than not reading the book at all.
Sometimes, children’s librarians (and other adults) can do what you cannot. If you’re an authority figure and the young reader feels rebellious, they might not read what you suggest simply because of that relationship. It happens. Sometimes you have to let other people take the lead there, and follow where the child goes.
Point 5: There is no canon.
Outside of coursework, no one has to read a specific book. Ever.
This can be a contentious point. It comes up most in the contexts of genre fiction and literary fiction. Conscious or not, it frequently comes hand-in-hand with very negative gatekeeping behavior. It creeps into our assumptions about what to recommend to younger people, as we think “I loved this book, this person must also read and love it.”
“You have to read X to engage with Y,” or the similar formulation “you have to read X to appreciate Y kind of fiction,” is patently false. It may be true that someone won’t have the same understanding of Y without reading X, but that has no bearing on whether they can engage with or appreciate the material. Furthermore, insisting that someone must love what you love is not sharing: it’s demanding conformity.
Abandon the belief that a young reader must read a specific work in order to engage with or appreciate other books or genres you know and love. When you want someone to read something in particular, I suggest a different approach. This might look like, “I think you’d really appreciate X, because it inspired this other thing you love.” Or, at its strongest, “I think you’re missing out if you don’t read X. I could be wrong, but I loved it, and based on the other things you’ve enjoyed I think you’d love it too.”
You might need to acknowledge points of difficulty if they’re having a hard time getting into the story; maybe the beginning is slow, or the prose is clunky. Be honest. Honor their own observations. But, unless you’re literally teaching a class, don’t insist that they must read a specific book. If they’re bouncing off the book you’ve recommended most, find something else that might work and suggest your favorite again later.
Point 6: The child may surpass you, and/or read beyond your own boundaries.
I started this post with the assumption that you were leading the young person into reading. But this might be reversed. And at some point, that young reader might start reading books or stories you’re not comfortable with. Don’t ignore that; discuss what troubles you about the book(s) they’re reading.
You can’t easily stop them from reading books you don’t like. That’s a questionable thing to do. Moreover, it’s nearly impossible to prevent people from reading what they want to; there’ll always be the possibility that they’re reading those books anyway and keeping that secret from you. If you have an established history and habit of talking about the books you read, you’ll have an opening to talk with them about those books. It won’t be easy, but it’s better than losing that connection. And by talking with them about the books, you can have a better understanding of what they find appealing about them, what they find objectionable, and what they’re willing to tolerate.
With any luck, you won’t end up in an OH JOHN RINGO NO situation. But if you do, at least you’ll be better prepared for it. And hopefully, your pattern of conversations with the young reader will serve them as a basis for their own critical analysis of new works. (You can find the original OH JOHN RINGO NO post, talking about the sublime awfulness of John Ringo’s Paladin of Shadows series, here. Content Warning: rape, violence, sex slavery.)