I’ve mentioned it before on my blog, but Flea is a keen reader.
She’s the child of two writers, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. And I’m thrilled – I love reading, and it’s good to know Flea has a hobby that can entertain her pretty much anywhere, for next to no money. If you read, you’re almost never going to be bored.
But when your child is a REALLY keen reader, it can be hard to keep up.
At two, Flea had memorised her bedtime stories and would read them to her teddies at night, when she should have been asleep. At four, she started being given books to read at home from school – and would invariably have read them before I’d pulled the car out of the school car park. At six, she was engrossed in Harry Potter, seemingly fearless in the face of Professor Snape, dragons and death eaters.
At seven, my biggest challenge is finding books that will keep Flea interested for more than five minutes. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat down next to Flea on a plane and said, “Got your book, darling?” only to have her say, “I already finished it.”
Last month we went on holiday to France and Flea had (as usual) finished all of her books and read them two or three times by the time we were halfway through the holiday. One evening she picked up my copy of The Mortal Instruments, a young adult series.
“I don’t think you’d like it, it’s a little bit old for you,” I told Flea.
“I read the first two chapters while you were in the bathroom,” she replied.
After finishing the book myself and determining there was nothing in it that I felt was too inappropriate for Flea to read, I passed the book over – and Flea read the whole thing over the next two weeks. She’s now a third of the way through the second novel.
Mortal Instruments is a story about teenagers who hunt and kill demons, and other ‘underworld’ creatures. There are bad vampires, and good werewolves.
There’s a fair amount of violence but it’s against monsters rather than people, and I’ve found Flea tends to shrug off fantasy violence, such as that in the later Harry Potter books. There is a bit of snogging, which didn’t seem to bother Flea, and the ambiguous relationship between the two lead male characters didn’t worry her a jot: “I think Alec is gay, but Jace isn’t,” she informed me, 10 chapters in.
I do find it tricky to find the balance – I want books that will challenge and engage Flea, without scaring her or exposing her to unnecessarily adult themes. She is only seven, after all. I do censor books if I don’t think they’re appropriate. I won’t let Flea read Divergent (although she knows the back of the book off by heart and is desperate to read it) because the violence there is against people, and it’s quite dark in its themes. Helen has written about this issue here.
But then sometimes I wonder if I’m over-cautious.
Last week, we were listening to a Tracy Beaker audio book by Jacqueline Wilson in the car. And – for the first time I can remember – I turned the CD off a little more than halfway through because I didn’t want Flea to listen to the story.
In the book, Tracy has left her children’s home to be fostered by a woman called Cam. Throughout the book, Cam is spoken about with derision by Tracy. She’s boring, she’s mean, she doesn’t buy presents, and her house is rubbish. She never lets Tracy have any fun. Not like Tracy’s birth mother who buys her presents and has a leather sofa.
At school, Tracy tells lies and plays truant. Outside of school she makes friends with two boys, and they play in a derelict house. A situation develops where Tracy gangs up with one boy against the other boy, who is smaller. They taunt him and call him names until he jumps out of a window. Tracy doesn’t express any regret about this – the boy isn’t hurt and everyone decides it was a hilarious adventure.
I talked to Flea about why I’d turned off the CD. I told her that I can’t see ANYTHING about that character that seems nice. I told her I thought all of the bullying was just awful, and no matter how sad you are, being so ungrateful and rude is just plain wrong. “I’m just not sure what the message is,” I finished.
Flea – of course – TOTALLY knew what the message was. Turns out that in an early chapter, Tracy says she hates the ending of The Wizard of Oz, and Flea worked out that the fictional world Tracy lives in is an equivalent. “The foster home is like Kansas because it seems boring, but Oz is like Tracy’s Mum’s flat because it’s exciting and colourful,” said Flea. “And Tracy will probably decide to go back to Cam’s just like Dorothy goes back to Kansas.”
Well, that told me.
Despite the literary criticism, we both agreed that we didn’t want to listen to the end of the story because Tracy Beaker just isn’t very nice.
Of course, I get the irony of allowing Flea to read teen fantasy books while banning Tracy Beaker, but I think in children’s reading sometimes the problem isn’t about the number of pages or the scariness of the monsters. It’s about what books say to children about relationships, and respect, and courage, and integrity. And maybe that’s where I feel Tracy Beaker is lacking, and the werewolves win out.
Do you censor what your children read?