Literacy Week: Spongebob, Olaf, and Letting Them Pick

Why do we have so many Spongebob and Dora books? So kids can choose.

When I was in library school, I had a WONDERFUL children's literature professor who one day went on a rant about not buying what I will refer to as "junk" for our libraries (she used a more colorful four-letter word). "I don't want to see any [junk] on your shelves!" she told us. "There are too many good books out there for you to be buying [junk]."

By [junk] she meant books like these:


Licensed characters. TV tie-ins, we call them. Books that were cranked out by a movie or TV studio to add to the pile of money already being thrown at them. At the time, my eyes glistened. Yes, I silently swore, I will never buy these books for the children in my libraries. I will only buy quality literature with literary merit and artistic acclaim!

My former professor would hate my libraries now. A peek at my monthly orders would make her skin crawl. I buy [junk] books at an astonishing rate, spending THOUSANDS of dollars at a time on licensed characters with uninspiring stories. 
Why do I do this?

When we talk about teaching kids to read, we talk a LOT about letting them choose their own books. In lots of communities, we talk about getting kids to choose books at all, when TV and smartphone games compete and Mom's working three jobs and doesn't have time to read to them. When books aren't part of a family's home life--and this is the case for many, many families--librarians face an uphill battle in getting young children interested in books. Then when those children start school and begin formal reading instruction, they're expected to learn to read whether they're interested in books or not. 

If you can imagine a group of kids, some of whom are interested in books and some who are not, which can you imagine having a harder time learning how to read?

So if packing our shelves with Dora, Frozen, Doc McStuffins, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles means a three-year-old's head turns and he runs to the shelf to get his hands on a book, you better believe I'm going to do it. Those licensed characters are familiar faces. They are friends. An Angry Birds paperback may not have excellent character development and a nuanced story, but it offers comfort and familiarity, which inspire confidence.

So here is my plea to parents, teachers, and librarians who hope to inspire a love of reading in their children: 

Let them pick what they want to read.
No, seriously. Let them pick what they want to read.

If your student picks out a Barbie book and you hate Barbie, resist the urge to say "no, that's not a good book." The child thinks it's a good book. Believe them. Ask them sincerely, "what do you like about this book?" Listen to their answer. Help them find more books they like.

Believing they make good choices in reading and are correct in liking the things they like will be the crucial factor in whether your child continues reading as a lifelong habit. Confidence is a determiner of success here. Fun is too.