Video games -- or books?

Posted: Jun 06, 2006 12:04 AM
During the lazy, long, hot days of summer, which activity would you rather see your son or daughter engaged in -- playing a video game or reading a book?

A silly question, right? After all, nearly every parent will say, “Reading a book.” But whether that’s truly the better activity depends on what book your child is reading. And as I’ve told readers of this column before, plenty of books designed for today’s pre-teens and teenagers undermine the traditional moral values most parents struggle to teach their children.

This time of year, kids of all ages come home with the oft-dreaded “Summer Reading List” from which they make their choices. Many of the lists are created from the recommended reading lists of the American Library Association.

The first time I pulled such a list from my son’s backpack, I was struck by the lack of classics, or even recognizable authors or titles. Today’s lists are even more bothersome -- you’ll be hard-pressed to find a classic by Mark Twain, Jules Verne or Charles Dickens on an ALA list, but on the ALA’s “2006 Notable Children’s Books” you can find “Totally Joe” by James Howe. “Joe knows he is gay,” the ALA notes.

“During his 8th grade year, an English journaling assignment helps him express his growing self-awareness.”

Many of the books from the recommended lists are filled with perverted “love” stories, sexual activity and crude behavior -- anything and everything, it seems, to get our kids’ hormones heated up for the summer (as if they need any help). Of course, if you’re going to challenge authorities or librarians about the appropriateness of such material for kids, as one of my readers did, be prepared to be labeled a “right wing crusader.”

If you decide to forego an ALA list and instead head to your local bookstore for a selection, awaiting you front-and-center in the “Teens” section you’ll find the “Gossip Girl” series by Cecily von Ziegesar. She’s written more than a half dozen volumes, which offer, according to one blurb review on the back covers, “Sex and the City for the younger set.” Readers see the characters “drown in luxury while indulging in [their] favorite sports -- jealousy, betrayal and late-night bar-hopping.” In one volume, “I Like It Like That,” the cast is on Spring Break, heading to Sun Valley “for plenty of après-ski hot tub fun” and gossip about “who’s sleeping where.”

As for whether to remain a virgin, a main young female character admits that’s a toughie: “Do we do something about it now, with a boy we’ve known for years? Do we get rid of it over spring break? Over the summer? Or do we settle into our dorm rooms just as we are, bold but innocent, and ready to lose it with the first campus player to say, ‘Come hither’?”

I wish I could say such books are exceptions. Unfortunately, Gossip Girls is one of the nation’s hottest-selling series for young teen girls. And, popular or not, unsuspecting parents and students just trying to use their time wisely settle in with other titles just because their school made the recommendation.

As I note in my book, “Home Invasion,” we parents have to beware. As Annabelle Corrick Beach, author of “Illusions of Spring,” reminds us, “It is parents who are on the front lines and need to commandeer their children through the maze of choices that they face.” Too many educators, writers and moviemakers have abdicated their responsibilities, she said, so “the burden on parents is much greater than it otherwise would be.”

This heavier burden is no accident, according to Beach:

“While working for two and a half years in a K-12 school library system, I attended ALA-sponsored workshops in which children’s librarians were encouraged not to make any value judgments about the content of materials. Children were supposed to have the “freedom” to read whatever they wanted to read. In my library for emotionally challenged students, we knew better than that. Books containing violence, aggression, foul language and explicitness were not selected. The books previewed in the library meetings, however, often contained those negative elements. From what the students told me about the books and movies they’d been exposed to previously, it was obvious to me that those types of materials had not been entirely beneficial. They really wanted to know that someone cared enough about them to present them with positive materials.”

So if your children prefer books to video games, great -- but monitor what they read. Contact the Association of Christian Librarians or the Christian Library Journal and view their recommendations. Talk with other parents that share your values. And, for goodness sake, spend the extra time to preview books before handing them to your impressionable young children.

Don’t forget that your child notices what you read, too. Throw out the trashy women’s magazines and sleaze novels and opt for material you’d be comfortable for your child to stumble across. If you’re into love stories, I highly recommend Beach’s “Illusions of Spring.” Beach proves that modern romance novels can be exciting, mysterious and moral -- all at the same time. What a novel concept!