Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Book Review: How to Raise a Reader by Pamela Paul and Maria Russo (2019)

I have read quite a few handbooks for parents who wish to raise book-loving kids, but none have given such dubious advice as this year's How to Raise a Reader by The New York Times Book Review editors Pamela Paul and Maria Russo. (I received a review copy of this book via NetGalley.)

The first red flag for me came in the form of the blanket statement that "[m]any classic children's books are now considered sexist, racist, outdated, and in certain cases, downright awful." This statement sets up the political point of view of its authors as the default "correct" way to consider older books. By writing in the passive voice, the authors conveniently sidestep the need to say precisely who considers these books so terrible, and they leave no room at all for an alternate point of view, despite the fact that many reading-minded parents are conservative homeschoolers who deeply value older books but are not themselves awful racists. This argument is worsened by the suggested remedy: simply "tweak" the books when you read them aloud, editing the author's words to reflect what you wish they said. There are plenty of books I won't read aloud due to content, but it is utterly insulting to authors to presume to rewrite their books, and insulting to the intelligence of child listeners, who can generally handle controversial and difficult topics better than adults ever assume they can.

A second major problem with this book is the way it suggests that parents are irrelevant, or at best tangential, to the reading lives of their children. They come right  out and say that reading aloud "isn't about you" (the parent) when they comment that parents whose character voices don't appeal to their kids should "read the room" and stop using them, and then they continue to point out how true they believe that to be at every opportunity. Their recommendations for reading with children include admonishments to "tune out and read by rote" when you're bored,  to "be careful not to assert your own values too much" (heaven forbid your children acquire your values) and "save your disapproval for vaping, not books." They also make the absurd claim that it may not be the parent's choice when a child starts reading Harry Potter, as though children are such independent creatures we can't possibly be in charge of any aspect of their lives, let alone reading.

Other problems with this book are more predictable. The authors throw the required bones toward gender ideology by pointing out that books for toddlers might teach traditional gender roles and toward diversity by pointing out the apparently disturbing blondness of the characters in Dick and Jane and stating that "no children should have to learn to read with them." They also caution parents that they might have to explain the language and writing style in those old racist classics, or else just find abridged versions that avoid "antiquated language" to satisfy the children who just can't tolerate "references to an earlier age."

How to Raise a Reader takes for granted many ideas about parenting and childhood that I just don't accept, and that made it impossible for me to enjoy it. Truly, the best resource on this topic continues to be The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease, with Reading Together by Diane W. Frankenstein and The Enchanted Hour by Meghan Cox Gurdon following closely behind. By comparison to these comprehensive and engaging resources, How to Raise a Reader is disorganized, shallow, and unnecessary, and I do not recommend it.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book, Katie. You have prompted me to review this one from my TBR list. And given how many other books are on there, anything that can come off is a help.