Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As more and more #metoo-style accusations are made against authors of children’s and YA books, my partner and I are talking a lot about what we want to introduce our kids to — which of the great books written by awful people are worthwhile anyway.
Now we’re struggling with the corollary: we’re both readers; we know how authors are heroes to kids — and grownups too. When we let our kids read books whose authors are much less than perfect, how and when do we talk to them about who their heroes really are? And how to take (or not) value from the stories and characters they love?
— Asking for my kids (really)
Dear (really) Concerned Parent,
Human beings are experts at compartmentalizing contradictions – it is the only way pro-life conservatives can support funding cuts for programs like WIC while swathed in cheap suits fabricated by children overseas, for example, or how liberals can enthusiastically support bumperstickers like "CoExist" but complain that the homeless are damaging their property values. It also explains why gluten-free donuts are a thing.
Some of my favorite authors growing up were awful. Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) enjoyed taking nude photos of little girls. William Golding (Lord of the Flies) tried to rape a teenager, according to his private journals. JD Salinger (Catcher in the Rye) also had a fondness for teenagers, and celebrated children's book author Enid Blyton (The Enchanted Wood) was herself a terrible mother, according to her children.
Fortunately, I didn't learn that my heroes were flawed until I was old enough to read their biographies myself. Discovering that some were creeps and perverts didn't diminish my memories of their work, it simply injected reality into the fantasy. And isn't that what growing up is? Slowly dipping your toes into reality until you're navel-deep in shit?
So here's my advice: Read books to your kids that are unpredictable and imaginative and will make them love reading as much as you do, regardless of the part-time creeps or monsters that penned them. But when they ask questions about the world – if they want to know what #metoo is – don't be reticent to add authors to the conversation. They will naturally compartmentalize their fond book memories from reality. And kids have a right to know that their heroes have flaws and some monsters are capable of creating beauty.