Stop Book-Shaming Children

This week:

  • I define book-shaming and why adults do it
  • Book-shamed children stop reading
  • Top ways to get children to move on with reading
Photo by Min An on

I have encountered book-shaming as a child, I have encountered it as an adult reader and as a teacher.

It makes me angry to see it, and this is the reason why:

What is book-shaming?

Book-shaming is when someone mocks, belittles or discourages another person from reading a particular book.

There are several reasons why people do this and not all of them are vindictive.

It largely depends on the type of relationship the two people have and why that person is book-shaming.

These are the situations in which I have encountered book-shaming:

  • As a child, when I wanted to read an old favourite but was told I was ‘too old’ for it
  • As a teen when I wanted to read a Children’s book and was told I was ‘too old’ for it
  • As an adult when I wanted to read a Children’s or Young Adult’s book and was told I was ‘too old’ for it
  • Any time I wanted to read genre fiction

Already you are sensing a theme.

There are other times when I have seen book-shaming.

I will discuss book-shaming adults based on their choice of book in another post.  This one is focusing on why people do it to children and what effect that has.

I’m also going to focus on adults book-shaming children, rather than other children doing it to their peers as this is very similar to the above.

Why people book-shame children

Most adults who book-shame are doing it because they care.

Certainly, I have never seen an adult book-shame a child because they want to be mean.

Most of the people I have seen doing this have been teachers, parents, aunts and uncles, etc.

What they have wanted to do is stop the child reading something ‘too young’ or ‘too easy’ because they wanted them to read something harder or older.

They want the child to get better at reading and better at English.  Reading is the single most effective way of doing that, but book-shaming isn’t the way to go about it.

What effect does book-shaming have?

I have seen this have several effects on children:

They stop reading.  If they can’t read what they want to read, they’re not interested and then you, as the adult, have to battle to get them to read something else.

They come to associate reading with shame and inadequacy and, unsurprisingly, they stop reading.  Why would they keep doing something that makes them feel that way?

In order to please you, they try reading a much harder book which they don’t properly understand and then they think they’re stupid because they can’t read ‘proper’ books and they stop reading.

Just to be clear: making someone feel that their choice of book is wrong doesn’t make them read something else, it just makes them stop reading that thing.

A little story for you

I was at a Year 7 Parents’ Evening, talking to the mother of a Year 7 boy, who was sat next to her.  When I’d finished talking about his work and asked if there was anything else she wanted to discuss, this mother leaned forward and said, “Yes.  I’m worried about his reading.  I just can’t get him to read.”

I was incredibly surprised and automatically turned to the pupil.  “But you read all the time!  I always see you with a book in your hand.”

The boy looked sheepish and said, “Yes Miss, but I only like books about dragons.”

My response, obviously, was to say, “I love books about dragons!  What’s your favourite?”

The point is, that his mother – who only had his best interests at heart – was worried that the books he was reading weren’t good enough.  Not only that, she was so convinced that they didn’t count, that she told me she ‘couldn’t get him to read’.

This boy was being told – whether directly or not – that the things he liked were wrong.  That’s uncomfortably close to him being told that his personality is wrong.  It’s also a classic prejudice about Fantasy but more on that another time.

I spent the rest of the year talking to him about dragons because I liked the way his face lit up when I did that.

Better ways to get a child to read more advanced things

Don’t tell a child that what they’re reading isn’t good enough or is the wrong choice.  You aren’t going to change their personality just by saying ‘don’t read that, read this’.

If you want a child to read something else, there are ways you can make that happen.

Give them options in addition to their own books

Instead of telling them not to read one thing, persuade them to read the next thing.  Let them keep the books they like, just give them something else as well.

Give them books you know they’ll like

The best way to get a child to read something else is to find out what it is they like and go from there.

Ask them what they like and try to find out what exactly it is that they like about it.  Is it an adventure, is it a mystery, do they like long books or short books, are they drawn to female protagonists, what kind of humour are they into?  Once you know what they like, you can start to find other books that have that thing in them.

Find something similar to what they’re reading and give them that.

If they like it, they’ll trust your judgement.  That’s important.  If they trust you’ll give them good books, they might be willing to try something they otherwise wouldn’t when you promise them (truthfully) that it’s good.

Let them see you enjoying that book

If they know you enjoy it, they know it’s a good book.

If you’re giving them a book you hate but think is going to be good for them, don’t.  You’re not giving them a dose of medicine.

There are so many good Middle Grade (MG) and Young Adult (YA) books out there – quality books with excellent writing, intriguing plots, big themes and inspiring characters – that you will be able to find something that pleases both of you.

Don’t force them to read it, inspire them to read it.

Talk to children about books

Actually talking to them about what they’re reading is a great way to encourage them to think about books in more detail and to find out what it is they like about the books they are reading.

One tip I talk about in my World Book Day post is asking them about books they used to read.

What was your favourite book?

Who was your favourite character?

This distances the question a little and gives them room to talk about the books they like without worrying that you don’t think it’s appropriate for them now. They can’t be told the book was too childish if they actually were a child when they read it.

Let me know what you do

If you’ve seen or experienced this, let me know.  What do you do to stop it?

If you have recommendations for quality MG or YA books, let me know in the comments section below or contact me on Twitter @AlisonJanetBro1.  I want to know your go-to recs.

See you next week when I’ll tell you a little bit more about me and 3 things I’m up to during the week.

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