Friday, September 01, 2006

Was Lost But Now I’m Found…Guilty Of Child Negligence

I wanted to talk more this week about contacting teachers in the classroom, not only as a bookseller, but also as a writer. I would have loved to have authors come to my classroom and talk about their writing lives, the jobs they must also work to support those writing lives, where they get ideas and the process of getting published. That sort of thing would have fascinated the heck out of me.

Of course, I’ve never hidden the fact that I’m a geek of the first order, maybe other kids wouldn’t respond so well. As I was reminded of yesterday when an enraged father walked into my store you might also have a problem with subject matter. The guy had just bought a Spiderwick book the day before, but now wanted a refund because “the subject matter was just not appropriate for children. Who thought this was worth printing?”

My mind was spinning. Rape? Murder? Self-mutilation? Oh, sweet Jesus, patricide?

Nope. Apparently he’d gotten to page nine in the book where it was revealed that the father had left and the kid was having trouble in school. He found the exact page and read the passage to me in a huff before going off on his diatribe. He didn’t want this book sold and he didn’t want to give out his information so he could get his cash back. Given the awful nature of that book I should just give him his money. How could someone give this filth an award?

I had to do some fast talking involving the words auditor and fired as well as promise that the information would be shredded at the end of the year just to get him to fill out the refund form.

Now I understand that we all have different beliefs when it comes to what is and isn’t appropriate for kids to read, and yay for dad for taking the time to read to his son. I happen to come from a household that believes that reading about any subject is fine as long as you talk about it with your kid, but I wasn’t about to say that to dad. What I had to bite my tongue about was his absolute black or white issue when it came to this character’s life. What are you saying, Dad, that there aren’t kids out there whose fathers leave them? That they don’t experience emotional turmoil because of this and almost flunk out of school?

I think some recent statistics on single parents might disagree with you.

Maybe a book about this subject might appeal to kids in the same situation. Maybe it doesn’t matter that all this happened because in reality this is a series about how this boy recovers from this and finds magic in his life and self worth. Maybe it is just a plot device.

Would you have cared as much if the mother had up and left the kid? Or what if she’d died a la every Disney story known to humankind?

I think what bothered me about the whole situation was that he wanted to blame us. We were the evil monsters that put it on the shelves. We were the evil monsters actively selling it to the innocent customers. And since I was the one who’d rung him up the day before, I was at fault specifically for not warning him. Let’s not factor in that I was trapped behind my counter ringing up customers while he was making his selections and that I could not control the fact that he didn’t flip through the books before buying.

Damn me for not doing my job. I’m a blight on society and should be punished for my sins.

Thankfully a customer “saved” me an hour or two later. I am once again pure of spirit and forgiven for my sins. I kid you not; it's the third or fourth time this year. I can't tell if it's because I look like a big time sinner or a poor waif, led astray by the den of sin I work in. Probably the latter since the Boss often tells me I look like I'm twelve.

I apologize for the lack of regular posting these last few days; it’s been a busy week even without the diatribes and religious experiences thrown in. Posting will continue to be sporadic throughout the weekend (if it will happen at all) because I plan to use this holiday to zone out and do some reading.

Coffee and a good book? My kind of heaven.*

*Photo by Emo Guy who is very vain attractive and single (he would like me to point out).


lady t said...

I had something like that happen to me once;a father of two grade school age boys came in to return a copy of Then Again,Maybe I Won't by Judy Blume,claiming it was inappropiate for his son. Since I've read the book(the co-worker who recommended it to him didn't,she thought it was about"a boy bird-watching" due to the cover art. I am so not kidding.),I said"Well,maybe when he's older,it would be better." The man said to me"No,it's not appropiate for any age. It's terrible." And this guy was a teacher,to boot!

He did get to exchange the book but it kills me when folks think that booksellers have to hold everyone's hand upon selecting a title. True,it's good to pick books for kids based on age and reading level but to not want certain notions from reality to be mentioned is absurd.

Marta said...

Rant from the other side. My kid has been assigned awful books in school. I have no problem with a most subjects, and we talk about everything at home. But my teeth go on edge when every book about a minority kid tells their awful tale of sexual abuse, poverty, early pregnancy, and violence.

Generally the writing is clumsy, the characters two-dimensional, and the moralizing murky. The only reason the books are assigned is because they fulfill someone's stereotype of minority kids and what interests them.

I'm sure the people assigning these books think that minority kids can "relate" to these stories. As Whoopi Goldberg used to riff, "I'm not from the ghetto."

There are wonderful books about terrible childhoods. (Hello, Jane Eyre, Huck Finn, etc.) But there are also a lot of kids' books that trade on tragedy, as if dire circumstances alone give literary merit.

Bethany said...

You completely 100% deserve a weekend of nothing. With a week like that, sometimes I thank a higher power that I no longer work directly with the public... honestly. The gall of some people.

Have a great weekend!

Robin Brande said...

Marta has a good point. There are great classics out there--Dickens comes to mind--that kids could relate to. I retold parts of David Copperfield and Great Expectations to my young niece and nephew, and they couldn't get enough.

But I think BSC is right that some contemporary books appeal to kids precisely because they're in the same situation. Divorce, puberty, bullying--sometimes it's easier and more inspiring to watch a character work out your particular problems than to keep having nightmares about them yourself. And characters can talk about what you're feeling, even when you can't. It's therapy.

But I agree there needs to be a balance. Can't have the mother die in every book, or the father leave, or the best friend fall into drugs.

We all need hope in our stories. Kids need that even more. That's why the Lemony Snicket books and Harry Potter work so well--bad things happen, but the kids are smart and brave and most of all hopeful. They forge on.

Who wouldn't be inspired by that?

Wesley Smith said...

While I agree with BSC that the guy needs to calm down and understand that not every YA novel has to have a happy family, I find that in more and more YA novels that I read (and, granted, I don't read that many), it seems that the parents are nearly always either divorced or in danger of seperating. There's an element of 'reverse stereotyping' that seems to go on in a lot of YA novels that kids today can only relate to characters in YA novels if they have a miserable home life.

Emo Guy said...

I recently heard a term that I was unfamiliar with. "Helicopter parents," are parents who hover around their children all through their young lives making sure they aren't exposed to any unpleasant situations. I heard this in an NPR story about how parents are now attending summer camp with their children. The owner of the camp insisted that the kids "love having their parents around." Maybe so jack but I bet the air traffic control is a bitch at your camp. When Talk of the Nation was over, I went outside and motioned for my mother to land so I could ask her if she was familiar with the term. She had heard a slightly different definition back in the 80s. Then, "helicopter," referred to a parent who always swooped down to save a child after an unpleasant situation. I guess parents have become more 'proactive' in their helicoptering over the last 20 years.

The modern usage describes BSC's customer well. As the child of a Sikorsky Blackhawk, I don't believe that the protection and rescue operations were much of a benefit to my education. Since I moved away from my parents six years ago, I've spent a great deal of my time learning how to enjoy responsibility and make big decisions on my own. Things that I should have learned early on but was always sheltered from. One generation back the average age for marriage was 19 and the average age of first child was 20 (note: statistics based on a 6 year study of 30 college educated, close friends of me). My generation has moved that entire schedule ahead about 10 years. I hope that means crow's-feet also come 10 years later, as well as men-o-pause. If it doesn't My generation has been cheated out of ten years of life by the gentle chopping sounds of our parents rotors overhead.

Thanks mom.

-Emo Guy

ps: why didn't you post the sacred feminine photograph BSC? It was by far the best. This one is too horizontal, your legs, the frame of the photograph.. and I'M NOT VAIN (hows my hair?)

quiche said...

Dang. You have my admiration for patiently listening to his rant and dealing with it in a non-violent manner. I just hope his kid doesn't read the Series of Unfortunate Events, it starts off with both parents bumped off. Great photo. Have a good weekend.

Anonymous said...

My son has Asperger's Syndrome. He's very aware of being different, has been called crazy by classmates.
Last year, the sophomores were all supposed to read "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest."

Wrong story for my kid. He's very sensitive to the whole issue of psychiatric hospitals. Doesn't want to be further reminded that he's different (it's the teen years).

So I asked the teacher if he could read some California literature (since that's where we live). I suggested John Steinbeck. I sent him back in with Tortilla Flats. He'd read it over the weekend. But the school objected. Why? Because of the portrayal of Mexicans at that time.

So you just never know what's going to hit a nerve.

Monica Burns said...

My condolences on a customer who seems to think YOU'RE responsible for THEIR choices. Reading is personable and has ALWAYS been subjective. That's what a lot of people don't take the time to understand IMHO.

While I agree that the classics are great, grade school kids aren't ready for them. They take time to absorb and fully understand. I also know from my 14-year-old that she wants a book she can relate too. Reading about a kid from the past isn't going to appeal to most kids these days. It's sad, but true. I've learned not to push Jane Eyre, Dickens and others on Oldest, it only makes her resist, BUT when I get the opportunity, I mention them, especially if she sits down to watch P&P with me. She fell in love with the movie, now I'm subtly pushing the book. *smile*

I also believe it's important for parents to remember that what we find interesting our kids might not, simply because they're different. Monitoring their reading is good, but censorship often has the end result of making the kid try to sneak the read in. Lockers at school kind hide a wonderful number of items. I read Caravan, which my mother told me I couldn't, at school during lunch. Same for Woodiwiss books. I never took them home because I would have lost them. As I stated in the beginning. Reading is subjective and a personal choice. JMHO of course.

Marta said...

To Anonymous, odd how the school objected to Tortilla Flats. This is my father's favorite book, and he doesn't read much besides newspapers, because the portrayals of the Mexicans remind him of the people he knew. (We're Mexican-American.) I can't venture my own opinion on Tortilla Flats, because I didn't read this Steinbeck.

Re: kids and classics, I was using Jane Eyre and Huck Finn as examples of well-written books that deal with awful situations. Holes is an terrific contemporary book about abused kids.

But my kid has been assigned badly written books about minority kids and their horrible lives. There's a greater societal message here. I think it's: here's a crappy book that reflects your crappy life.

You wonder why kids don't like reading; look what the schools are assigning.

Bev Marshall said...

I am an author who writes adult fiction although one of my novels did cross over to the YA list. Because I am a writer-in-residence at a university,I am often asked to speak in classrooms of all ages. My message to the parents who attend these events is to read what your children read. I agree with Monica. Kids are curious and no parent can always keep them from finding inappropriate literature. I read all the books I found beneath my mother's bed (at least all the "Interesting" parts). It would have been a great opportunity for her to teach me some important lessons had she known what I was reading and trying to understand. I do tell parents that my novels are too mature for their children, and then I recommend some books I love to them. I'd have asked the guy if he knows what his kid is watching on television, and I'll bet he'd be far more outraged about those programs if he knew.

BuffySquirrel said...

Lovely photo.

I think anonymous has it right--a book that couldn't affect anyone would have to be one bland book.

Diane P said...

I will admit that our Literature book seemed to concentrate on minority stories and we have a small minority population. Good teachers pick and choose stories as much as possible. Sometimes we are told that these are the 8th grade novels and we can choose between them.
I feel lucky in that I have more choices. I always ask about books I see my students reading. I also try to read the Young Reader's Choice books since they are nominated by kids.

If we believe the statistics then 50% of our students are facing divorce, new blended families and loss at a time when they are struggling to find themselves. I think it helps them to see other kids struggling and dealing with difficulties. I wouldn't want all of their books to be only on those subjects, but these kids need role models they can understand.

Marta said...

If I had waited around for books about girls like me, I never would have read anything. Good writing transcends specific circumstances.

When I was a child, I had nothing but gender in common with Laura Ingalls Wilder, yet I loved her stories about a fiesty girl living in the American frontier.

When I was a teen, I had nothing in common with the writers I loved -- Vonnegut, Twain, Bronte, Shakespeare, Asimov -- except our common humanity.

That is the talent of a good writer: to take you beyond your individual life, to make a connection, and to reveal something that you can comprehend.

Little Willow said...

I love the Spiderwick books, and I like that the authors were unafraid to have the family situation as such. It happens all of the time. It's realistic. It's not inappropriate.