things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #13

A boy, maybe age 8, was confused about what he needed. He said he needed "chapter books about the human body," which sounded to me like two things - books about the human body for a school project, and chapter books, meaning junior fiction that is not a picture book, not a series, and not a graphic novel. But he was convinced he needed "chapter books about the human body." He would not be helped, casting aside everything I found for him, and getting increasingly frustrated.

Following him around the library (it's a Sunday, so I'm working overtime, not at my own location), I ran into his parents and his older sister. Boy's Father said, "Is he giving you a hard time?" He said this nicely, not in a mean or menacing way.

I said, "Oh no, he's fine. I'm just trying to understand what he's looking for." I had books from two popular funny series in my hands.

Boy's Father took them from me and said, "No, this is garbage. We're not reading these."

I said, "Since he needs a chapter book, why don't we look for something better."

"What does that mean, 'chapter book'?" BF asked.

"Fiction--" I began.

"No. No fiction," BF said. "Let him read about science, or history, or let him practice his math."

I said gently, "He might need to read chapter books for his language skills. Reading fiction will improve his reading, which will help him in all subjects."

Things were getting generally messy, with Mom speaking in their first language, sister filling a cart with all the books she wanted, BF attempting to lecture boy, and boy tuning everyone out. I went back to the reference desk.

The family appeared a bit later. While the rest of the family was at check-out, BF came up to the desk. He clearly wanted to continue our conversation, which I've re-created here to the best of my ability. BF was unfailingly polite throughout, as was I. I made sure to listen closely to what he was saying, and to acknowledge that I heard him, to not rush in with my own answers too soon. I was pleased with myself for being patient, for not arguing, for not being confrontational, while still offering a different perspective. Damn, have I matured!

BF: You know, all that fiction, it's not good for them. It's a drug.

LK: Hmm, well, it could be. But compared to other drugs, it's a pretty positive thing.

BF: No, no, it's an addiction. I see it at home with my eldest. Once they start on those novels, that's all they want to do.

LK: You know, reading anything is good. We believe reading has inherent value.

BF: It's an addiction. It's like movies or video games. Once they start, where does it end.

LK: Do you know, kids who read a lot have greater reading comprehension, and that helps them in all their subjects - science, history, everything. Kids who read a lot do better in school, and that improves their life chances.

BF: Yes, I'll give you that. Reading comprehension is important. But why can't they get that from reading about history, about politics, about science, about the real world? Why do they have to read stupid novels? My eldest at home only wants to read something called Naruto.

I smiled. Manga. It is an addiction!

LK: Does he read anything else?

BF: She. A girl. Her grades are excellent. Very good grades.

LK: So maybe she wants to read Naruto for fun. Would that be OK?

BF: I am all for fun. I don't think children have to work every minute. Fun is good. But those stupid books, they are an addiction. It's what's wrong with our whole society.

LK: Hmm. If I were to pick what was wrong with our society, I don't think I'd say it was too much reading.

We both chuckle. Then:

BF: Do you have religion? Do you have a spiritual life?

Naturally this question took me by surprise. Mentally scrolling through possible answers, I discarded the obvious "That's not really relevant here," or the truthful "No, I don't," as possibly sidetracking an interesting conversation.

LK: Yes, I do. Not sure how that fits in, though.

BF: I'm surprised. I think if you have religion, you would know the answer to this. You would know that we are not helping our children by having them read this awful stuff. All through North America, we emphasize culture, and the arts, and reading, the movies, the plays, the books. Then when we need scientists we have to import them from other countries. Better to develop the science and the math, then bring the arts in later. Once you spoil your brain with arts and reading, you lose the ability to do the science.

LK: Hmm. I don't know about that. I'm a writer and a reader, but I love science.

BF: Perhaps you are exceptional. (Smiling)

LK: (Smiling back) Oh, I don't know... I'm a librarian. I think reading is beneficial for children. For everyone, but especially for children.

BF: At least he should read about the real world. Science, history.

LK: We have a lot of excellent nonfiction he could read, too. Great books on the environment, on animals, on the ancient world - whatever interests him.

BF: Yes? There is nonfiction like that for children?

LK: Absolutely.

BF: OK then, next time we're here I will ask you to help us find some.

LK: It's a deal.

BF: It's been very nice speaking with you. Thank you for your help and have a wonderful day.

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