The Pleasures of Guilty Reading

I have to admit that when the ALA released their list of the most banned books for 2006, I was surprised to see the Gossip Girl series. Really? Gossip Girl?

I had read all sorts of adults decrying it as trash, especially Naomi Wolf in the New York Times and the resulting discussion on the Horn Book Blog, but I was still surprised. Gossip Girl?

So, I did what any banned book aficionado would do–I read it. I hadn’t read it previously, for the same reason I never watched the OC–stories about spoiled, rich teenagers shopping and sleeping with each other bore me. When I want to read or watch TV about people spending $500 on a pair of shoes and sleeping with their best friend’s boyfriend, I prefer it to be about adults.

But I picked up Gossip Girl and guess what? I loved it. It’s trashy. It’s fun. Yes, these people are horrible people– but the book knows they’re horrible and is in no way holding them up as possible role models. You don’t like these people, but you’re not supposed to.

When I thought about why it was banned there are the usual instances of sex, drugs, drinking, and swearing. There’s probably also the nebulous “anti-family content” but do you know why I think it really gets banned? Because kids like it and you could never make the argument for it being Literature.  It’s chick-lit, it’s Danielle Steele, it’s Sex and the City it’s harmless and it’s fun. WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!

We have long banned books that are trashy fun because they are bad for children. But these are the books that kids like, and in the next generation, the readers who are currently sneaking these books from well-intentioned adults will be giving them to their own children.

Don’t believe me? Just look at Nancy Drew. Nancy is a cultural icon and you’ll be hard pressed to find a library today without shelves of those tell-tale yellow spines. Mothers and librarians are giving them to children with fond memories of their own childhood, even though their own mothers and their librarians did everything they could to keep them away.

Adults have no problem allowing themselves healthy doses of guilty pleasures in their reading materials, but we don’t allow children the same freedoms. We blab on and on about the joys of reading and how reading, any reading, is good and should be encouraged but OH LORD! Don’t read that!

I always felt vaguely guilty in my AP World Lit and Comp class senior year of high school. My teacher, whom I love dearly, often made cracks at Danielle Steele and her ilk (but always mentioning Ms. Steele by name) because it’s not Literature. But I enjoy reading and I like books that aren’t Literature. I like what is commonly referred to by well-meaning adults as trash.

Even the language we use– trashy reading, guilty pleasures, makes us feel that we are somehow reading something bad. I don’t feel guilty about enjoying Gossip Girl, even though the ALA can’t even be bothered to get the name of the series correct when bemoaning it’s frequent banning.

I enjoy Literature. I read a lot of it. I sit on committees that discuss Literature for children and teens. I always felt vaguely uncomfortable when my teacher denigrated others reading choices (hoping to mold us into cultured readers, I guess) but I read what others snub their noses at and I turned out OK. In junior high and high school, I read everything Christopher Pike wrote. I read romance novels I picked up at the check-out aisle of the grocery store.

Despite the hordes of adults telling me it was bad and I was ruining myself, I turned out OK. I won an award and scholarship for most outstanding English student my senior year. I became a librarian. When kids want something fun, I hand them Christopher Pike and Gossip Girls and Nancy Drew. I tell them they’ll love it, and they will. I also hand out Newberry winners and books I read in school and say the same thing.

We need to allow kids the same reading fun we allow ourselves. We need to allow them to read fun stuff that doesn’t build character or teach a moral lesson. We need to truly believe that reading, any reading, is good and allow them to read whatever they want.


7 Responses to The Pleasures of Guilty Reading

  1. […] The pleasures of guilty reading […]

  2. akdmyers says:

    Hear, hear!

    I certainly think kids should be encouraged to read “good literature,” but it seems to me that sometimes it’s best if they discover it on their own. I remember trying really hard to read The Lord of the Rings trilogy when I was 12 at my mother’s recommendation and finally having to give up; it was just too boring. I rediscovered it in college and LOVED it, every page of it. As a kid, I read everything from Sweet Valley High to Little Women. I would certainly never recommend Sweet Valley High as good literature, but it was sure fun, and reading should be fun.

    As an adult I still have pretty diverse reading habits, and I don’t apologize or feel guilty. I think it makes us more well-rounded people if we read our non-fiction and our Literature, but also enjoy our trashy romances, mysteries, etc. Sometimes your brain just needs a break. Every so often my parents ask if I’ve read any “real books” recently; they don’t want to hear about the fantasy books and the kids’ books, but to me, those books are every bit as real (and fun!) as any serious adult fiction.

  3. Dana says:

    Absolutely! I wouldn’t be nearly as interested in reading now if I hadn’t read “trash” like the Babysitters Club and other series when I was a kid. I really liked Bobbie Ann Mason’s point in The Girl Sleuth that series books appeal to children and encourage their budding interest in reading, because they enjoy the continuity of characters. And really, isn’t that what we all like? We enjoy series books because we like getting to know the characters; they feel like our friends and are therefore comfortable.

    I’m with Ann (and you) on thinking that kids should be allowed to read “good literature” when they want to. My biggest impression from the English classes I had to take in middle and high school was that I didn’t like any of the books we were forced to read very much. However, now that I’ve been out of school for quite some time, I’ve gone back and read some of the things I know many of the students in other English classes in high school had to read, but I skipped, and they’re good. Really, I’m kind of glad I never read Jane Eyre until I actually wanted to. No bad memories associated with it this way.

    As for the children, I’m pretty sure I read somewhere once that they’re likely to either be bored by inappropriate material because they don’t understand it, or they sort of skip it. I remember doing that when I was a kid. I read anything I could get my hands on, but some of it was boring, and some of it was completely different when I went back and reread it as an adult.

  4. Mary says:

    One of my favorite things about being a substitute English teacher is that I usually get a planning hour (best if it’s scheduled right next to lunch) and I get to read books out of the little library the teacher has assembled in the room. (And get paid! Albeit not much.) Some of the literature is more mature, even though it’s YA literature, but it’s also fun to read stuff like “The Face on the Milk Carton.” Apparently there are sequels.

    Just like one of the perks of being a parent is that one has a legitimate reason to play with toys, one of the perks of teaching adolescents is getting to read those books.

    I recently was forced to go to a math class to cover for another sub who was late. Not only was I totally unqualified to help anybody with anything, there was nothing to read in that room…not even worth showing up.

  5. Sonetka says:

    Yay! Good bad books! (TM George Orwell). I remember, during one very bad summer, plowing through what seemed like half the library’s YA section and it had its full complement of bad-yet-compelling stuff – all immensely comforting. That included My Face On The Milk Carton, though that series did lose steam after about the second book – I mean, how many times can you reiterate the same angst? I’m also a total sucker for overblown novels about the Tudors and Stuarts; I own quite a few Anne Boleyn novels, some of them really achingly awful. (“The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn” has so many anachronisms it’s a joy to read, in a really perverse way).

  6. […] one hand, I really enjoyed this article from RADAR magazine. As I’ve discussed before, I’m a big fan of anything that stands up for my right to read Gossip […]

  7. […] I have argued time and time again for adults to read YA and children’s literature. I loooooooooooooooooooooooooooove YA and […]

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