Tuesday, June 16, 2015
I grabbed Stinky Stern Forever because it was a short chapter book with the word "stinky" in the title. Sold. That was the extent of my previewing.
On Sunday, I was heading out to do a quick errand and reminded my middle guy to take a Minecraft break and start a new chapter book. I offered up Stinky Stern Forever because I knew he would not be intimidated by the length. Indeed, he read the whole book in less than an hour, but I returned home to some bewilderment.
My husband: Why did you make him read that book?
The reader: It was kind of really sad.
My oldest: A kid died.
Oops. I then scanned the inside cover and found this teaser: But when school lets out and the kids begin to head home, something unexpected--and horrible--happens that will change Mrs. Fennessey's class forever. Having neglected the inside cover, you can bet I also did not look up any reviews or summaries. I might have discovered this plot point from a School Library Journal review on Amazon: Pa Lia Vang doesn't like Stinky Stern, the bully of her second-grade class. But late one day, on his way home from school, he is hit by a van in full view of the child. She learns later that evening that he has died. Had I previewed the book further, I would also have seen that those leaving reviews gave it high marks for tackling a difficult subject with sensitivity and offering a welcome degree of complexity and honesty to younger readers. However, I still wouldn't have chosen it for my almost seven year-old.
The book made him feel sad, but it was ultimately, not a scarring experience (at least not so far). It's okay to feel sad. For another reader (including some others in this house), however, I think this book may have provoked anxiety, sleeplessness, and questions I'm not totally prepared to answer. If my middle guy had been more rattled, I would have read Stinky Stern myself so that we could talk about it. I have not done that because I don't really want to read a book about a second grader getting hit by a van. I know horrible things happen that kids witness and must process. I know that literature is one way to imagine the pain and confusion of a tragic event and to try to make sense of it. I know that good and great books are often built around tough realities. But, that's not what I was seeking when I put this book in our library bag.
So, what's the lesson here?
Authors should not write books in which children die. Of course not. Such books are needed, though I would prefer if they did not have a goofy kid on the cover and "stinky" in the title.
The library should put a little tombstone sticker on the side of the book. You know, like the stickers that delineate sports books, mysteries, etc.? Of course not, though I will say, my middle guy did ask several times, "Are you going to tell the library about this book? I don't want other kids to be sad."
I should go online to read reviews of the books I choose for my children. Practically speaking, I don't think this will happen, but I definitely will preview a bit more carefully going forward. I would have found enough to give me pause had I just checked the inside cover.
I should ask our wonderful librarians to help us select books. Definitely. I have seen them in action. They are great at asking about kids' interests, showing them options, and selling their favorite titles. My middle guy and I will go that route next time we're there.
Curious about how other parents and kids choose library books? Any tips or habits?