Why Kids Need the Freedom To Choose the Books They Read

by Allison Varnes

Photo credit: Tim Hall, Cultura Collection/Getty Images

Someone gave me a book for my tenth birthday because they knew how much I loved to read. I don’t remember what it was, nor do I even remember what it was about. What I do remember is that it wasn’t a novel I would have chosen for myself. It was the kind of book the adult thought I should be reading. I thanked them, of course, but I never read it.

If that scenario had played on autorepeat across my childhood and I hadn’t had access to books that I wanted to read, I would not be an author today (my debut, Property of the Rebel Librarian, is now on sale). I would not be a reader. I would not have a Ph.D. in education, and I would never have become a high school teacher. Let that sink in a second.

Now consider the restrictions that some well-meaning adults place on today’s kids in their quest to have them read “quality” novels. I can only assume that by “quality,” they primarily mean canonical literature written by old white men at least a century ago. There’s a place for the classics, but there’s also a place for modern works and fun. I often see graphic novels and books in series frowned upon for lacking this so-called “quality,” and it’s ridiculous. Kids love reading series about familiar characters. Adults do, too, and no one bats an eye when they pick up the next Jack Reacher, Jack Ryan, or Kinsey Millhone novel.

So why are children denied the same privilege on the basis that a book doesn’t meet a certain standard? It’s rubbish. A quality book is one that a child wants to read!

When kids have access to libraries and the freedom to self-select books, they develop their identities as readers. It’s part of an education that allows them to learn how to think, not what to think. But still, some adults want to tell them what to read.

This is wrong. Kids need to find themselves in books and to see representation in books that expands beyond their own lives. They need the freedom to choose whether they want to read books as windows, mirrors, roadmaps, or pure entertainment. Without that freedom, they might not read at all. I probably wouldn’t.

If we want to pass a love of reading to the next generation, we have to allow them to have joy when they read. This sometimes means reading books with fart jokes, books with wizards that defeat evil, graphic novels, series, and books that speak truths that resonate with kids. Unfortunately, these books are often challenged within schools and libraries.

We must support and defend the right to read! Banned Books Week gives us an opportunity to celebrate this right.

These are some of my favorite frequently challenged middle grade books: