To Edit or Not to Edit: How Do You Read Older Literature to Children?

9 years ago

I think it started with Junie B. Jones, the star of a book series by Barbara Park. A person (who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty) gave my then four-year-old daughter a copy of Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business, a story about a girl who was my daughter's age who was about to gain a new sibling, just as my child was at the time. Junie B. is brash and unstoppable, and is far from perfect, which I thought was a good thing for my daughter to see. My daughter greatly enjoyed the series, but after a few of the books, I began to absolutely HATE Junie B.

For those who haven't experienced her, Junie B. is quite the controversial character in children's literature. Some people adore her, for the reasons I mentioned. Others go crazy about her poor grammar and tendency to flout the rules in the face of her parents' or teachers' authority, which is the point I got to myself. I couldn't take any more of her screaming in ALL CAPS or calling people stupid. I give my kids a lot of credit. I think they are absolutely intelligent enough to realize that Junie B. is not a model for good behavior, and it does provide opportunities to talk about the right way to handle a situation. I began to suspect the author was on a one-woman mission to murder my love of the English language and children's literature. Much like a consistently bratty kid, though, I did not want Junie B. around our house.

Having given Junie B. the boot, I decided to see what my old friend Ramona Quimby was up to. After being bludgeoned with Barbara Park's boring prose and overdosing on her bratagonist, Beverly Cleary was like waking up to spring after six months of dreary grey slush. Ramona made mistakes, sometimes terrible ones, but she seemed to actually learn from them. She realized that there were other people in the world, and they had problems, too. She seemed like a live person, rather than the cardboard cutout that was Junie B. Jones.

My kid got to be VERY enthusiastic about Ramona. We didn't devour them all at once, but instead would pick them up every couple months or so. Finally, we ran out of Ramona books, but I was enjoying revisiting Cleary so much, we branched out when I noticed a copy of Henry and Beezus at a used bookstore. My daughter was enthusiastic about seeing Klickitat Street from another angle--the perspective of a boy, Henry Huggins. I had not been inspired to read his stories when I was younger, because in the Ramona books he is portrayed as a dutiful dullard, crabbing at Ramona in his role as a crossing guard. Surely a whole book dedicated to him would be more interesting?

Well, it was, but not in the way I expected. The relationship between Ramona and her sister made something niggle around in my brain. Beazus was so orderly, virtuous, girlish. Ramona was often criticized by her sister or portrayed as the bad or difficult one because she acted in ways that are stereotypically attributed to boys. I didn't feel like it was a big enough of a deal to bring it up with her while reading Ramona, but the sexism in Henry and Beezus hit me like a brickbat.

Repeatedly, Henry complains about Beezus on their adventures together. I was reading out loud when I came across this phrase:

Until they reached the Glenwood shopping district, Henry almost thought that girls were good for something after all.

Later, Beezus bids on a bike for Henry at an auction and wins. Henry is displeased because the bike she wins for him turns out to be a girl's bike. He concludes:

What could you expect when you went to an auction with a girl?

What should I do with this? Should we stop reading it? Should I edit it, as I had done with books in the past? My daughter is seven now, and is beginning to see the world as a grey place, instead of a black-and-white one.

I decided to read the phrases out loud, with sufficient space around them so she could jump in, and she often does with questions or comments. "What is he talking about?" she said. "There is nothing wrong with girls." Whew. Score a point for gender equality, there. This book opened many conversations on sexism and equality. We discussed the fact that Cleary, a woman, was writing this propaganda about girls. By the end we had decided that Henry was a chump and we wanted to throw the book across the room.

A few days later, we picked up Misty of Chincoteague, written by Marguerite Henry in 1947. Here was the same question again after the main female character in the book was depicted as weepy and emotional simply because she was a girl. To read or to edit? I chose to edit these sentences out this time, since they added nothing to the story and were small asides.

The Henry Huggins experience was a positive one, but it made me think: do other parents edit books? Of course they do. Deborah of In a Strange Land writes, on reading Prince Caspian to her girls:

I did a fair bit of editing as I read the books to the girls, changing
words and phrases so that I didn’t end up reading misogyny out loud to
my lovely daughters.

Was this a good policy, I wondered, to Bowdlerize the books I was reading to my kids unless I was ready to have a thirty-minute discussion? Karen Knows Best reflects on looking back at the Sweet Valley High series and is shocked at what she finds: racism, sexism, and encouraging anorexia? So maybe editing was the answer? Another option that I missed until recently was the fact that Judy Blume had recently edited her own books to keep up with modern times.

What do you think, people who read to children? Do you change things on the fly, or avoid those books all together? Is it right to edit, or do we take the opportunity to talk about complicated issues? What would Henry Huggins say? Probably that I was being a royal pain about this, just like a girl.

 

 

 

 

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