8 ways to handle difficult books

I’ve been thinking about difficult books, recently, about pieces of children’s literature that are stark and unflinching or those that present difficult and controversial narratives. I am passionate about books being available to readers, always, but then there are moments when there are books that challenge that stance for me. I am honest about that, here, because I think that’s a vital thing to have. I am passionate, madly, about these pieces of literature but sometimes I struggle with that they are. And I need to understand that because I need to understand how I live with these books in the world.

I suspect that might be a commonplace thing; that urge to passionately defend, advocate and promote literature and yet, sometimes, realising that you’re standing on ice so thin that you can see the shadows underneath and the fin-tipped doubts that you have about a book are circling, ready to break through.

So here’s my way to handle that.

  1. Read the book.
  2. Seriously, read the book. I’m very upfront about this. Make time in your life to read that book that makes you wary or unsure abut it. Covers and blurbs and reviews are coded with meaning and ideologies, whether implicit or explicit, consciously constructed or otherwise, and you will never know what that book means until you read it. And until you know what that book means, what it says to you, you can’t even begin to understand what it may say to others.
  3. That may in the previous paragraph. Think about that. No book says the exact same thing to every reader. Not possible. If I were to say to you ‘cat’, you’ll think of a cat that’s unique to you. Maybe the one that’s curling around your feet right now, or sitting on the laptop and ‘helping’ you to read this post. So. Books say different things to everyone. That difference may have some commonalities, but it will be different in its nuances so be wary of predicting a general response to a book. Be wary of predicting a general blanket response to a book.
  4. So now you’ve read the book, and began to understand what your response is, here’s the part where you try and figure out why you’ve responded to it in this manner. Reflect. Be honest and true to yourself. I have difficulties with books about certain subjects. I recognise that, and when I read books about those subjects, I read them with that awareness in mind. Not everyone has the same difficulties that I do. There’s that generalisation again. Stick with that. Remember that, if you don’t remember anything else. Don’t generalise. It’s hard, I know, but try. You’re in a position of power with these books ; don’t abuse that.
  5. You’ve read the book and examined your response to it and understood that and maybe you’re still finding it problematic? Fine. Genuinely. That’s fine, and not in that passive-aggressive sense of fiiiine. I will always fight for the right to have opinions and to allow and enable those opinions. But here’s the part where you frame that opinion within yourself. Here’s the part where you look at the books that go out of your library and maybe find out that the difficult book has immense usage stats. Here’s the part where you go online and find out that it’s award winning, and teens are talking about it. Here’s the part where you recognise it’s difficult but you put it on your shelves because it’s wanted there.
  6. A final note on the difficult, truly difficult books. The ones where bad things happen, or history is presented in a way that is complex to mediate in a contemporary event. The ones where things happen that should not happen. Here’s the part where you trust yourself and your knowledge of your children, your customers, your publishers. You’re not reacting on your own part, here, you’re playing devils advocate. You’re going through the book on a case by case basis and understanding what it might say to the world. You’re researching the book in question. Checking its Goodread reviews. Doing a Twitter search on it. Maybe reading up on it in blogs. And then, you decide what to do with it, because you can justify every single step of your decision at this point. Maybe you don’t buy it after all. Maybe you put it out but keep an eye on the stats. Maybe you add it to stock but talk about its complicated and problematic representations. Maybe you talk about it, but you don’t hold it. A thousand different ways to mediate the book and to understand the meanings of that mediation.
  7. Don’t ban. Never ban. Mediate and manage and enable. Don’t ban. Ever. Please.
  8. Read. The. Book.
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