Posts tagged " children’s books "

Should my children read Harry Potter?

February 13th, 2018 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 27 comments

Dear Rabbi and Susan,

I’m an orthodox Jewish homeschool mom of five and I love your show! Our homeschool curriculum focuses heavily on reading good literature and my kids have just reached the age where Edward Eager’s tales of magic, C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as many others in the fantasy genre are on many recommended reading lists.

I’m unsure of how to approach the element of magic in children’s stories. The Torah forbids witchcraft, so should stories that feature magic be anathema to my Torah-observant kids?

Thanks for the great materials you produce. I consider them part of my continuing education. 🙂

Jessie W.

Dear Jessie,

We’re delighted that you watch our show and that you are homeschooling. As you may know, we homeschooled for many years and a number of our grandchildren are now being homeschooled as well.

Some of our children were the intended audience age when the first Harry Potter book came out.  This book became a major topic of discussion among both the Jewish and Christian homeschoolers we knew. More than any other topic we can think of, the families we knew (and respected) were all over the map on this one.

Approaches ranged from an absolute ban on reading any sort of fantasy to those who couldn’t see any problem whatsoever with the genre. Our view was somewhere in the middle. We made a judgment call and will share some of our considerations, but we would like to emphasize that each child and his surroundings need to be taken into account. Unlike certain questions, such as whether a child should call a parent by his first name where the answer is clear cut (absolutely not!), this question has a lot of room for knowing an individual child, the specific book, subjectivity and praying for Godly wisdom.

When they were young, our children, like many others, delighted in books featuring talking animals who dressed and behaved like people. As parents we saw these books as imaginative, not sinister. Part of the developing toddler sense of humor was understanding that a moose would not go into a store to buy candy and a duck would not toss a salad for a dinner party.

We saw Edward Eager’s books like Half-Magic  or The Enchanted Castle by Edith Nesbit as more sophisticated versions of the same idea. They are incredibly clever stories of things that can never happen; imaginative rather than sinister.

As children grow, it is important for them to understand what the Bible is warning about and forbidding one to dabble in. There are spiritual forces in the world that we cannot easily understand and that nonetheless can do great harm. For example, the focused wishing of evil on someone, for example via a voodoo doll, can have an effect. It is forbidden. In the same way, some people are capable of communing with the dead. This is possible – and forbidden. Statues coming to life under a full moon or finding a coin that allows you to move backwards in history are not real options, so we didn’t see reading about them as problematic.

Is Harry Potter, a brilliant book and not surprisingly a best-seller, different in a real way to the above books or even to the TV show Bewitched?  We don’t know. Many times cultural influences are incredibly subtle.Our second-hand understanding is that the Harry Potter books became darker as the series went along. (Our children were older at that point and I think their interest waned, but anyway they were then at an age to make their own decisions.) We know parents who explained to their children that while they allowed the early books into their homes, they would not let in the later ones.

Realistically, each family needs to decide where certain lines are drawn as well as knowing the point at which forbidding something makes it intensely desirable. There are only so many issues where one can take a stand unless one moves to a community with only like-minded people and shuts out the outside world. 

What we would strongly recommend is forging a relationship with your children that has them respecting and caring what you think. That means explaining your views and listening to theirs. It also means taking the time to read and watch the things to which they are being exposed and doing so with a keen eye. You and they need to develop the ability to see the message behind the message and hone an awareness of what is shaping morals and ideas. Dinnertime conversations are priceless.

We are sure you are already aware of this, but cultural messages are constantly being sent by all sorts of literature. You are raising only one area of concern but parent-child interactions, male-female relationships, views of America and attitudes to money are only four areas where values can be easily absorbed through reading.  For example, we rejected Berenstain Bear books for our children because the father was often portrayed as a genial buffoon whose wife and children were clearly smarter and more accomplished than he was. 

You need to be clear on what your family values are. While we appreciated C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series and most of our Christian friends loved the books, we personally chose not to share those with our children. Narnia is a Christian parable and as such, no matter how lovely a story, it wasn’t meant for our Jewish family. One of our friends, whose children grew up to be just as committed Jews as our children, made the decision to let her children read the Narnia series. Each parent should take the responsibility to make those decisions herself.

Our homeschooling was very literature based and we have wonderful memories of read-aloud sessions with teenagers perfectly capable of reading to themselves. We hope you create many wonderful memories of your own.

Enjoy these years,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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Is your image of the Tower of Babel based on VeggiTales for children? 

Are you ready for the grown-up version? 

Tower of Power: Decoding the Secrets of Babel

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George and Martha, Frog and Toad

June 29th, 2017 Posted by Susan's Musings 30 comments

As a young child, one of our daughters had an exceedingly difficult time controlling her temper and her tongue. When I had my act together, I would spin thinly veiled bedtime stories for her about a mice family dealing with the same issues as she and her siblings faced. Listening to those tales allowed her to glimpse storms and mistakes in her own world in a safe and gentle way.

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Growing with Nancy

January 18th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings 1 comment

Superman comic books may not generally be considered advanced literary material, but the childhood hours I spent reading them did help me do well on my SATs.  While I didn’t read the comics for vocabulary lessons, years later the spurious documents that one criminal used served me admirably when I needed to pick the correct multiple choice synonym for that word.

This recently came to mind when I was shown an original Nancy Drew volume and one of the newer Nancy Drew: Girl Detective books. The “titian-haired girl” had transformed into a “strawberry blond,” she no longer “chafed at delays” and the sentence structure and plot were watered down.  Even worse, her personality, character and intelligence had reverted to the median. Instead of Nancy Drew, role model, she had turned into Nancy Drew, one of today’s crowd.

How unfortunate. A story is told about one of the great 20th century rabbis and one of my husband’s teachers, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky, whose portrait hangs in the entrance hallway to our home.  He was visiting a pre-school and noticed that there were mezuzot (scrolls with specific Biblical verses written on them) on the doorposts, in accordance with Deuteronomy 6:9. However, they were placed lower than mandated. When he asked why, the teachers responded that they were low so that they would be accessible from the children’s heights. The rabbi commented, “What we must do is put a stepstool in order for the children to reach higher — to the proper level of the mezuzah (singular)! Raise the child at an early age to reach the height of the mitzvah (commandment), instead of lowering the mitzvah to the child!”

I am certainly not comparing Nancy Drew to the mitzvah of affixing a mezuzah to one’s doorposts. But I do believe in parents strongly supervising what their children read. Rather than thinking, “Well, at least they’re reading,” my husband and I were acutely aware that what our children were reading would help form their characters, attitudes and intelligence. While we didn’t always manage to apply the supervision we knew was needed (our children were voracious readers), our goal was for everything they read to make them greater, not lesser people. That didn’t mean filling our home with uninteresting, pious tracts. It did mean hands-on library visits, occasionally not allowing a popular book or series into our home, and a great deal of children’s literature on our own bedside tables. It frequently meant using the books the children were reading, or that we read aloud as a family, as a launching pad for discussion. 

I discovered the changes in the Nancy Drew series because one of my daughters showed me her ‘rejection’ pile after her children’s visit to the library. Her family’s shelves are filled with many of the books that she and her siblings loved as well as more recently written ones that she has discovered. There is little that can fill a grandmother’s heart with as much joy as knowing that her children are making sure that their own children reject the spurious values and prevalent trends surrounding them, for a greater goal than SAT scores.

 

 

Not the Charlotte’s Web I Recall

January 23rd, 2007 Posted by Susan's Musings 2 comments

What do you think of when you remember Charlotte’s Web? Maybe pigs and spiders, or perhaps you are surrounded by memories of cuddling under a blanket and reading, possibly the first stirrings of recognition that there was a relationship between the food on your plate and animals. (As a Jew who kept kosher, the book might have been an easier read for me) Whatever your memories are, they probably didn’t include high school students having affairs with their teachers or participating in a host of other immoral and un-childlike behaviors.

Which is why it was incredibly disturbing to me when I approached a copy of Charlotte’s Web prominently displayed in a bookstore on a shelf advertising “Recommended Reading for Children”, and found that the book featured next to it included the above depravities.

What is the manager of that bookstore thinking? And how sad is it that parents can’t allow their children the liberating pleasure of freely browsing through the children’s section of a bookstore or the library without having to worry about what they will find. With all the (necessary) warnings about children being accidentally exposed to pornography and other evils on the web, how about a little concern for what they will find in what we think of as safe locations?

Using judgment and taking the responsibility for what children see should be an obligation every children’s librarian and bookstore owner accepts. The fact that the government shouldn’t censor reading material is unrelated to whether adults in positions of trust should. In the years that passed between when my eldest and youngest daughters each became voracious readers and devoted bookshelf browsers I saw a scary change in the offerings on those shelves. I’m not talking age appropriate realism – I’m talking age inappropriate depictions and the presentation of deviation as the norm. What a sad reality it is when any caring parent today has to know that the sheltered harbors of their childhood, the libraries and bookstores, are no longer protected environments

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