Many parents love reading with their kids; it’s a bonding experience — one that promotes learning and a love of storytelling.
But what happens when you’re reading a beloved favorite from childhood with your kids only to realize it hasn’t aged so well? Recently, I was excited to reread “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” with my older son. I quickly discovered, though, that it features fat-phobic language and has downright racist and sexist undertones. In the moment, I wondered, “How should I handle reading this and other books like it with my kid?”
And I’m not alone. “Even as a librarian, I’ve struggled to find appropriate read alouds for my children,” said Rosemary D’Urso, who runs a book blog and Instagram account called LibraryMom. “Like many people, I have naturally gravitated toward books that I loved as a child or stories that are considered classics. Reading them as an adult, however, has left me feeling uncomfortable at times.”
So I not only asked the HuffPost Parents Facebook audience for books they’ve found problematic upon rereading, but I turned to some experts to ask how to handle them in the moment.
Here’s what they had to say.
How to talk about it
Any parent will tell you that you’re bound to find a teachable moment pretty much anywhere, including ― and especially ― while reading. So how should a parent or caregiver handle something that’s problematic in the moment?
“Parents may need to be ready to have conversations about inappropriate or anachronistic language and situations that may arise,” said D’Urso.
In other words, taking the time in the moment to talk through why something is problematic is a good idea.
Margret Aldrich of the Little Free Library agreed, advocating that parents address the words or themes “head-on.” She added, “We recommend parents talk about each section that depicts hurtful stereotypes or racist themes, going in depth as to why those ideas are not OK. If you do encounter a questionable passage, pause to talk to your child about why it’s wrong and antiquated, how the world has changed, and what your family does to be an ally to others.”
Indeed, taking the time to explain how times have changed is important, no matter the activity.
LaNesha Tabb, a kindergarten teacher who also runs the successful Instagram Education With an Apron, explained how she talks to her kids about problematic books.
“For me, racist depictions in illustrations because ‘the story is so cute’ is a hard pass. However, a fairy tale with strong ‘wait on a man to rescue a woman’ or ‘appearance over everything’ vibes could be a teachable moment,” she said. “I can read the story and ask my children how they feel. Then, I can intentionally ask them questions that might cause them to think about the story in a different light. A nice part of living in this day and age is the fact that fairy tales, while not perfect, offer children characters that are smart, level-headed and independent. I might ask a fairy tale-loving child how Cinderella differs from Elsa, then we can discuss how being viewed as a ‘hero’ is different in both stories. This is a great chance to develop your child’s critical thinking skills.”
If you want a classic tale, here’s what to read instead
True, parents will likely have fond memories of books like those in the Little House on the Prairie series, which were of course written in a very different time. If you’re looking for a modern-day upgrade, try retellings instead.
For instance, if Little House on the Prairie was a favorite, try the Birchbark House series written by Native American author Louise Erdrich, recommended Aldrich. “Not only do the Birchbark books represent Indigenous people in a respectful way, they are moving and fun family reads,” she added.
Tabb suggested following The Conscious Kid on Instagram, which focuses on parenting through a diverse lens.
If you’re looking for alternatives to classics, here’s a list of retellings provided by Nicole Johnson, the executive director of We Need Diverse Books:
Instead of “Peter Pan,” try “Sisters of the Neversea” by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Instead of “Snow White,” try “Forest of a Thousand Lanterns” by Julie C. Dao
Instead of “The Red Shoes,” try “Dark and Deepest Red” by Anna-Marie McLemore
Instead of “Much Ado About Nothing,” try “I Think I Love You” by Auriane Desombre
Instead of “Pride & Prejudice,” try “Pride” by Ibi Zoboi
Instead of “Beauty & the Beast,” try “Of Curses and Kisses” by Sandhya Menon
Instead of “The Count of Monte Cristo,” try “Scavenge the Stars” by Tara Sim
Instead of “Alice in Wonderland,” try “A Blade So Black” by L.L. McKinney
Instead of “Orpheus & Eurydice,” try “Never Look Back” by Lilliam Rivera
Instead of “Little Women,” try “More to the Story” by Hena Khan
Instead of “Frankenstein,” try “Destroyer” by Victor LaValle