Don’t Tell Me What to Read (or) Book Recommendations without Judgement

6 Dec

There seems to be a common presumption that young people need moral instruction and therefore must read books sanctioned by some mystical entity that proclaims certain enlightened works Good and Worthy. Yet teens who read for pleasure–and who maintain that habit for life–enjoy many different genres. Certain genres or types of book–from gaming spinoffs to celebrity bios–can serve as “gateway drugs” into reading. Yet adult, and librarians (myself included) often seem to feel an obligation to push other types of books onto unwilling readers. As Megan Honig writes in her fifth entry in 30 Days of Street Lit project:

I discovered a number of resources suggesting titles to recommend to teens instead of street lit….Problem was, these “substitute” books weren’t street lit. And the teens who came in looking for “the real stuff” knew it. Offer a title from one of the substitute lists, and they would grudgingly take it at best, lose all trust in the library at worst.

As far as I can tell the UK doesn’t have an equivalent of Street Lit/urban fiction. However, we do have books in our libraries that are disapproved of by a majority of staff. These may include genres or even categories: graphic novels, manga, and young adult all suffered criticism. Romance novels, chick lit, and glossy celebrity-authored books (fiction and non-fiction) are often subjects of scorn. I often end up in debates with other adults who believe libraries need to stop buying popular titles and focus on stocking “classic” books for young people. (Later on in the conversation it nearly always turns out that the adult flogging classics reads lots of popular novels as part of their leisure!).

The first step is always to get a young person reading, to put the right book in their hands at the right time (to paraphrase author Lauren Myracle). Once a reader is confident–hooked, if you will–they may be open to slowly expanding their reading horizons. Libraries lack an academic agenda: our primary goal is to promote access to information and to encourage literacy. Nothing encourages literacy more than reading. Quality is a secondary condition. The most important thing a teen librarian can do when recommending books is put the right book into the right readers hands, regardless of whether it’s a book we ourselves would choose to read.

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