December 11, 2007

Golden Compass and Children's Reading

I have followed with great interest the ongoing discussion of the Golden Compass, the movie based on the first novel in Phillip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials. These young adult novels could fairly be termed anti-organized religion. The movie is getting lukewarm and poor reviews and low attendance. Its opponents probably should stop giving it free publicity by calling for boycotts. I urge parents to read these three excellent books and struggle with how they would answer their teen's questions about them. They are not children's books; almost all public libraries classify them as young adult novels suitable for high schoolers.

The Archbishop of Canterbury had a more enlightened approach. He has had public discussions with Pullman and urged that religious educators use the novel in classes with teenagers. At a certain point, all believers have to struggle with the history of their faith and its failure to live up to its beliefs. It seems far better to do that as a teenager with adult guidance from fellow believers.

My parents never censored my reading. They supported me in my 11-year-old effort to convince the local librarian to allow me to check out adult books. The Catholic Church's index of forbidden books was a factor in my eventual estrangement from Catholicism. I never censored my four daughters' reading. But I always paid careful attention to what they were reading. If the book was questionable, I read it too and discussed it with them. His Dark Materials was published after they were grown, but I have analyzed it with the two daughters who have read the trilogy.

I took a very different approach to TV and movies. I believe children can protect themselves from upsetting reading, skipping over the violent parts, choosing not to continue with the book. Scary, violent movies and TV shows are far more likely to cause nightmares and persistent fears. For five years we didn't have a TV; their watching was always restricted. At one point we had a lock on our TV. I have always objected to violence far more than sexuality or bad language.

As a librarian, I would be opposed to removing His Dark Materials from any high school or public library. The books are considered among the best young adult novels of the last ten years, far better written and more demanding than Harry Potter. A boycott of a novel written 12 years ago indicates that the boycotters don't read enough. The bright side of the controversy is that more people will read the books. When I recommended the books to mature teens, they claimed they were too long and too hard. Banned books always increase library circulation.

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