So at my daughter’s new school, the kids are reading this book, Hoot by Carl Hiaasen. You may have heard of it. It was also a movie. I’ve never seen it; maybe you have. You may know of Carl Hiaasen, or even be a fan of his work–his usual genre is adult comic mystery. I’ve never read any of his books, though I’ve meant to. I’ve heard they’re clever. Hoot was his first book for the juvenile market. (He’s written another since then, Flush, about which I know nothing.) So yeah, the kids at Princess Zurg’s school have been reading it, and PZ has been none too thrilled about it. Actually, she’s been morally outraged.

Well, “outraged” is really too strong a word. She has concerns that the book is not appropriate for her because it has some bad words. Words like a slang term for flatulence that rhymes with “art” (most prominent). Words like “damn” and “hell.” Words like “ass.” Words like “dumbass.” You might think it odd that I’ll write out damn and hell and ass but I shrink at spelling ****. That’s because in our house we allow our children to say “damn” and “hell” so long as they’re using the words in the religious sense. We’ll even let them say “ass” if they’re using it in the donkey sense. (Especially if they’re reading the Bible–so, you know, religious usage. Last night we were reading the Book of Mormon together and I told them they could say “dumbass” so long as they pronounced it “dumb…ass.”) They are not allowed to say ****. Because we are not animals, okay? Good manners are important, and so far I’ve had no luck getting them to eat with utensils, so don’t begrudge me my small niceties. Please.

Anyway, PZ knows the aforementioned words are not being used in any religious sense in this book, Hoot, and thus these words are making her feel uncomfortable, like she’s doing something wrong, i.e. reading inappropriate material. She knows she’s not supposed to read inappropriate material. Well, Sugar Daddy and I have told her that these words, distasteful as they might be, are pretty mild by most obscenity standards, and she probably isn’t headed down the slippery slope to Pottymouthville just by reading this book, and she certainly isn’t committing sin; we think she should finish reading the book because it touches on some issues she might find interesting, and it would behoove her to get some practice ignoring minor irritations and focusing on the big picture, as it were. However, we’ve also said that if she keeps reading and the book is really, really making her feel bad, Western Civilization would probably survive if one less fourth-grader in the world was able to engage in thoughtful discourse about Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot; we’d talk it over with her teacher and find her another book to read. (We talked this over with her teacher, who is totally cool with this plan. She just wants the kids to read.)

So PZ is still reading the book, but she still complains about it. The other day she came home and was embarrassed because the book talked about “kissing someone’s butt.” And that’s just gross, right? Not to mention wrong, if you’re going to take a literal read of that expression, which PZ does, as she has led such a heretofore-sheltered life. At her old school, she was among children who tended to act younger than their age; here she is among children who tend to act older than their age, and that is the baseline for how the adults treat them. She is still trying to wrap her head around that.

Because I’d encouraged her to finish the book, I thought I should read it myself, so I could have more useful conversations about it with her. I found a copy at my local library branch–which was provident in itself, as my local library branch is teeny-tiny and mostly has copies of nuthin’–and I finished reading it this weekend. It’s a mildly entertaining book. I wasn’t bored by it. I didn’t find it riveting. I also didn’t find it terribly sophisticated, and I hesitate to posit that my standards were simply too high. I read at least seven of the Left Behind books, for crying out loud, not to mention The Nanny Diaries. But I don’t want to get off on a tangent. Hiaasen has probably forgotten more about plotting mysteries than I will ever know, so whatever–“whatever” as in, whatever failings I imagine the book to have from a literary standpoint, it’s still entertaining and it also raises some thought-provoking questions.

The story is about some kids who try to save an owl habitat from some corporate developers. The thought-provoking questions are “how far should you go for a cause you believe in?” and “is it okay to break the law if your cause is just?” and “which is more important in making a moral decision, your mind or your heart?” These are questions I want PZ to ask herself and to discuss with me. This is part of why I want my kids to read, so they will think about issues that might not enter their brains otherwise. Also, so that they’ll leave me alone so I can read. But that’s less pertinent to my story here.

Moving right along, I realize that this scenario is going to recur with greater repercussions as PZ gets older and she’s asked by her teachers to read books that contain far more offensive material than that found in Hoot. Yes, PZ is bound to lighten up a bit as years go by, but I wouldn’t bank on her lightening up that much. I mean, sure, that would be my dream–lighten up, sweetie!–but I’ve known plenty of people with sensitive natures that never have lightened up. Not by high school, not by college, not by ladies’ auxiliary book club night. I tried to start a book club for my ladies’ auxiliary several years ago, and one of our (very few) members had definite concerns about whether or not the books we read would be “up to Gospel standards,” whatever that means. Well, I think I know what she meant by that, but how on earth do you answer that when your first selection is Fear of Flying? (Just kidding, we never read that–though how awesome would that have been? Hee hee hee.)

When I was high school age, I went to church with kids who felt caught between their moral values and their school’s required reading. They found books like The Catcher in the Rye and Brave New World offensive and morally objectionable, and they didn’t see why they should have to read them. Well, on the one hand, there is not a shortage of good books written in English over the last 200 years, and probably there are enough without “objectionable” material to fill a class syllabus. I sure won’t try to argue that point. However, it’s not that simple. It’s pretty easy to lead a full life and even pass yourself off as an educated person without having read The Catcher in the Rye. Probably you could skip Brave New World also. But you’d be missing a lot more than you would by skipping Hoot. Amongst the orgies and the general debauchery there are larger themes–and moral arguments–being articulated. (The irony is that it always behooves religious zealots to read anti-Utopian novels, but it’s hard to get the full benefit when you’re fixated on the naughty parts.)

Then there’s Huckleberry Finn. No one I went to school with ever objected to Huckleberry Finn on moral grounds–not that these kids loved the n-word or even appreciated good literature, but the n-word just wasn’t a big enough deal for them to protest. But there are other students, elsewhere, for whom the n-word is a big deal, much bigger and more offensive than the F-word. While I’m sure there are all kinds of high school graduates–some of them honors students, alas–who have never actually read Huckleberry Finn, I don’t think that’s a good thing. One could argue that by skipping Huckleberry Finn you are missing out on more than you would miss by skipping The Catcher in the Rye, Brave New World, Catch-22, and Bless Me, Ultima–but the real point is the same old story: you’re missing the larger themes, the moral lessons, because you can’t get past certain words or the exposition of certain events.

So don’t get me wrong–I don’t argue that students should always have to read every book on every public school reading list. I imagine there will be books my daughter is uncomfortable with that maybe I don’t think are so vital to her education. But I’m now hyper-conscious of how subjective this is. How much is too much to miss? Myself, I don’t like missing anything. But PZ has different sensibilities than I have. I want to be sensitive to that, but at the same time I want her to challenge herself. (Also, have you read the Bible lately? It’s filthy! I don’t want to put her off religion any more than I already have.) So while it’s much too early to stress out over, I have to blog about something, and here it is (or was–I guess it’s mostly over now). How do you decide what’s too “inappropriate” and what’s appropriate enough?

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