Questions about Ideas in Books

Dear Reader,

So in a Charlotte Mason education a key feature it to use living books because of the ideas contained within them. These ideas, Charlotte says, are themselves living things and they are the food of the mind. I love this thought. I love that my kids and I can get to know the ideas of people long dead and even in some cases to feel as if we know them personally.

But I have been pondering lately what sort of ideas we get from books and how we get them. From Charlotte I learned that the ideas we absorb from books can be very simple things. It could be, for example, a love of Scotland that a child picks up which may inspire him later in life to pursue a certain career or hobby. The ideas one gleans need not be big, grand philosophical ideas. They can be mere interests which tweak the imagination a little and the fruit of which may not be seen for some time.

I was also wondering if perhaps I am not strict enough in which books we pick. If there might be subtle (bad) ideas slipping in which I am ignoring. A friend was recently telling me how she had preread the book Hoot and had decided not to let her children read it. This is a book we listened to in the car and thoroughly enjoyed. In it, there are some owls whose habitat is being threatened by developers. There are also some bullies running around as I recall. The children in the book protect the owls by sabotaging the developers. My friend’s objection was that the book was relativistic, that is, that is let the morality of the children’s acts be determined by their ends. In other words, the lying and sabotage were portrayed positively because the good characters did them and they had good goals. Honestly, this never even occurred to me. And I wonder if it should have. And are my kids going to pick up bad ideas (that lying and destruction of property are okay) from books like this?

When it comes to movies, I like websites like which give me detailed reviews and I particularly like that they highlight what behaviors in the movie kids might try to imitate and what annoying phrases they might pick up. But when it comes to books, I don’t think I apply the same standards.

I guess part of me just thinks that some ideas are more transmittable than others. When we listen to something like Hoot, I would expect my kids to get ideas like “even little owls are important and we should not squander them.” I would not expect them to come out with ideas like “it is okay to destroy other’s backhoes.” But perhaps this is unreasonable on my part. After all, we cannot say what ideas another person will get from a book. Though honestly if my kids come away asking if it is ever okay to lie or destroy property for a good end, I would not be unhappy. These are questions worth thinking about in my opinion, and they will encounter them at some point.

There are some things in books which bother me. For example, I hate books where the siblings seem like natural enemies. I could see my kids picking up the idea that their brothers or sisters are annoying and that it is okay therefore to insult or abuse them. I also don’t like book where school is portrayed as a really horrible place. Perhaps I am more bothered by this because my kids aren’t in school and have less of their own ideas of what school is like. And I can see that the things which bother me in books are not very different from the things which bother my friend (I think she would also be bothered by the things which bother me, by the way; she just has a longer list than I do). And I think there could easily be books in which there is lying which bothers me, especially if children are lying to their parents. Though I wouldn’t necessarily rule  a book out just because it has such lying either.

I guess when it comes down to it, I just don’t have a good standard. Mostly I have  a feeling for which circumstances in books bother me and which don’t. It is hard to explain why Hoot didn’t seem dangerous to me but lying in another book might. I would like to say that it allowed me to engage in good discussions with my kids about when and if lying is ever justified. But the truth is, this was a fun book for us and we discussed nothing. But I also don’t think they have been more deceptive or destructive since hearing it. So basically it comes down to an “I’ll know it when I see it” type of thing. Just as with the definition of a living book, it is hard to put a finger on what makes a book acceptable or unacceptable. Though I am a lot more likely to put up with moral ambiguity in a book that I deem living. Most of the ones I reject based on, for instance the sibling rivalry they contain, are not living books but popular, modern kids’ series.

So I’d like more input. What turns you off to a book? Do you have set standards or is it more of a feeling?


6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Naptime Seamstress on April 6, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    Disrespect is one thing that turns me off a book. But, like you, I have no written standard…no guide other than my gut. I do try to look up reviews of books I’m not familiar with. And I quiz my friends on their book-choices. Sometimes I wonder if I should have something more formal in place. But that would change, wouldn’t it??? I wouldn’t let my 3rd grader read something with adultery in it….but I might let my 12 grader – as a jumping off point for discussion….right??? Maybe not….I don’t know!!!

    We “banned” the Junie B. books because of the way my daughter acted (disrespect, too-familiar tone with adults, etc….things that are hard to put a finger on, really). However, we only noticed the behavior after we LISTENED to some Junie B. stories on CD. She had read several of the books before we listened to them. I really think that for small children (and maybe everyone) the ear-gate can be more convincing than the eye-gate. But I’m not sure about that. ….For us, the combination eye-ear – gate is also very strong. So I’m particular about movies.

    But, what I notice most is that things that don’t bother me when it’s just me reading the book or watching the movie or listening to the music (or book) bother me TREMENDOUSLY if I know my children are also reading or watching or listening. Unfortunately, I don’t remember that when I’m alone — you know??? I find myself half-way through something with my girls and I then I realize that I don’t want them doing “That” so I feel like we need to stop whatever.

    Good post, Nebby.


  2. Posted by Naptime Seamstress on April 6, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    Oh… I wanted to say, also, that something that helps me in “banning” books is to choose the better or best over the good. That’s why Junie B. got tosssed… not that there’s anything BAD in them. Just because there are BETTER books out there for my daughter at this age. Choose better.


  3. I think you raise a very important question here! I ♥ this post. 🙂

    I have a couple thoughts. First, there are very few books–perhaps none–that have *no* questionable ideas. So we all have to pick and choose and basically pray our way through it. 🙂 Second, *sometimes* the background type of ideas are the most important ones, because they represent the book’s worldview–the things the book assumes. So whereas the value of something small and easily overlooked is what the book purports to be discussing, but the ends-justifying-the-means is the thing the book assumes.

    When it comes to the latter, I try and make sure my children don’t read *too many* books with this sort of assumption. I don’t think we can, or necessarily *should*–avoid them all. But if all their books, to take an extreme example, play out that sort of value system, that normalizes it, right?

    With something like that, where the story was great and the writing was enjoyable, I think I’d just have a discussion. “So what do you think? Do you *really* think that the boys should have done that? Why? Why not?” That is a fun conversation to have anyhow. 🙂


  4. Thank you both for your comments. I think you both make excellent points. I do think movies affect us in ways books don’t. Plus even long ones are so short they tend to have less of a context or greater world view, at least a well-thought out one. I will have to think about if audio alone affects us more because we do lots of books in the car. I also like the idea of just limiting or choosing carefully which books present a certain worldview. You are right that we are not going to find anything perfect. It is a matter of being selective about our imperfections.


  5. 🙂 i like your thinking. of course, i could probably take both sides of this issue, but i think i know where you’re coming from, so i will say, that yes, i screen. but i’m also going to say i might be a little more liberal in my selections than some. or perhaps what i mean more specifically is, many things that bother some people probably bother me too, but might still get read in my house. under surveillance. 😉 i’m a big proponent of the balance of being careful, but not running away either. enter socratic questions. DISCUSSION. thing is, things like these are not influencing them in a vacuum. these ideas are part of a greater feast, and hopefully, my kids, by being exposed to a wide variety, are learning to discern for themselves.


  6. […] touched in a number of ways on what books are appropriate for children and which ones aren’t. Here, for instance, is a recent post debating (with myself) why some things in books bother me and […]


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