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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Is It Rude to Ask?

There are questions in this world that it is always safe to ask a children’s librarian about his or her children.  Prominent amongst them: “So what are your kids reading these days?”

The “kids” in question here would be the librarian’s children.  Yet I’ll admit that when I’m asked, there’s always that brief moment of confusion on my part where my brain tries to access the answer.  I read her four books less than 12 hours ago so why can’t I recall any of their titles?  Eventually I’m able to piece together a list of her current obsessions (Fancy Nancy and the Frances books currently dominate) and all is well.  And really, I like answering the question and I like, in turn, asking it of other folks.

Still, it gets me to thinking.  I’m a children’s librarian.  I read, eat, and breathe this stuff.  My kids get a LOT of children’s books thrown at them on a regular basis, and yet I still sometimes struggle with coming up with an answer to, “So what are your kids reading these days?”  If this question can prove difficult for me, what’s it like if you ask folks who aren’t in the business of children’s literature at all?

It seems to me the question cuts one of two ways.  On the one had, it’s a great conversation starter.  Your kid loves Ladybug Girl?  Mine too!  But at the same time, if used for evil instead of good, it could act as an awfully effective way to engage in shaming your fellow parent.  The inherent assumption is that the other parent knows what their child is reading and, in fact, reads to them regularly.  So for someone who suspected that their fellow parent was not engaging in this necessary activity, the question could be accusatory.  What’s your kid reading, smart guy?  Can you name the books?  No?  Why not?

Mind you, I’ve no doubt there are parents out there who, when asked, would merely shrug their shoulders and say, “My kid’s not much of a reader”.  Then too there are the differences in asking the parent of a four-year-old the question versus a twelve-year-old.  You could get some very different answers.

Still, when you consider the potential awkwardness (however justified) on the part of the other parent when asked this question, is it in the end rude to even ask?  I feel like we should engage Miss Manners in this.  What would she say?

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. The same things happens to authors, and I realized at some point that people expected me to have “smart” answers. Books they’d never heard of, etc. While I love any chance to talk about good books, I realized it also put a weird pressure on the kids as they got older. To be reading “good” books all the time.

    The truth is that as often as my kids are reading books I love (currently El Deafo, Big Bad Ironclad, and a ton of other GNs), the rest of the time they’re reading books I don’t love so much, and that’s fine too.

    So now, when people ask what my kids are reading I say, “Probably something about Ninjago. But any book they love is a good book, right?”

  2. It’s rude (perhaps unintentional) because it starts the comparison game. It continues on with adults on social networking asking “I’m reading this, what are you reading?” I never get involved because I read for pleasure not for comparison. Also, in the book world there’s this ubiquitous opening line that starts the competition off immediately ” What are you working on?” That question is ok if I’m on an appointment with an editor or art director. Please, when you haven’t seen me in a while just ask if I am ok without the hunger games or pumping me for info on school visits, bragging on your laurels, etc. Real friends don’t do that.

  3. Maybe they are looking for suggestions? My career path began as a high school English teacher, took a detour as an independent bookstore owner, and now back into education as an elementary school reading specialist. The theme, of course, is books. When I get asked this question, I think people are looking for ideas for their own kids, but don’t want to seem like they are making you work when you are not actually at your job. The parenting culture of my town is definitely less competitive than New York City, but I’ve never felt I was in some sort of one-up kind of scenario.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Nor I. I’m just wondering for myself if I should ask others and if the very asking would be perceived by some to be rude, even if that wasn’t my intent. Just thinking aloud here, really.

  4. I guess if you know their kids are reading for pleasure, it isn’t rude. If you aren’t sure about their reading habits, it could be considered a personal question. Reading is very, very difficult for some of my students, and there can definitely be awkwardness or embarrassment around the topic for the parents, even when they are doing everything they can to help them.

  5. This is a very interesting discussion. I don’t generally ask this question to people one on one, but I do ask in a kind of general way at the end of some of my blog posts. After I’ve talked about what we’re reading I’ll say “And what are you and your family reading?”. Usually only a couple of regular visitors answer, so it turns mostly into a discussion with them that does not in this case feel like a competition. But I can certainly imagine these discussions feeling competitive in person when my daughter is older. My take home from your post, and the comments here, is to tread gently in asking. I like Laurel’s “any book they love is a good book, right?”. I may borrow that one :-)

  6. I haven’t been asked this, except by one or two close friends who are more interested in getting ideas and sharing good books they’ve found than in any kind of competition. I wish people would ask, because it’s one of my favorite things about my son lately – the fact that he’s getting really, really into specific books, or spotting specific objects in books (he’s 1.5). I have to refrain from gushing about last night’s reading when I show up to work (children’s library) in the mornings. If there were a competitive edge to the question, it might feel rude. But I think anyone I encounter at work would just be genuinely curious.

  7. Oh this makes me sad . . . are there really parents out there who bring up the book question just to make other parents feel guilty?! Shame on them!!!

    I have made truly wonderful connections with teachers, friends, and other parents by asking, “So what are you (or your kids) reading right now?” And I would be so sad to have to tread so softly as to make our relationship completely shallow.

    I recently wrote a post–not about this topic specifically, but about how we have become so concerned with not offending ANYONE that we’ve restricted ourselves to completely safe topics that don’t allow our relationships with others to grow and deepen. It can be found here: http://sunlitpages.blogspot.com/2014/10/on-saying-wrong-thing-and-maybe-right.html. I would hope we could use enough common sense to ask sincere questions and also not let our own insecurities immobilize us from making real and lasting connections with other people!

  8. Has anyone contacted Judith Martin about this? Surely Miss Manners has a (very tasteful) website.

  9. I think you’re right to ask whether this is rude. Your expertise in children’s literature grants you the abilty to recommend books; the fact that you are a parent does not. People often assume that all writers/scholars/librarians of children’s literature must also be parents — as if being a parent makes a person an expert in children’s literature or in childhood or, hell, even in parenting.

    So, while the people asking these questions are not ill-intentioned (they probably figure that whatever the librarian’s kids are reading will be great), their questions reveal some assumptions that are, at best, foolish (all kids do not have the same likes and dislikes), and at worst, sexist (if you’re a female librarian of children’s lit, you must also be a mother!). In sum: you’re right to call these people out.

  10. I’m sure in some cases it is a rude question, but I think you can diffuse the rudeness and avoid it yourself by acting as if the question was “What is the last book you/your child really loved?” That turns it into an opportunity to talk about kids loving books that adults don’t (fairies, Percy Jackson, anything about pandas) or just a chance to rave about something quirky you all found appealing, like say Gentleman Bat, or Hyperbole and a Half. Shifting the focus to the fun of reading also enables you to lament the toddler who just wants Hand, Hand, Fingers , Thumb fifty-two times a day.

  11. My Boaz's Ruth says:

    Wow. Now see I would have put talking about books into the safe category.

    And I have no compunction at all about asking even knowing that my 3 year old daughter barely reads. She “reads” as in taking a book onto her lap and looks at the picture and sometimes says some words I cannot understand that may be pretending to read. But she’s almost never let me read a whole book to her. When I start, she wants the pages to turn faster. Or to have it on her lap and “read” it herself. When she was younger she’d point at a picture for us to tell her what it is. But even that is not as interesting as it was.

    But I do worry, since she won’t let us read to her, that she won’t be ready to learn to read and we could really struggle with that down the road. She’s getting a lot of book exposure, sure. but words? Not so much.

  12. To My Boaz Ruth–I wouldn’t worry about it too much. There’s a stage in reading development in which children “read” by turning pages and looking at pictures but really are remembering the story read to them. They get to this stage by having been read to–which includes pointing pictures and asking what they are. Eventually she will understand the words themselves. Would you agree, fellow child development people?
    BTW, this has been an excellent discussion and great suggestions. I personally think that, as long as you’re aware of the group you’re asking and your own motives, it should be OK.