Why I Read Controversial Books With My Kid


My seven-year-old daughter and I just finished reading The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. It took us all summer with stops and starts because of camping trips and visits with family. I was amazed at how engaged Bea was in the story since this was the first “capital L” piece of literature we tried.

About halfway through the story, Bea stopped me and declared, “There are no girls in this story! Why not?!”

I turned to the copyright page to check the publication date: 1937. We talked a bit about the time period in which Tolkien was writing—that fantasy wasn’t a “girl’s audience.” Bea wasn’t convinced.

When we finished the book, I asked her how she liked it. She decided it was good but added, “I’m writing two more versions. One with only girls and one with both boys and girls so that they’re even.”

I was recently talking with a friend about the books we read with our children. Should I get rid of all the Dr. Seuss books in our house because of his racist artwork? What about Ma’s fear of the Osage Nation as they built a cabin on occupied land? Should all our books pass the Bechdel test, requiring two named female characters to have a conversation with each other?

Our answer is no… not yet.

My husband read the entire Little House series with Bea. I’ve read The Hobbit with her. Our bookshelves still have well-loved copies of Hop on Pop and Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? Our answer, as with most of our parenting choices, is really, let’s talk about it. Let’s think critically about our choices. But let’s not ban anything just yet.

As someone who values history and context, I want to raise my girls with a sense of place in time. We are not making decisions in a vacuum—the stories we hear, the politics we support, the ways we think about God are all products of hundreds of years of stories, literature, and collective behaviors. Some of these behaviors are unhealthy, both to us individually and to society as a whole. Most of our western nations have been built on the foundation of colonialism and slavery of some sort. We can’t escape it.

So how do we raise kids who are aware and knowledgeable? How do we start to repair the sins of the past?

For me and my husband, it’s about both-and. We’ll read Little House on the Prairie and talk about Ma’s fear. We’ll follow it up with The Birchbark House series by Louise Erdrich about a Ojibwe girl in the mid-nineteenth century. We’ll read The Hobbit and talk about Tolkein’s generational views of women. We’ll follow it with the Dealing With Dragons series by Patricia C. Wrede about the improper and adventurous Princess Cimorene. We micromanage the foundation of our children’s literary experiences so that these conversations are part of our normal reading life.

I need to remember to do this myself. As I deconstruct and reconstruct my own faith, how do I hold both the texts that my religion views as foundational while also dismantling the harmful perspectives of these texts. I recently read an essay by Soong-Chan Rah about evangelical liberation theology. In it he criticizes Francis Schaeffer, a voice I grew up hearing. My parents were impacted by Schaeffer’s teachings and it was jarring for me to consider his harmful practices.

I’m not ready to discount all of Schaeffer’s life but I’m learning to view the foundation of my faith with healthy skepticism. And this isn’t only with the dead white men. Who am I listening to today? Why do they resonate? How can I develop healthy skepticism with all that I read?

As I listen and learn from theologians and practitioners of color and as I dig into liberation theology more and more on this particular stage in my journey, I’m pausing to remember to hold both-and. I’m remembering that I can disagree with foundational thinkers while also recognizing their role in a collective faith journey.

How can I learn gently and kindly? How can I be an activist who also listens and engages thoughtfully with all sides? In this moment, it looks like holding my learning carefully.

I’m reminded what Robin Wall Kimmerer says in Gathering Moss about Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis (page 67). For species to thrive, there needs to be environmental disturbance. Too much disturbance can be fatal but too little means one species dominates others, leaving the diversity unbalanced and unhealthy.

I like to view our reading choices as a way to practice Intermediate Disturbance. I can’t only read disruptive books and articles because the environment won’t allow anything to take root. Likewise, without a little disturbance, one dominant voice overruns other healthy species.

Reading a variety of books with my daughters and for myself seems like such a small way to disrupt systemic patterns of discord in society but maybe that’s where we need to start—one balancing book at a time.


Dive Deeper With Us!

• What foundational book do you find yourself questioning today? How do you hold the tension between growth and appreciation for the journey?
• How do you question foundational teaching without destroying the structure?
• What pivotal places do you see yourself needing a little more skepticism?