The store I work at is just a Bible’s throw from Focus on the Family headquarters and New Life Church, so we serve a very particular demographic. The other day, when we were running seriously low on copies of Michelle Malkin’s Culture of Corruption, a mother came to me at the information desk with her son. She issued the following challenge.
She needed a recommendation for a new series. Her son goes through 200 pages a day, and in doing so has read Percy Jackson, Alex Rider, Eragon, you name it—every major youth/teen series out there that could possibly appeal to a ten-year-old boy. With a very important element restricted.
“It has to be appropriate,” she said. “It can’t have any magic in it.”
This isn’t an uncommon request for us. While this kid would blaze through the Harry Potter series in a week, his mother would blaze it in an entirely different fashion. I don’t know, maybe her own parents burned Beatles records.
I looked to the boy, who could play a good Piggy in a new Lord of the Flies movie, and began making small talk. I asked him if he’s a super-fast reader or he just likes to spent a lot of his time reading books. Both, he said, for which I gave him a reverential nod.
Now let me say this. If you ask me to recommend a young adult novel for a boy, I’m honestly kind of grasping at straws but will sell you hard on Sherman Alexie if he’s reached a certain age (I didn’t really like to read until I was well into high school). For teen girls, though, I’ve got nothing but the Customers Also Bought list on the store’s computer and a shoulder shrug.
But in this situation, the magic-free The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was not going to pass the filter for other reasons, so here we went.
Suggestion #1, working off the Eragon lead:
The kid read the synopsis, approved it (though mildly), and passed it to his mother. Before she reviewed it herself, she asked him, “Did it say there was magic in it?” He said not really, but it mentioned an evil sorcerer. She directed him to return it to the shelf, but he wasn’t heartbroken.
So magic-wielding villain is out, I thought. But I bet she has no qualms with the Narnia books, all the same…
Suggestion #2 was this, since Alex Rider was his definite favorite series:
He was immediately displeased with the fact it was a hardcover. I respect the quirks folks have in their book format preferences, so I didn’t press this one on him. But the real kicker was, while the story sounded cool to him, it didn’t have five or six sequels lined up for him to plow through. 0 for 2.
I grew desperate.
“Surely you’ve heard of the Maximum Ride series.”
“Yeeeah,” he said. “But I don’t like those very much.”
I told the kid, as if conceding a victory to his book-devouring awesomeness, that he’d cleaned me out of ideas. We searched on the computer for any teen fiction territory he hadn’t already tread, and any series that piqued his interest was both only available through special order and had an insufficient number of sequels. As we perused the computer listings, his mother reminded me:
“I don’t want any magic in the books. It can’t have magic or sorcery.”
She told me this six times total, and I responded identically each time— “Oh, no, I understand.”—naively hoping she’d notice my repetition and then realize her own. One time she mentioned that she didn’t want any “boy-girl stuff in it, either.”
He went to pore over the shelves one last time while his mother confessed to me at length the struggle of raising children in this culture. And while “other parents don’t seem to care what their children read. Well,” she said. “I do.”
“Mom!” the boy shouted and held up a book:
He grinned mischievously.
“No, n-n-n-no. Put that back.”
He did, but kept grinning.
I did another minute of concerned nodding, and he came to put another book in her hand for inspection, and this time he was real hopeful. I honestly can’t remember which book it was, but it was apparently an obscure mythological fantasy in the Percy Jackson vein. She pointed to the cover.
Mother: Do you know who that is?
Mother: No. It’s Pan. He’s a god. Do you know what he’s the god of?
Mother: Well… yes, and a few other things. Like fertility. And sin. And fun.
Did she say fun?
I let them work it out, and eventually his persuasive skills won out and she took the first three books in the series. “Okay,” she said. “But if I find out there’s anything questionable in these…”
He showed one of them to me.
“Hopefully it’s a good read,” I said to him, and only him.