Frequent readers of this blog know that I typically give media tie-in children’s books a lot of flack. And, normally, they totally deserve it. For whatever reason, when a publisher decides to adapt a TV show, movie, cartoon, or toyline into a kids’ book, the quality is almost always poor. There are some notable exceptions – Jeffrey Brown’s Darth Vader and Son is transcendent – but, for the most part, they’re fairly awful reads. So, when Megan McKnight wrote her great recent post about her “Rules for Parents Buying Books from Book Order Catalogs or School Book Fairs” and she listed “books based on television, movie, or toy characters” as definite DO NOT BUYS, I nodded my head and intoned a hearty “Here, here!” I fully support parents who try to steer their kids away from that kind of crap.
But then… I was cleaning out my old bedroom at my mom’s house – enough time has now passed that I refer to it as “my mom’s house” instead of “MY house” – and I found the ONLY book that I ever ordered my school book order catalogs that I MADE SURE that I kept well into my adulthood. I bought loads of books from book order catalogs when I was a kid, but there is only ONE book order title that, over 25 years later, still sat proudly on my bookshelf in my childhood bedroom.
What was that book?
A Ghostbusters storybook, copyright 1984, with 12 collector stickers inside.
That’s right. It was a media tie-in book.
First, let me get this out of the way. Yes, I can be a TREMENDOUS hypocrite. I could blame that on being a parent – which involves a lot of “do as I say, not as I do” action – but I can’t blame all of my personal weaknesses on my kid… yet.
Second, c’mon, it was 1984. Ghostbusters was like the coolest thing that I’d ever seen. I still aspire to more like Peter Venkman in my day-to-day life.
Third… fine, I’d admit it. Sometimes your kids are going to read crap and that’s OK. I recently wrote an article for 8BitDad, in which I gave tips on “How To Turn Your Kid Into a Hardcore Comic Book Geek” and one of my tips was “Your Child Will Want to Read a Lot of Crap. Let Them.”
I then went into more detail on that tip, commenting that:
I’m not saying that you should always give in and let your kid pick the cheesiest piece of corporate toy synergy on the comics rack every time, but there IS something to be said about giving your child a sense of ownership and self-reliance when it comes to reading comics. Yes, most media tie-in comics aren’t very good – Roger Landridge Muppet comics and Mark Waid’s Incredibles comics are notable exceptions – but they’re normally mediocre at the worst and fairly harmless. If buying your daughter a Disney Fairies comic every once in a while helps keep her interested in comics as a whole, that’s a fair price to pay. You might not love all of their choices, but the sheer act of giving them a choice will ultimately help your kid become a more independent comics fan.
And, as much as I hate to admit it, I think that advice is applicable to media tie-in children’s books too.
If you want your kid to be an engaged reader, you have to find a way to get them excited about reading. And, sometimes, the best way to do that is to let your child make their own choices and make really terrible reading choices. They might come home from your trip to the bookstore with a Barbie, Pokemon, or Clone Wars easy reader and, as a parent, you’re just going to have to suck it up and take it. Because kids love those books, in the exact same way that I LOVED my Ghostbusters book.
BUT the important thing to remember is that you only have to suck it up and take it SOMETIMES. Just because you should OCCASIONALLY let your kid indulge themselves and buy a Transformers book, it’s important to recognize that moment as an indulgence. It’s like taking your kid to get ice cream. It’s a wonderful treat, but if you let your kid eat nothing but ice cream, it will RUIN THEM.
So, yes, let them read crap occasionally. But, never forget that, as a parent, it is your responsibility to manage their intake of crap and make sure that they’re not existing on media tie-in books alone. Yes, they’re the easy option and they do get your kid reading, but their reading diet can’t be comprised entirely of dessert. Give them an occasional treat – a Spongebob sticker book, a Lego picture book – but then it’s your job to make sure that you’re steering them towards the good stuff. The award winners, the really great authors, the books you loved when you were a kid.
Because, while my Ghostbusters storybook might be the only book order title I ever kept for the long term, it’s still a pretty awful book. There is literally a part where Ray Stanz yells at Gozer the Gozerian – “We’re the Ghostbusters. We’re going to turn you into toast!” (As a lifetime Ghostbusters nut, that line makes my skin crawl.) It was a beautiful indulgence for my 1984 self, but that awful, beautiful, official Ghostbusters storybook had almost no impact of my life, beyond inspiring a vague sense of nostalgia. Do you know what DID have a huge impact on my life? The thousands of much, much better books that my parents pointed me towards during our almost weekly trips to the library when I was a kid.
So, yes, I might gripe up and down about media tie-in books and will tell parents to stay away from them, but I recognize that they’re an almost necessary evil. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that “Hey, ANYTHING that gets my kid reading is a good thing.” That’s not true. Anything that gets your kid reading IS a good thing… in moderation. As a parent, it’s your job to act as a reading dietician for your children and make sure that their reading appetites aren’t being sated by candy and empty calories alone.
But still… be honest… that Ghostbusters book IS pretty cool, right?