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Free Range Bookworm

January 8, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across this blog, Free Range Kids, and have been reading it ever since with the kind of horrified fascination one stares at a car crash with (oh, all right, so I’ve never actually seen a car crash, but I imagine this is how you’d stare.)

If you don’t want to read the blog yourself, it’s about the overprotectiveness of (American) parents that seems ridiculous to me, but seems to be quite normal in the US, and about what the author, Lenore Skenazy, calls ‘free ranging’ – what to me is the normal way of raising kids, letting them walk or bike to school, visit friends on their own, playing outside without supervision. Normal to me, the most overprotective parent I know being a younger friend’s mother, who forbade her daughter to go to the flea market with me again because ‘there are funny people there!’1 But in the US, apparently, that’s not so normal, judging from the difficulties of ‘Free Range’ parents Skenazy writes about, from meddling strangers to police and child protection services getting called because there’s *gasp* an unaccompanied kid walking down the street!

I have no actual reason to read parenting blogs, since I neither have kids nor even a potential father for them, but some of the stories there horrify me, and as I said – it’s like a car accident. Can’t look away.

I wasn’t a very independent kid, but I did go to buy my own candy and comics and cooked unsupervised at eight or nine years, and I spent whole days roving the forest, with a water bottle, knife, string, matches, but not necessarily with shoes, and definitely without a phone…

Famous and fondly-remembered barefooted tour through a recently flooded forest, knee-deep in mud.

But that’s beside the point. I may have been a Free Range kid by that definition, and I never even considered the possibility that there could be another way to raise my own children, if I ever have them, but I don’t want to write a post glorifying barefooted forest wanderings (not today, anyway).

No, today I want to write about reading.

The same week as I discovered Free Range Kids, I was discussing a book with some online friends. At that forum, we’re famous for and proud of our ability to take any thread far, far off topic, so it’s not surprising that we got from a science fiction book to Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, a series of children’s detective novels. (Which was comparatively tame – I’m surprised we didn’t end up discussing polar bears. Or tea cups.) It led to two interesting discoveries for me.

The first was that the American participants hadn’t ever heard of Enid Blyton, while the Europeans (Dutch, German, and Austrian) had all grown up with the Famous Five, even though the books (the first published in 1942) are quite a bit older than any of us, and one of us (not me, obviously) has a daughter who is reading them as well, and they’re still easily found in the bookshops.

The other was the reaction of one of the Americans, who seemed shocked that parents would give their kids such books to read, with their old-fashioned gender stereotypes, and who wouldn’t give them to his (also hypothetical) daughter to read. (I’m paraphrasing here – I’d quote, but I prefer to keep that forum and the name I use there, separate from this one.)

The boys get to have adventures... ('5 Freunde auf geheimnisvollen Spuren'/'Five Run Away Together by Enid Blyton', illustration by Wolfgang Hennecke)

In any case, this post stuck in my mind for the next couple of days, until I figured out why it bothered me.

I’d always found it odd to hear about books getting banned from US school libraries – I’d never heard of that happening over here. Even odder because another American from that same forum had found it very strange that here in Austria, it is forbidden to sell Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’2 – censorship, she said, and unacceptable. But if that was so, if free speech was so important to those Americans, I wondered, why did they allow books being banned from libraries? (Though to be fair, I can’t imagine the people from that forum approving of banning books, and those thoughts were an unfair generalisation.)

But now I think, maybe banning books at schools isn’t actually about censorship. Maybe it’s not about suppressing views you do not agree with, but rather about protecting those poor, innocent and easily influenced children from those views. Basically the same attitude as the one behind ‘helicopter parenting’. The idea that children need to be protected from any real or imagined danger or difficulty. Whether it be kidnappers and pedophiles, or the idea that girls should stay at home and make hot chocolate while the boys go out having adventures (or something along those lines). Or from swearwords, racism, sexual situations… From anything that might potentially, by however long a stretch of imagination, be offensive or harmful.

Just as this is an odd concept to me in ‘real life’, where I was often out of the house until sunset with just my ‘survival kit’ and nobody knowing where I even was, it is an odd concept to me in regards to books. Just as I went where I pleased, I also read what I pleased. My parents, my mother in particular, even encouraged me, lending me some of their ‘grown-up’ books, and I grabbed whatever struck my fancy from their bookcases.

I don’t think it’s harmed me.

Swearwords? Hey, I went to school. Schools are breeding grounds for insults. (By the way, I find that whole (self-)censorship on the internet massively amusing – does anyone really think somebody doesn’t know what ‘f***’ means?)

Racism? Yeah, OK, people were stupid once, and thought stupid things about people who looked differently, and now we know better, that was all there was to it as far as I was concerned. Admittedly, I don’t know what it’s like to belong to the group that’s on the receiving end of said racism. But I always knew that some opinions and expressions that were OK in old books were not OK in real life.

Sexual situations? Alright, so I found them rather interesting for a while, but they didn’t shock me and didn’t harm me, and I think reading about it at a young age contributed to the fact that I was never inclined to silly giggling or ‘experimenting’ later.

Stupid gender stereotypes? Well, again, people were stupid once and thought stupid things. I rolled my eyes at them.

If books influenced my personality at all, it certainly wasn’t in a bad way. They taught me tolerance, fairness and courage, even if people did occasionally get called ‘gipsy’ or ‘nigger’ or the girls get left at home to fold pyjamas while the boys go off adventuring.

... while the girls wash the dishes. ('5 Freunde auf geheimnisvollen Spuren'/'Five Run Away Together' by Enid Blyton, illustration by Wolfgang Hennecke)

So what I’m saying is, kids don’t need to be protected from books. All right, maybe from some of them (I’m sure there are books I wouldn’t want my children to read, but I haven’t read any of them myself yet), but on the whole… sheesh. Talk to your kids if you’re worried about them. Put things in perspective. Give them the knowledge they need to understand the book. Teach them the values you want them to have, rather than trying to prevent books from teaching them things you don’t want them to learn. And trust your kids to be able to handle some difficulties.

Who knows, they might not even notice the things we adults see as difficulties. Like one of the Enid Blyton readers I mentioned above said, she didn’t even notice the gender stereotypes as a kid, and still grew up to be a self-aware feminist. Thinking back to the things I read as a kid, I wasn’t too sure I’d be comfortable with my child reading ‘The Shelters of Stone’3. But actually, I didn’t even notice the sex scenes as a kid. They didn’t register until I read the series again at the age of 18. And the only thing that ever scared me was an ‘age-appropriate’ article on UFOs in a kiddie magazine.

Come to think of it, the Famous Five are a perfect example of free-range kids – always out and about, having adventures, biking, swimming, hiking, rowing, climbing rocks, sleeping out of doors… makes me wish I were a child again, and could do all those things (OK, not right now with all that snow…)

So, hypothetical future children, go right ahead, read whatever you please. Don’t lose my books, don’t drop them in the bath and don’t smear them with jam, but don’t ever worry you’re not allowed.

A picture I've posted before... now Astrid Lindgren's Ronia the Robber's Daughter was a free-range kid if I ever saw one! Illustration by Ilon Wikland, coloured by yours truly.


1 Granted, there are. People dressed like Jack Sparrow, for example, or accordion players with sombreros. Not the dangerous kind of ‘funny’, though – and even if there were, what would they do – kidnap us in the middle of crowded Main Square?

2 Which is not to say it doesn’t happen. I saw one for sale at a flea market last summer, and I know someone who owns a copy, found among donations for a church bazaar. She wanted to read it out of pure curiosity, and I kind of feel the same. I suppose it’s that ‘car accident’ thing all over again.

3 Thinking about Jean M. Auel’s ‘Earth’s Children’ series always brings memories of a meeting with some online friends. ‘Has anyone ever read Auel’s books?’ – ‘Who?’ – ‘You know, the ones with the gratuitous sex scenes.’ – ‘Oh, those!’

The fact that this statement was enough to recognize the books amuses me.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. January 8, 2011 21:42

    Right there with you on a lot of this, though one perspective you may be missing w/r/t helicopter parenting is that an American parent whose children ran off and got themselves kidnapped or killed or whatever would be subject to considerable moral shaming. The news channels would pick up the story, and everybody would be talking about well what kind of parent lets his/r kids run off without supervision anyway, obviously the parent(s) was/were asking for something like this to happen. It’s fucked-up (should I say it’s f***ed up?), but Americans, or at least our pundit/political class, don’t extend sympathy for anything unless you can show that you did absolutely everything you could to avoid whatever the bad thing was. And even then, people will reach to find something you did wrong, so it can be your fault. (Our victim-blaming tendencies are particularly bad when it comes to rape, though that seems to be global, not just American.)

    A lot of this is because — though many Americans would tell you otherwise — we are deeply afraid. Things are getting worse, economically. The politicians are not, so far, doing much of anything to fix that, for reasons which would take way too long to try to explain, and everybody who’s still in relatively good shape sees that things are getting worse for everyone else and need some reason to explain why bad things happened to their cousin, or neighbor, or whoever, instead of to them. Therefore, victim-blaming. (Or, sometimes: immigrant-blaming, Muslim-blaming, gay-blaming, woman-blaming, Democrat-blaming, Obama-blaming, etc. It all depends on who Fox News thinks needs punishment that day.) It’s sad, and beneath us.

    Or at least at one time I would have thought it beneath us. I’m kind of coming to think less of us now.

    And I don’t see that getting any better any time soon. Just today, one of our Congresswomen was shot and killed in Tucson.[1] America is broken, insane, and absolutely not to be relied on right now. Keep your distance. I’m serious.

    I suspect a similar thing is at work with book censorship. Nobody wants to be the teacher / librarian who introduced little Johnny or little Susie to naughty words (or sex, or gay relationships, or racist slurs, or etc.), lest Johnny and Susie’s parents go after him/r with the school board and try to get him/r fired. And why stick your neck out and risk getting fired over a book, after all? There are plenty of other books. So whether something is available or not hinges on whether it will offend the people who are most easily and vocally offended. And then those people wind up running the country.

    [1] This is, for some reason, hitting me very hard, and I’m extremely upset, though I’d never heard of the Congresswoman in question before and know nothing about her except her party affiliation (Democrat) and that she voted for the health care bill last year (after which her offices were vandalized).

    • January 8, 2011 21:58

      Oh — possibly she’s not dead. Reports are conflicting. But still, getting shot in the head is no picnic on the lake either.

    • February 2, 2011 17:29

      Finally finding the time to reply to your comment…

      I know about this climate of blaming the parents, but I don’t think I’ll ever understand it – that whole culture of always finding someone to blame and to sue, really. It’s sometimes reported about in the newspapers here, in a ‘look what those crazy Americans have done now’ sort of way, and I’m really grateful it’s not that way here.

      I’ve been thinking about this again lately, reading reports about a ten-year-old German boy whose murderer was just arrested – I’ve not heard/read of anyone saying he shouldn’t have been out by himself, but just a bit of quick googling for English articles about the case turns up comments like, ‘Germans, I implore you, do not let your guard down… (…) Children are not completely safe ANYWHERE!’ Kinda makes me wish I had time to look up other cases and compare German and English /European and American comments on them… but the only one I can think of off the top of my head is Natascha Kampusch, and that’s too old to easily find usable articles/comments. What I do remember is that there was speculation her parents were involved in the abduction, but again I can’t remember anyone saying they shouldn’t have let her walk by herself.

      So, yeah… I guess that attitude will continue to baffle me, and I do hope it won’t spread to Europe…

      Oh, and definitely no ‘f***’ here – that always makes me imagine someone standing in a crowded public place and yell ‘Eff – asterisk – asterisk – asterisk!’ because he’s just hit his shin on something!

      • February 2, 2011 20:00

        Couldn’t say whether it might spread to Europe or not, because I’m not entirely clear on when and how it got established here. Y’all still have a semi-functional media, though, right? Having a press that actually holds people responsible for things they do and is mildly contemptuous of people who don’t deserve to be taken seriously is a precious thing. (We, on the other hand, get reports like, Scientist A says that global warming is a real thing and will cause untold disaster around the world in the very near future unless we reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Coal Company Executive B, on the other hand, says that global warming is part of the Earth’s natural climactic cycle and is not caused by the burning of fossil fuels, and that therefore there’s nothing to worry about and no reason to change anything. And now to reporter Ken Jones, to tell us about the next big Hollywood weddings. Ken? And those are the “real” news channels. Fox is a whole different thing entirely.)

        • February 3, 2011 00:27

          I can’t say anything about TV (don’t have one, and didn’t watch when I did), but at least radio and newspapers seem to be better than that. Not all of them, sure, but at least those I listen to/read.

          … feeling a little pissed off at the whole obsession with security today, too… went to send a Bookmooch order only to be told I can’t send anything heavier than one pound to the US. I mean, what the fuck? If I really need to get something heavier than that to someone in the US, what am I gonna do? Fly over and deliver it in person? Bad enough I can’t trade plants, now they won’t let me trade books, either?

  2. January 11, 2011 15:59

    I keep meaning to reply to your comment, but I never have time, enough working brain cells and internet access at the same time. 😦 I’ve just been told I might have to wait another two weeks for the last, and the first two… well… who knows when they’ll happen again!

  3. Stephen Isabirye permalink
    January 12, 2011 04:48

    Mmm, I wasn’t aware that some of Enid Blyton books had been banned from U.S. libraries. in fact, guy called Joe had raised the same issue on the current active Blyton Yahoo group (before himself being banned from that group for being confrontational some four years ago). What I surely know is that most of Enid Blyton’s books were banned from British libraries and that one of the reasons why the books were not popular in the USA, besides the obvious cultural differences between the US and Britain, was lack of proper marketing of the books in America. Yes, there were gender and racial issues involved in the books. However, if one reads the original texts of these books, one can see resistance of the “victims” in many ways to some of these stereotyping. I discussed this aspect in a chapter, titled, “Stereotyping” in my book written and published on Enid Blyton, titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage (,
    Stephen Isabirye

    • January 16, 2011 16:34

      I didn’t mean to say that Blyton books had been banned – I didn’t even think to check if they’ve ever been – what I found interesting was just the practise of banning books in general. It’s something I’ve never heard about happening here in Austria.

  4. January 13, 2011 19:55

    Finally! I’m surprised it took this long (five days!) for someone to say it, but I knew someone eventually wouldn’t be able to resist: Tucson tea party founder says Giffords to blame for getting shot.

    The money quote, from aforementioned tea partier Trent Humphries:

    The real case is that she [Giffords] had no security whatsoever at this event. So if she lived under a constant fear of being targeted, if she lived under this constant fear of this rhetoric and hatred that was seething, why would she attend an event in full view of the public with no security whatsoever?

    Victim-blaming: let me show you it.

  5. January 15, 2011 02:30

    You know…it’s funny, I was always raised in the “free range” manner and it never seemed that out of the ordinary. I didn’t really have a ton of friends so it’s not like I was going cross town to see them but my parents did let me ride my bike all over the place or go to the park alone (granted until I was in 3rd grade or so I had to go with my older brother…but still it was parent free). Even in high school I never had a curfew, I never once was told “be home by X hour” as long as I managed to pass all my classes. Even then it was more of a “do this before you go” rather than a be home to do this sort of thing. On the other extreme you have my ex who’s parents go so far as to buy a house in every town he moves to so they can keep an eye on him even though he’s 24. He went to college out of town…so they bought a house in the town he went to school. He then moved to LA…so now they’re buying a house in LA. It’s absurd really, and it doesn’t seem to produce children that are any better off.

  6. January 15, 2011 02:31

    As for those books I feel like a dumb American saying I’ve never even heard of them…

  7. Kai permalink
    February 2, 2011 19:22

    I read Mein Kampf as a teenager. I see no reason to ban its sale or distribution. I think it is rather helpful. I see the concern about people forming opinions from it, but it’s an invaluable tool for the study of history. To read that book today, with the advantage of hindsight is incredible. To understand that he laid out everything he wanted to do openly in writing years ahead, and then went on to accomplish it with little resistance (until he moved beyond and attacked a British ally) is quite chilling.
    I think it’s important to understand and remember all history and to be able to apply it to comparative modern situations.
    How else will we learn?

    • February 3, 2011 00:41

      I can agree with you on most of that, but I have to say I wouldn’t let every teenager read that book by him/herself. Read it, fine. But not by themselves. Maybe I’m being overly cautious there, but listening to the racist and antisemitic comments of my classmates…
      I think there are annotated versions available, but I’m not sure.

      • Kai permalink
        February 3, 2011 20:05

        Personally, I don’t agree with restricting books, so I can’t say that I ‘wouldn’t let’ any teenager read anything. I might not *encourage* the typical teenager to read it on his own.
        The benefits I mention are general, not specific to the reading by a teen (just happened to be when I read it), and it is very possible that many people, especially younger teens, might not get that part of it on their own. I think it would be an excellent book to study in late high school, or simply to discuss with others, as I can see the concern people have for it being read as truth or as an instruction manual on how to think of others, rather than as a study in history.
        I don’t know anyone else who has actually read the book, let alone as a teen, so I don’t have a solid grasp on how others tend to read and understand it.
        I was admittedly a very atypical teen, as I moved onto Mein Kampf after reading The Wealth of Nations, The Communist Manifesto, and assorted Locke, Plato, and the like. It was mostly an interest in economic and political philosophy, and I was in little danger of being swayed by the rhetoric. This is not all teens.

        • February 3, 2011 23:53

          Maybe I shouldn’t have said, ‘wouldn’t let’. Because it’s true, who am I to decide? What I should have said is, I wouldn’t be comfortable with it.
          Maybe us Austrians are just more… I don’t know, more sensitive, more nervous, whatever, about it because it’s … closer for us. I grew up walking past a house where Hitler lived as a child, stuff like that just makes it feel more real, like it didn’t happen all that long ago.
          The sad thing is, whether I’d feel comfortable with someone reading it or not depends so much on the level of education. Many kids here leave school at fifteen, and of those, I don’t know anyone I’d want to read Mein Kampf, since they’re also the ones fall for the disgustingly racist slogans of the right-wing parties. Those people I know who went on to higher education, on the other hand, I wouldn’t have a problem with.

          That’s another rant I don’t even want to go into…

  8. Rosalyn J permalink
    February 3, 2011 23:16

    Followed you here from your comment on Free Range Kids.

    I, and my parents, totally agree with you about letting kids be free to read what catches their attention. For the most part if a book is too mature for a given child, the child won’t read it or will simply skip over the bits they’re not ready for. Or, in many cases, the writing in the book will be at too high a level for the kid to manage and it will get put down for that reason.

    I don’t know how much of my reading comprehension being at a grade eight level when I got tested in grade two for a potential learning disability was because I was allowed to read anything from any of the book shelves at home. (I don’t have an LD, I wasn’t doing the work because ‘when you finish the work they just give you more’) What I do know is that because I was allowed to read whatever interested me I developed a love of reading that is hard to come by when the only books a child is allowed to read are dull.

    • February 4, 2011 00:02

      That’s a good point, too, keeping reading from getting boring. Thinking back, those ‘age-appropriate’ books I got from well-meaning friends and relatives were sooo boring! Not to mention the required reading at school – seriously? A little 200 page book? I usually read stuff three or four times that lenght.
      Also, that reason for not doing schoolwork made me laugh! I was always too good for that. And slow (at that age, anyway), so I struggled to finish my work as it was, so no chance of being given more

  9. Kai permalink
    February 4, 2011 03:36

    I agreed on that I wouldn’t encourage it. and there are definitely people where I might not feel too comfortable having them read potentially persuasive words.
    I can also see why Europe and especially Germany/Austria would be much more sensitive about it. There’s a history, and the local background for people to potentially relate to. It is true that over in Canada people are less likely to be persuaded by stories about the great purity of the Aryan race.
    I would probably be more concerned if there were large fascist leanings in the country.
    And I don’t think it’s sad that it’s the dropouts that you don’t want reading it. I think it’s sad that there’s a big chunk of your population leaving school at fifteen and open to racism. That’s the unfortunate part. Recognising it is reasonable.

    • February 4, 2011 05:18

      It is my suspicion, after watching the last 10-15 years in the U.S., that all countries have a percentage of their population which finds fascism appealing, and that it is important to identify who those people are and never, ever, let these people anywhere near the reins of power. Whether the kids read Mein Kampf or not doesn’t really factor in.

      For the record, I tried to read it once when I was maybe 13-14. Not sure why, except insofar as it was considered an Important Book, and I was trying to read Important Books. But it was very long, hard to follow, and incredibly boring (I suppose I was expecting Evil, something obvious and blatantly wrong, not long, tedious discussions of whatever it is he was discussing), so I didn’t get very far in before I dropped it and moved on to something else. Haven’t considered reading it again.

      • Kai permalink
        February 4, 2011 06:37

        It is probably true that every extreme ideology has its supporters in every place, and giving them any power could be dangerous.
        but I can see how in a society where racism is more regular and has a vocal enough following that it might be of concern for these parts to get more encouragement.
        I can also believe that the book might speak more to an aryan Austrian than the average American or Canadian. I can see why the countries with the history are more concerned about people supporting it.
        When I picked it up I had just come off reading The Wealth of Nations. After chapters on the division of labour in constructing a straight pin, Mein Kampf would have been positively riveting by comparison… 🙂

    • February 4, 2011 13:15

      They aren’t actually dropouts. It’s just the way the school system is here, nine years of compulsory education, and then you can start an apprenticeship, or you can go on to school for another three or four years and then to university (I kinda mixed it up, 12 years of school, a semester of uni, and then I started my apprenticeship).

      I don’t know if the racism here is actually worse than anywhere else – all I know is, the FPÖ’s (a right-wing party) slogans really, really, really bother me.
      But a good point that it might be less convincing to Americans, Canadians etc. I hadn’t considered that.

      • Kai permalink
        February 4, 2011 17:05

        ahh, okay, streaming, My mistake. A fifteen year old out of school in North America would be a dropout. I assumed incorrectly.

        I don’t know if it would actually be less convincing on this side of the ocean, but
        I think it is possible. The allure of Hitler’s words is that he tells people they are special – which is particularly desirable when you are feeling disadvantaged, especially as a group. I think being a Germanic person of Aryan descent might make it sound all the more personal. Who doesn’t like to be told they are special? There’s a reason it worked back then..
        Whereas in North America, we don’t have the kind of shared racial history. That’s not to say that there isn’t a legacy of the English and German looking down on the Irish and the Nordics looking down on the Slavs, and then all the white people looking down on anyone else.
        But there isn’t the same sense of one shared history – at least not in race. In the US, the history is of an idea, which makes them fairly unique among nations. In Canada, we don’t really view a single history at all, as Canada (and schools) tend to focus on the multinational and multiracial history. The appeasement of the French by the English right from the start set a stage for atypical relationships. We have our neo-nazis here, but they are a very obviously fringe group with few adherents and no danger of a broad movement.
        So reading as a Canadian of mixed ethnicity, I think it might not have quite the effect as if it were speaking to my hundreds of years of local history and ethnic domination and telling me personally that I deserve something.
        It would be an interesting study.
        Personally, my grandparents come from Germany, Scotland, the Ukraine/Poland, and the Balkans. I look very Slavic. The ‘master race’ just doesn’t sound as meaningful when even the very white people I know mostly trace to at least two European countries and don’t feel a strong single ethnic background.

  10. February 6, 2011 14:52

    Thinking about this some more the last few days…
    Am I being hypocritical when I say kids should be allowed to read whatever they please and then say I’d rather they don’t read Mein Kampf? Yes.
    If my own hypothetical kid wanted to read it, would I let him or her? Yes, because I hope I’ll raise my kids with the knowledge and attitudes they need not to be influenced by it.
    Assuming owning and selling it is still illegal in Austria then, would I buy it? No. Would I borrow it, if I still know someone who has a copy? Yes.
    If it becomes legal again, would I still feel uncomfortable about certain kids reading it? Yes, but the more I think about it, the more I realize my problem is not so much with the kids themselves, but with the parents and teachers, who I don’t trust to teach them what they need to know.
    But would I campaign for it to be removed from a (school) library, or stop a teacher from using it in class? No. (Unless that teacher was a Nazi, but I’d take issue with that no matter what books he or she was using.)

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