I've been thinking a lot lately about the hierarchies we -- adults, librarians, teachers, parents, you name it -- attach to reading. What makes a book "good"? For that matter, what makes a book better than, say, a website or a magazine?
This train of thought all started when someone in my acquaintance called the Gossip Girls series "one step up from People" magazine. I've never read Gossip Girls (though they're so popular, I probably should). I've barely browsed through People. But her comment made me think. What sort of "reading hierarchy" have I created? The Lord of the Rings is better than Harry Potter is better than The Keys of the Kingdom, perhaps? Fantasy is better than realistic fiction is better than historical fiction is better than romance....
How does this hierarchy effect my service to teens, either in what books I would recommend to them or what judgments I hold about their reading interests? Do I really listen to what the teens enjoy and try to find titles that best meet their needs and interests, or do I jump immediately to the books in that genre that I read or enjoyed?
How about this hierarchy -- classics are better than popular fiction. We forget that many classics of today were bestsellers in their day. (Would that horrify people?) I think that this sort of elitism, or perhaps in a more gentle form, this "What I like to read is better than what you like to read" can be really damaging to customer service. We don't say it so blatantly, of course, but I think our attitudes are closer to the surface than we realize, and can come across in offhanded comments and in the recommendations we make.
I think that such attitudes on librarians' and other adults' parts can really hurt teens -- they may still read the books they like (under the covers, like I did when my mom didn't like a book), but they might be embarrassed about the genres they like or unwilling to talk to a librarian about their interests to find more books they enjoy. And let's face it, adults generally have a pretty different idea about what a teen "should" read than what the teen wants to read. Take the adult who saw the books I was using to interview teens this week -- he made fun of a book three of the five teens chose (not in front of them, thank goodness!), but really liked the non-fiction, educational selection from the Best Books list.
While it's important to have serious, non-fiction, classic books, it's important to have the fun stuff, too. I sometimes get embarrassed when I tell people I like to read YA books (I think it covers about 90% or more of my regular reading), but it's what I enjoy, and the "fluffy" ones are good for during the semester, between classes, when I need something that doesn't take a lot of hard thinking. Making a reader laugh serves a great purpose, too. And since when are all the books adults read the best books they could read, anyway? :-)