I know I'm not alone in having kids who continue to read the same Harry Potter books until the pages literally fall out. And now that the last installment of the Potter series has been released from the security vans, we parents wonder: will we need a magic wand to get our kids to move beyond the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?

Not necessarily. But while there are thousands of titles geared for kids and teens out there, many are of dubious value. The fact is, I'm surprised at how often I've found contemporary children's authors who include storylines or other thematic material that might curl your eyebrows. Looking at books for children in bookstores and the library, I've found loads of books about serious family dysfunction, teens in sexual situations, and other topics that many parents would find upsetting, hardly "family friendly."

I've found loads of books about serious family dysfunctionThis applies even to books geared for the preschool set. I saw a book featuring a family of monkeys where the Daddy monkey had a drinking problem. Another book prominently showcased at my local library and advertised for fourth-graders had a theme of homosexuality. While these issues are very real, they are nowhere near as endemic as many children's books would have you believe.

I worry that so many books featuring seriously messed-up families or parents abandoning their children can give kids a skewed vision of life, perhaps even frightening younger readers. My daughter got to the point where she said to me, "Mom, no more books about orphans!" She knows that even today, most families out there, whether animal, vegetable or mineral, are not seriously dysfunctional, nor are most kids orphans. There are endless other compelling dramas that can play out in fiction other than these themes.
Here are my tips on how to help kids choose quality books and develop their literary sensibility:

  • Carefully look at books in the library or bookstore before you borrow or buy them. You may discover situations and language that you won't approve of for your child. Many books targeted at teen girls, for example, celebrate sexual experimentation and boy-baiting, while not dealing at all with substantial character development.
  • Ask a children's librarian for help and explain what you are looking for, and what you prefer to avoid. They will be happy to guide you. If the term "family values" speaks to you as it does to me, look for books written in the 1960's or earlier. Although the characters in these books won't have web pages or iPod's, well-told dramas remain timeless.
  • To help move your child beyond Pottermania, bring home stacks of books, including historical novels, biographies, mysteries, and more science fiction, if they're that hooked. You can also Google "kids' reading lists" and you'll find many sites devoted to recommended books for kids of all ages.
  • Read aloud to your childrenRead aloud to your children, even independent readers. Some of my fondest memories of raising my children have been the times when I've read to my older readers. It's fun for everyone, especially when you take turns reading the parts of different characters. This is a great way to bond with your kids.
  • If your teenager is reading a book that you don't like, discuss it with her. Without slamming her taste in books, talk about the book's message and how you see it. This is a great way to share your values with your child while also learning how she thinks. Getting her to see it your way isn't as important as keeping the lines of communication open. And some of what you say just might seep in.
  • Keep a log of books your children have enjoyed and start to share recommendations with other parents and with teachers. There are a lot of wonderful books out there for kids, but sometimes parents need a little help finding the very best ones.