Reading Dangerously

(Marie Lambert)– One year, as I was immersed in a book during the drive to summer camp, my mom looked away from the road for a moment to ask me what I was reading. I was twelve, and reading one of the books of the Artemis Fowl series, a favorite of my youth. Probably annoyed at the distraction from my reading, I attempted to summarize the convoluted plot, which involved a badass fairy female police officer who was framed for the murder of her commander and on a high-octane journey around the world to clear her name and bring justice to the true culprit.

“Murder?” was my mother’s reply. “Oh, I don’t really like that.” She went on to state that she didn’t approve of that level of violence in a children’s book. I scoffed at her naiveté and explained in a knowing, world-weary voice that you couldn’t hide from the harsh realities of life, even in children’s fiction.

My mom had always been a great supporter of my literary appetite, and always encouraged me to read above my age level and challenge myself. The books I brought home—both from the adult and children’s sections of the library—were never subject to parental approval before being passed on to me. My mother always reminded me that if I had a question about anything I’d read, I could always come to her, but with knowledgeable friends and a dictionary, this was rarely necessary. Even after the above anecdote, she never seemed to have the need to police or excessively monitor what I read. The only time she frowned upon literature was when I brought home what she called “those silly teen books,” (Gossip Girl, etc) because she’d rather I be reading Dickens, or something more intellectual.

So after the Artemis Fowl incident, I was surprised—I mean what did she think I was reading? The world of literature—even for children—is not a sunny, happy place. Interestingly, as a child I’d always encouraged my mother to read more so I could have someone to talk with about my favorite books, but maybe if she’d known what I was reading, those conversations would not quite have gone as planned.


  1. Harry Potter—any of them, really: the title character is an orphan due to murdered parents, and it gets worse from there. Serial killers, executions, racism, the murder of children/teens, and people literally tortured into insanity. But the violence is never gratuitous or glorified, and instead reflects the reality of the world created and plays a huge role in the lives of the characters.
  2. A Series of Unfortunate Events: more orphans, pursued by a murderous and creepy (as in attempts to marry a 14-year-old creepy) antagonist and assorted henchmen. The orphans in question are passed from caretakers ranging in personality from mildly eccentric to abusive, and must confront difficult questions of moral relativism where the lines between right and wrong are often blurred.
  3. Bridge to Terabithia: spoiler alert, this book does not have a happy ending. An unexpected death at the end is as abrupt and unbelievable as I’ve found it to be in reality.
  4. Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson: because I was fairly young when I read this book, I was pretty oblivious and unaware of a key plot point (i.e. the main character’s rape) until the end. Even so, the gravity of the subsequent depression and suicide attempts was not lost on me, and for one of the first times I realized that the main character’s hardships could have been mine.
  5. The His Dark Materials Trilogy (The Golden Compass, etc): hands down my favorite books, from when I read them as a child to today. These books are for neither children nor adults exclusively, but contain a skillful mix of fantastical elements and social commentary, and seem to grow and change with each re-reading. But one can’t seem to mention the trilogy without talking about its controversy. While like in the Harry Potter series children are exposed to violence, and war, these books are most criticized for themes addressing the evil and corruption of organized religion and exploration of adolescent sexuality, and have been frequently banned and boycotted. My response to these criticisms will have to be a blog for another day, but let me just say that the only thing bad that came from these books is the truly unfortunate 2007 movie adaptation.

Photo credit: