Buying Back Books: A Bigger Struggle than You’d Think...
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

My older son, now 13, is hooked on books. He was born to love stories; I used to cuddle with him when he was only a baby and his attention span for tales of any kind, even lengthy books about owls or elephants, was endless. We have a lovely illustrated Bible by Dorling Kindersley-we read through it cover to cover three times before he was two years old. He liked Thomas the tank engine, and he enjoyed drawing with colored pencils, but more than anything he wanted to learn more about life from a page.

Ever since he has been able to read on his own, he’s been slurping books up, one at a time, one per day practically. His room is books, his backpack is books, his internet use is focused on books. “When’s the next Percy Jackson book coming out, Mom? You don’t know; I NEED to check!”

So, as a mother, how am I to monitor this obsession? When we were in the Read Aloud stage-it was easy-he listened, I read, and we spoke of the stories before nap or around the dinner table. The Easy Reader stage wasn’t so bad either. There’s not much to worry about inside the Magic Treehouse or journeying out on the prairie or laughing along with Freddy the pig.

But monitoring the reading of a young adult is another thing. These books range from lovely, to frightening, to provocative to outright I-don’t-know-what-they’re-trying-to-say??? And I can’t keep up. He reads so many books that when he runs out-either of the library supply-or of the gift cards his relatives give him, he reads his sister’s books. Mind you, at this point, either before-or after he gobbles up a Royal Diaries book about Cleopatra--we kick him out of the living room chair and make him experience the real world, telling him to ride his bike around the block, or trim the hedge, or play blocks with his little brother. Reading has its limits!

I try to read at least one book of a series, when my son seems particularly hooked in a new world. I’ve entered the domain of Harry Potter, Sam and Frodo, Narnia, Prydain and Redwall. I’ve met Artemis Fowl, Percy Jackson and the books of Shannon Hale, Jasper Fforde and Gerald Morris. So many of these books have been absolutely entertaining, with heroic characters and great literary qualities. But every now and then I come across a book and wonder, “Who in the world is this author, who was his editor, and what were they thinking?!!!”

That’s when I came up with a plan to buy really bad books back. The US publishers produced almost 300,000 new titles just in one year (2007)-- surely some of these books will prove to be skunks-too stinky for my children’s minds and souls... Plus, it’s a lot of money for my son to spend $18 on a hardcover, and usually he researches his books well, buying things worthy of being on his library shelf for a long time. But every now and then he is fooled, and I simply do not want a certain book in his life-in MY house! So this new rule, after some shifting and negotiating became: I read the book, decide that I desperately despise it, tell him why, and offer to pay for it. Once he assents, then the book is mine. Once the book is mine, it goes straight into the recycle bin. Burning books is passé; I’m not hoping to create a scandal, but I certainly don’t want the book to end up in another young person’s hands.

This last book that I bought took him months to decide upon. There was a certain appeal to the main character that he didn’t want to lose to the paper shredder, but after all, eighteen dollars is a lot of money. I now have the book in my blue bin, and tomorrow is recycle day. Hooray!

A Few More Thoughts...

I’ve only bought back two books, so this is serious business!

  • I like to write in my journal a bit about each book that I read. I don’t worry about lovely sentences, or commas, or anything. I just write my thoughts, listing what I do and don’t like. It’s easy to be critical, and most books have some flaws, so I try to look deeply, especially at the moral content or message of the story and find the lovely-the truth, goodness and beauty as well. When thinking about offering to buy a book back from my children, the flaws in the story have to be wild and wooly. The book that I most recently paid for had a character who never changed. He was mean and intelligent when the book started and mean and intelligent when I turned the last page. Despite some conflict, despite adventure and hardship, he was always arrogant, self-serving and more brilliant than everyone who moved in his wake. Plus, the book had some mighty plot troubles, and the dialogue to me was stilted and unreal. Add to that the fact that my son thought this mean and intelligent being was fascinating, I simply couldn’t wait to get that book away from him...

  • It’s important to be fair. I don’t want to control every word and every image that comes in contact with my children. They will have to face the world eventually. If my children read a poorly written book, or if there’s a controversial message, there may be parts of that book that will lead to growth if we talk about it together. For example, my son read Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy. This is a controversial series within many circles and he had gotten through the first two books before I was able to really do any research or realized what was what. I then read the first book, to get a flavor for the story and the message, and I talked with my son about it once he had finished the trilogy. I had not offered to buy these books from him. Though it’s not my favorite style of writing, there is generally good quality, creative material there, and my son picked up on the same things that irked me. Just recently, he had a book he wanted, but no money. I then offered to buy this trilogy and he quickly ran to the shelf and gave the volume over easily to the blue bin. The books were a good learning tool for us, but I’m glad he won’t be re-reading them anytime soon.

  • I said “buy a book back from my children” above, but in reality, I’m doubtful that this will ever be an issue with my daughter. She doesn’t read a book a day, so controlling the inventory is not such a challenge. The real difficulty lies in the sheer quantity of books that cycle through my son’s world. I suppose another way to approach this would be doing book research, maybe once a month, checking reviews, and recommendations from trusted sources. As an author myself, it’s horrible to think of books heading to the shredder. Anything, but that!!! Maybe if I can just be regularly proactive, my book buying days will be done?!


I can’t tell you how painful it was to put a book-barely used or not, however horrible--into the recycle bin. Even though I truly disliked the words and ideas that were held between the covers, it was absolutely tragic to think that all the work that the author toiled over was being destroyed-all that ink; those pulpy pages taken from some unsuspecting tree...

So... what did I learn? Maybe I need to lobby for better editors? Maybe it’s time for my son to take up lacrosse, or fencing, or backgammon (I love backgammon)? Or maybe it really is okay to have a few bad books on the shelves? As you can see, I’ve got a lot of thinking yet to do...