I asked the Holy Spirit and a few wise older mothers to give me advice; then I came up with a four-step process by which I could evaluate books. It is not foolproof, but it's been surprisingly effective and has served me well for over thirteen years now.
Before I share my four-step process with you, though, let me recommend that you determine ahead of time the standard by which you'll judge your children's reading material then communicate this to your kids! If they know ahead of time what you will not allow and why, there will be fewer tears and complaints when you have to veto the cool looking book they've just pulled off the shelf. Most parents share some common concerns--foul language and graphic violence, for example--but even families who share similar values and religious convictions can vary when it comes to reading standards. Communicating with your children why particular content concerns you can put you and your children on the same team instead of at odds with one another.
Please, whatever you do, do not assume that just because a book is written for a certain age group it is appropriate for your child. The following are all themes that commonly show up in children's literature but which we chose to avoid (in addition to cursing and violence) in our book selections:
Like I said earlier, this four-step process is not foolproof, but it has proven to be effective the majority of the time. If you are ever in doubt regarding a book's contents after putting it through these four checks, tell your child you'll give it a more careful examination (or read it) before you give your approval. In addition, you can (and should) request that your child stop reading a book and bring it to you if he/she discovers content that is offensive, questionable, or uncomfortable. Not only does this train them to be discerning readers themselves, it gives you an opportunity to talk through any unsettling or defiling content your children may accidentally encounter.
Speaking of raising discerning readers, you can teach them to evaluate their own books. As a rule of thumb, I generally preview my kids' books for them from ages 8-10, telling them why I need to eliminate some books without going into detail. Then from ages 10-12 I begin to have them join me in the previewing process, discussing any content that is glaringly obvious. By age 13, I rely on them to preview their own books, bringing me only those they are unsure of. By the time my kids hit 16, I allow them to read whatever they want (with a few exceptions). Because I have trained their minds to be discerning and their hearts to love God and purity, I can rest assured they will be repulsed by ungodly content and will choose to read those books which align with God's Word. (By the way, this process works equally well with movies!)
I should also mention that before I evaluate any books, I say a quick prayer asking the Holy Spirit for guidance and discernment! God knows how much time I've got, and he knows my kids--better than I do! He wants their hearts soft and pure. I can trust He's got my back. And if offensive content gets missed, I can trust God's going to use that, too, to facilitate conversations which need to occur in order to train and disciple them. So what are the four steps by which I evaluate a book?
This evaluation system is not a guarantee. It is intended as a tool. It will not eliminate your need to preread some of your kids' books, but it will decrease your load tremendously. In addition, I pray it will give you a means of opening up healthy discussion with your children about their reading habits and what they put into their hearts and minds.
Philippinas 4:8 remains our family's standard by which we measure those things we read, view, listen to, and invest in: "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things" (NIV).
Aimee Fuhrman is a full-time homeschooling mother of four (some of whom are now grown) who moonlights as an author. She loves Jesus, encouraging others, books, knitting, and coming up with delicious allergy-friendly recipes. She lives at the foothills of the Colorado Rockies with her husband of 25 years and their brood.