The longer I work in a children’s library, the more I’m recognizing trends in what our patrons are most interested in reading. I get requests all day long for Wings of Fire, Dork Diaries, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Babysitters Club and The Magic Treehouse. Parents will sometimes scoff at these titles but these writers really understand their audience and what they most want to read. But I will admit that there is one series my own son loves that I have resisted sharing on the blog because I wasn’t sure how other parents would receive it. I always want to do my best on this to share books that I truly feel kids and parents will enjoy and that don’t have to come with too many disclaimers. But in this case, I need to listen to the child in my life and let other parents come to their own decisions.
And following that long winded intro, my son has been obsessed with the Big Nate series for at least 2 months. First published as a comic strip by Lincoln Peirce in 1991, the franchise includes both graphic novels that are organized into short stories compiled from previously run comic strips and more traditional chapter books that are still heavy on illustrations. We’ve also found the chapter books as Wonder Books, audiobooks that offer a read-along option.
So first, I’ll address my initial hesitation to recommend the books. For one, my son is a 4th grader and Nate is in 6th grade. This two-year gap might seem inconsequential but for a child who has barely noticed the existence of girls, Nate’s obsession with ‘hot’ girls in his school is a bit advanced. There are also several storylines that involve physical altercations between children that adults rarely witness or if they are seen, the adult often punishes the wrong child.
Additionally, Nate and his friends often call each other names that, while not profanity, you wouldn’t necessarily want your kid to repeat. Lastly, there are a few occasions where something unwanted is referred to as ‘blowing’ which in my mind, isn’t the same as something ‘sucking’. Semantics, maybe but I still think it’s worth mentioning if your child is going to be consuming every Big Nate volume they can find. Oh, and I forgot, Nate basically has detention every day after school.
With all of that said, why do I let my son read these books if I think they’re so bad? Well, to be honest, despite all of the reasons I listed above, Nate and his friends are pretty harmless. And I’m not blind to the fact that in a couple of years, my son will be a new, older iteration of himself who may be facing some of the same challenges as Nate (crushes, hormones, teachers with high expectations, bullies, etc). The Big Nate books have given us a window into the world he may soon be inhabiting and gives us a way to talk about these big topics before they’re front and center in his life.
Plus, they’re kind of fun and silly. Nate is a good kid who has a couple of close friends, Teddy and Francis, who are also good kids. They may rib each other from time to time but it’s clear that they have each other’s backs. They also seem to have well-rounded interests that don’t include screen time (yay!). Nate is a cartoonist who often gets caught drawing teachers in an unflattering light. But he also contributes his work to the school newspaper in some books so there are times that he uses his talent for good. The kids also regularly play baseball and in the most recent book we’re reading, mudball, a frisbee-based sport that is played competitively, but unofficially, with their rival middle school.
He and his friends have expanded their circle to include DeeDee, a girl who loves drama. And no, that’s not a derogatory remark. She really does; she’s the president of the drama club. They also spend time with Chad, a very sweet and often naïve boy who is being raised by his grandma and Artur, an exchange student from Belarus who is happily coupled with Jenny, Nate’s long-unrequited crush. As a mom, I think Nate’s constant pursue of a relationship with Jenny is a bit much but it gives me and my son a chance to talk about how not every crush will be reciprocal and how to act gracefully when it happens.
Now let’s talk about Nate’s less than stellar commitment to his schoolwork. Honestly, he’s a C-student at best, though as an adult, I can tell you it’s not a lack of ability but one of ambition. Nate feels his social studies teacher Ms. Godfrey has a personal vendetta against him and he chooses to rebel against her by not completing assignments or studying for tests. Again, this is an opportunity to talk with your readers about how Nate’s actions are only really hurting himself. I think most kids will pick up on this themselves so there’s not much need to be heavy-handed in this area.
Nate also spends a LOT of time in detention, mostly for small infractions that if they didn’t constantly come from the same kid, might usually be ignored by his teachers. But when it’s one kid always getting caught talking, drawing not-so-nice cartoon versions of teachers or having a locker overflowing with debris, do the faculty really have a choice? According to Nate, the punishment often doesn’t fit the crime. Again, this is another area where kids are able to identify the problem for themselves. Though they may have had a similar experience with a Ms. Godfrey type, the writing often makes it easy for kids to see where Nate might make better choices to make his life easier.
Lastly, there is the issue of bullies and how often Nate finds himself in a tense moment with another child. Part of this is certainly related to Nate’s attitude; confidence is great but when it tips into cockiness, you may run into problems. When Nate does find himself in such a situation, it’s often with kids from the rival Jefferson Middle School or with classmate Randy Bettencourt. Randy has definitely been an unnecessarily jerky character at times however just last night, we read that Randy’s parents are divorced and he feels sad and lonely about having to live in two separate houses. Without prodding, my son said that’s why he acts like he does. He doesn’t know how to express his feelings in a better way. Well there you go; again, my input wasn’t necessary. The kids can figure this out on their own.
And I suppose that’s an appropriate way to wrap up. For months, I’ve been reluctant to endorse the Big Nate franchise because I was concerned that some parents would find the character a little too rough around the edges. But upon reflection, I’m discovering that whether we like it or not, our tween aged children are going to experience similar situations and with our guidance and support, they will know how best to navigate them. I still recommend reading the books together but I know of many children who read them independently. Use your judgement to decide what feels right for your family but consider adding Big Nate to your reading list, as a light-hearted way to address issues your child may be facing in their everyday lives.