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Zachary Michael Jack: Time to turn the page on children’s books as graduation gifts

If we want to remind our grads of the need to create space and time for the difficult in busy adult lives, let’s give them texts that can’t be easily distilled to aphorism, or flipped through like an extended greeting card.

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Students earning degrees at Pasadena City College participate in the graduation ceremony, June 14, 2019, in Pasadena, California.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images/TNS
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As a writer for children and young adults, I can’t help but celebrate the genius of Dr. Seuss. But as an educator of anxious college graduates who often receive multiple copies of “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” as graduation gifts, I believe it’s time we diversify our books-for-grads, choosing texts whose challenges are less abstract than howling Hakken-Kraks, Giving Trees and Little Princes.

It’s a perennial and paradoxical phenomenon. At exactly the moment when America’s youth stand poised to grapple with the perils of real adulthood — when they are old enough to go to war or to finance a car — we inexplicably give them books for children.

By the time I graduated in May 1996, the infantilization of grads seemed a fait accompli, with Seuss’s “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” becoming a perennial fixture in the commencement season bestsellers list, and helping to set the standard for what a graduation gift book should look and sound like.

Today, booksellers like Barnes & Noble continue to recommend Seuss, “Winnie the Pooh,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and “The Little Prince” as the “perfect present for graduates of all ages.” And once again, as of May 19, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” resumed its annual No. 1 position in the USA Today Bestselling Books list, where it debuted in 1993 on its way to becoming a gift-giving cliché.

If graduation book-buying is any measure, we Gen Xers really are becoming our parents.

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I empathize with the need for nostalgia felt by the gift-givers whose grads stand on the cusp of a new and scary rite of passage. Giving a children’s book to an adult receiving a degree can feel like a fun or fantastical way to allude to the challenges of the world without speaking directly to them. The artful allegories baked into children’s stories and adult fables such as “The Alchemist” can help those of us afraid of being graduation buzzkills sidestep or sanitize real-world villainy.

And adults deserve credit for giving books at all, in a time of dramatically declining leisure reading among teens and 20-somethings. In doing so, we remind young people of the need to value words and ideas long after assigned readings end.

For precisely these reasons, I argue that we should think twice about giving children’s books as gifts for new adults. If we want to remind our grads of the need to create space and time for the difficult in busy adult lives, let’s give them texts that can’t be easily distilled to aphorism, or flipped through like an extended greeting card.

As a new generation crosses the commencement stage this spring, Seuss will no doubt have his day. However, as the graduates of 2022 face anew the threat of a totalitarian ruler bent on war and conquest in Europe, maybe it’s time we gift them books equal to the historical moment.

In May 1945, America’s graduates helped serious and somber portrayals like “Brave Men” by Ernie Pyle and “Black Boy” by Richard Wright gain a foothold atop the bestseller list. This year, the texts we select as gifts can speak volumes to our favorite graduates about what we value, what we’re willing to fight for, and what may not be a laughing matter.

This year as I make my graduation list, I’m thinking of books that affirm the difficulties in our lives, like Mark Boyles’ “The Way Home: Tales From a World Without Technology” or Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking.” I’m thinking of the fact- and spirit-filled books that remind us of the overlooked ecologies within which we exist, like Dan Fagin’s “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation” or “The River of Consciousness” by Oliver Sacks. I’m thinking of the rivers of race and time, too, and the titles that do the brave work of intergenerational books like “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates or “Letter to My Daughter” by Maya Angelou.

And if none of these will do, a blank book, sturdy and hard-bound, may be the most enduring gift of all. It’s a book that can begin with thoughts on the occasion of their graduation, and one that saves the rest of the pages for them.

Zachary Michael Jack is the author of several books for children and young adults, most recently “March of the Suffragettes.

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