Kids’ Reading and the Question of “Age Appropriate”

During my twenty years of teaching, when the subject of age appropriate reading material came up, the first thing concerned parents usually bring up is the possibility of their child encountering sexual material. It’s seldom violence, almost always about sex, especially parents of girls. The questions intensified as middle grade and young adult literature increasingly lifted the lid on what once were considered no-nos.

After a few years of flailing in a futile effort to find a definition that would fit every situation, my response was to shape my answer, and recommendation, to each family’s particular concerns and to what I thought that particular child could handle.  This works great when one has the luxury of dealing with individuals. But what about groups who ask for guidance in book choices? Classroom parents, library group parents, new teachers at a con looking for book lists, groups of adults belonging to this or that organization.  I sat on committees to evaluate books for classroom use. And I had my own two guinea pigs at home.

There are so many landmines possible in discussing this subject: parental control versus “the world,”  what the word “innocence” means, values held by the family, all serious subjects. Those were the adult concerns. What about the kids’ concerns? The toughie for them–the thing that turned so many kids away from reading–was the pain they felt when they hit something they weren’t ready for.  And you can’t always predict that. An otherwise innocuous book that has one reference to sex will mostly zoom right past young readers who just aren’t very interested in what adults do behind closed doors.  Violence hurt them if pain was depicted especially vividly, though most kids shrugged off numbers of falling redshirts because none of it felt real.  Real pain hit the hardest, especially unjust pain. So many young readers felt utterly undone–betrayed–by “dead animal” stories, which are a firmly established subgenre, including among them many award winners. “I stopped reading after that horrible book The Yearling they stuck us with in fifth grade.” How many times have I heard that over the years? I don’t mean just from kids, but from adults.

That said, parents are still going to bring the subject right back to We have certain values in our family, which includes keeping sexual content away from them until an appropriate age. It would be wrong to slamdunk parents who want to protect their children. As times change with frightening rapidity, so many parents strive to inculcate some values in their children, however they define “values.” I touched on a troubling aspect of this in a blog a couple of weeks ago, when I mentioned how I’ve seen the struggle to control information build walls between adults and children in families, usually centered around parents determined to keep their girls “pure” by controlling their entertainment and refusing to answer pertinent questions, driving the determined kid to get her information from the play yard and not tell her parents.

If a child feels she is going to be punished for asking a question, she is not going to forget the question. It’s more likely to bother her even more, eventually prompting her to seek answers anywhere she can get them. Meanwhile, who is there to talk to in safety if she is deeply disturbed by something she wasn’t ready for–a book that yanks away her fragile sense of how the world works–if asking hard questions at home gets you grounded or worse? What one kid accepts with a shrug is a major world view shaker for another kid. One generalization I can offer, however tentatively, is that most kids favor just endings over unjust, they feel better about themselves and about the experience of reading if moral worth is rewarded. We all know what the Real World can be like, the question remains, how much of the Real World do we let into our kids’ lives and when . . . if we are given the comfort of choice?

These are questions that keep many parents awake nights, and I don’t have any easy answers. The hard answers take a lifetime to tell.

Here’s what I finally decided to say to parents when asked about reading lists, age appropriate books, and so forth:

Read the books yourself.

Discuss them with your kids in an atmosphere of safety. (That means don’t punish them for asking questions. How much you answer is up to you.)

What does that lead to? Family reading! Book discussion! Talk that leads to every subject under the sun–history, language, philosophy, food, behavior, who we are and how we fit into this universe. An exchange of ideas that demonstrates to the kids that yes, your parents really do have your back, even if the rest of the world seems kinda iffy.

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Kids’ Reading and the Question of “Age Appropriate” — 22 Comments

  1. Funny. We were discussing this very topic at a party last night. Two of us were early voracious readers– our parents could not possibly keep up with our reading. I myself ended up with a copy of The Story of O at the grand old age of 11, bought in a church “bag of books for a dollar” sale. (My poor parents probably figured anything we bought at the church was okay.)

    The Story of O aside (went right over my head– put it aside in bafflement) I wish there had been someone who I could have talked to about what I was reading. I figured out very early that certain questions to parents were a bad idea. Although, as I remember, sex didn’t rate very highly in those list of questions. As you say, it was violence that bothered me. I remember vividly being troubled by a torture scene described in a Tarzan novel.

  2. Cheryl: I first hit that threshold at twelve, when I started reading everything in sight. My dad had just finished THE CARPETBAGGERS and my library books were done, so I grabbed it. The sex zoomed right past me, but I was upset horribly by a graphic (at least I remember it as graphic) scene of a man killing himself by emasculation. I had no idea why, and I didn’t dare ask, as the simplest questions got draconian punishments for us girls. It distorted my view of sex and gender for years, until I finally figured out what was going on in college. How I wished for someone safe to talk that stuff over with!

    I always kept that in mind when kids came to me about troubling stuff they encountered in books.

  3. Lol, I read that one at 13 or 14 and totally got it. But I’d already read erotic poetry at that point – condoned by my father. When I came across the stuff on my parent’s shelves, he said, “well, it’s a bit naughty, but it’s written by Ovid / Goethe (insert some other names) so it should be ok.” 🙂

    And I always felt safe asking questions, esp. my father. My mother was a bit uncomfortable with the sex related ones. It was also my father who sat my brother and me down some day and talked about sex and responsibility, hormones and feelings and how to fight dirty if someone tries to do something you don’t want. I was deeply gratefuld for that; most girls only got the Don’t you come home pregnant-talk.

    Reading was never censored for us, a method my brother uses with his own daughter as well. Let her explore the world but be there if she has questions or feels troubled by something.

  4. My daughter was a high-volume reader, and we have MASSES of books, far too many to try and sequester. (In fact my idea is that this is the leaves-in-the-forest method; the odds of a kid happening upon an inappropriately sexy book around here are not high.) One day however she fixed upon THE WORM OUROBOUROS; she was ten at the time and I foolishly said, “But darling, isn’t that a little mature for you?” She glared at me, clutched it tight, and vanished to read it.

  5. My parents had a rule: I could read anything in the house; if it troubled me I was to talk with them (I don’t think they realized I found The Story of O in my mother’s stocking drawer, but I read three pages of it, found it silly, and stopped there).

    I don’t think anything I read really bothered me, but I had that to fall back on. And from the time I was about 12 I was reading everything that fell in my way. The advantage to this was that when I did find something that was either icky or weird above my paygrade, I usually flipped past it because it was icky/above my paygrade. By then I knew what my comfort level was.

  6. Mad: I finally figured out how to skip the icky stuff, but that sophistication of reading protocol took me a while. (I was always slow on the uptake!)

    Brenda: she made it farther than I did!

  7. That’s a very interesting, and, I think, useful guideline. As it happens my first foray into ‘adult’ books (by which I mean books published for adults, rather than for children—not erotica) was by browsing my mother’s bookshelf of Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels mysteries. She didn’t censor any of them, but she did tell me when she thought one might be too scary for me, and we did talk about them from time to time. Actually, talking books with my mother features greatly among my fondest junior-high memories.

  8. The Yearling–horrid for a sensitive young kid. A well-meaning teacher forced it on me when I was twelve or so. It’s NOT a kid’s book. Stop thinking it is. Only I’m complaining to the choir here and not the adults who reason–it’s about kids–kids should read it. Really? When the best friend dies and the deer is shot? Ugh and Ugh and Ugh.
    And thank you for listening to this rant.

  9. Cora: and that is about the best possible testament for family book discussions.

    Pilgrimsoul: and in fifth grade, yet! Why not wait at least until teen cynicism sets in?

  10. The curse of the “advanced reader.” I had the vocabulary but not the emotional maturity. I think a lot of kids were/are in my position.
    As to teen cynicism I never attained it.

  11. Some time ago, I got into an online discussion with a woman who would not let her 12-year-old daughter read a certain historical romance novel, because she did not want the girl to learn about prostitution. My initial reaction – probably a bit insensitive, as this woman was genuinely concerned about her daughter – was, “A twelve-year-old who has no idea what prostitution is? She must be awfully sheltered.” Because at the age of 12, I not only knew what prostitution was, redlight districts being a lot more visible in Europe, I also knew the location of the three brothels in our village and was burningly curious regarding what they looked like inside.

    As with Gabriele above, my parents never censored my reading either. I guess they figured it wouldn’t work anyway, because otherwise I’d just read “forbidden books” in secret and not talk about it. My Mom still tells the story how she and her sister secretly borrowed my grandmother’s copy of “The Tin Drum” and giggled about the naughty bits. Well, at least she got her sex education from a future Nobel Prize winner.

    I hit upon Harold Robbins (I cannot remember which book it was) at the age of 10 when I ran out of age appropriate reading material during the summer holidays and swapped books with my Mom. She tried to push a romance/women’s fiction novel at me (Marie Louise Fischer or Uta Danella or something). But I didn’t particularly care for either of them – to me they were boring books about old people over 40 – and asked for the Robbins instead. My Mom wasn’t happy, but she eventually let me read it. I read the first two chapters or so, then brought the book back to my Mom with the words, “This is a dumb book. It started out so great, with little baby being born and the mother dying, but then it skips all the good stuff about the kid growing up and suddenly he’s an adult and it’s all about sex – totally icky and boring.”

    I also read the serialized novels in the magazine “Stern”, which were always full of sex and violence. I vividly remember reading “Eleni” by Nicolas Gage there, which I totally misunderstood, and something which began with the execution of a terrorist. But the novel that really bothered my young self was “Hotel” by Arthur Hailey. I was fascinated by the TV show (loosely) based on the novel and was happy to find the book on my Mom’s shelves. Not only did the novel have very little in common with the TV show, it also ended with a fatal elevator crash complete with graphic descriptions of people being crushed to death and impaled on steel beams. That scene scarred me and also made me terrified to watch the TV show, because I feared they’d eventually show the elevator crash as well.

    My Mom, it turned out, didn’t even remember the book and thus did not warn me.

  12. It is interesting to reflect on what we remember, and how distorted a view of a book we got as kid readers.

    I recall some quote someone made, to this effect: “I trudged through Jane Austen’s stiff, dreary P&P as a kid. Then read it again in college, and wondered who’d rewritten it and made it funny.”

  13. (Sorry for bringing this here from el jay, but the site refuses to post comments for me.)

    I also hear many adult readers who are returning to YA after getting frustrated by trends in adult publishing. Page-number creep, lengthy and plodding introductions, interminable series . . . I rediscovered Lloyd Alexander and CS Lewis and found Megan Whalen Turner about a week after I finally threw a Robert Jordan across the room in disgust.

    It helps that YA is no longer about so-called “YA problems”–and that authors have stopped infantilizing these. (No, at thirteen you realize there are problems bigger than whether someone has asked you to a dance.) Of course there were always novels that didn’t make this mistake (Diane Duane and her So You Want to be a Wizard comes to mind, and of course the Westmark books) but the reason I started reading fantasy in the first place was because I wanted to read stories about kids making decisions that were not all trivial, and that had repercussions and organic consequences and didn’t always end well. Not that I wanted the unjust ending–I think you hit your nail on the head, there. But I wanted an actually just ending, one that rewarded character development that occurred due to real struggle and error, as opposed to innate moral upstandingness.

    I also wonder if some of it is that the protagonists of YA books are getting older, and that the readers still identify with them, and that the writers are willing to give older characters more complex viewpoints (and set them more genuine challenges) than were authors of the past, who thought children so limited that they were only interested in What Children Did.

    As an aside–you talked here and in the previous post about the dangers of alienating your kids by restricting your reading. To which–yes, a thousand times yes. Any kid with a library card can get the book you’re hoping to keep from them. What a library card cannot provide is reassurance when they (inevitably) encounter events they can’t process. I broke into my dad’s closet to read Stone of Tear, only to drop the book in horror when I reached the gang rape. That’s not something you should be alone with in your head–but who was I going to ask? Certainly not my mom, who forbade the entire genre in the first place. (Or my dad, who reluctantly backed her up.)

  14. Arantzain: Yes, that was definitely the downside of adult books. I encountered some rough stuff at twelve–the gang rape in Exodus, which was otherwise a tremendously powerful and riveting book–that I had no one to talk to about. In the LiveJournal edition of this post, I saw among the comments over and over twenty and thirty-something readers who appreciated parents giving them sensible info when they needed it, and permitted them to use their own judgment on how much they could handle.

    This illustrated something in my own experience: that kids will tend to self-censor. They really don’t want to read about sex until they are ready, and curious. It’s icky and disgusting or just boring until then. And afterward . . . they’re going to find out what they want to know, from whoever they can.

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  16. I actually appreciate Bravo and the frankness of the Dr. Sommer advice columns in sexual matters a lot more as an adult than I ever did as a teen.

  17. The day you posted this, my 12-year-old and I happened to find ourselves caught by a broadcast on Selective Shorts of “”The Things They Carried”, the title story in a short-story collection about Vietnam War soldiers that, my 17-year-old told me, is read in high school and is considered “wicked depressing.”

    It’s not at all my cup of tea for reading material, and certainly way beyond my 12-year-old in terms of writing style and concepts, but I have to say that it was really well written–as evidenced by the fact that it grabbed us and made us listen all the way to the end. “Why do they keep talking about what stuff the soldiers are carrying?” my son asked. “Do you notice they alternate between that and some horrible incident in their lives as soldiers?” I asked. He nodded. “And do you notice how they go from actual things they’re carrying to stuff like ideas and feelings, that they’re also carrying?” I asked. And he nodded about that, too. Then–before the story finished–we speculated on how it was going to end.

    … I found my appreciation for the story was increased by having it read to me, and by being able to talk about it on a very basic level with my son.

    … So what am I trying to say here? I think maybe that putting a story in a social context (we were listening to it together) makes the content and age barriers more fluid, less barrier-like?

  18. The most important component was the way you and your son read it, together, so that it was new and maybe harrowing experience for a thoughtful kid, but you were his safety net–and you were discussing it with him, both providing insight and also learning more about your son by watching how he processes.

  19. It’s an interesting question when you are an author who writes “borderline” fiction as well. My sci-fi adventure novels have been classified (by whom I don’t know) as YA – Ages 13 and up, and I think that’s fair. My characters are thrown into a lot of stressful situations and sometimes the language gets a bit colorful (It has to, otherwise it’s just not realistic). I was at a recent signing when a mother and a young boy came up to me. The mother asked if it was appropriate for him (he was 9) and I told her I didn’t think so and gave the reasons why. It hurt not to make that sale, but I’d rather have the respect of parents than face their wrath because I sold their kid something inappropriate for their age.

  20. Stuart: you can always tell the parent the issues, then encourage her to read it herself and decide.