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Sunday Salon: Age Appropriate?

September 13, 2009

The Sunday Salon.comHappy Sunday, all!

I’ve been thinking ever since I wrote my review for Tender Morsels (which went up on Friday, but was written a while ago, as I’m still dealing with the post-moving review backlog). In it, I said “ostensibly Young Adult, although I wouldn’t give it to anyone younger than 15-16 or so.” And that made me ask myself… why not?

My parents were very permissive about most things while I was growing up, and what I read was no exception. I didn’t start keeping track of when I read things until after college, but there are books that I know I read before I turned 14. For example, Interview with the Vampire, and more than one of Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series. (This has to be true, because I remember giggling with my friends that the school library(!) had books with so much sex in them – which means that I had to have already read them.) (Embarassing but true: my copies of the later Earth’s Children books have the pages with the sex scenes marked by turned-in *lower* corners… because I didn’t want to be too obvious and dog-ear the top corners.) I also read a lot of Christopher Pike at that age, but I know it was sometime around 14 that I graduated into adult horror – Stephen King and Dean Koontz, particularly.

Anyways, my point was: if you asked me today if I think a 13-14 year old should be reading these books, my answer would be a pretty emphatic “no.” (Heck, it squicks me out to see kids younger than 14 reading Twilight.) But my parents gave me access to whatever book I wanted, even knowing that they contained however-much violence and/or sex, and I think I turned out pretty well-adjusted, without having my fragile little mind warped (well, not by what I was reading, anyways.) So why don’t I trust other kids to do the same? Where is this impulse to censor coming from?

Readers, what do you think? Did you read anything at a tender young age that was too mature for you? Did it scar you forever? As an adult, would you turn around and hand that same book to a kid at that same tender young age? And why am I becoming more conservative about “what’s okay for kids” as I grow up?

33 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2009 10:03 am

    I’m very interested in the replies to this post because it’s a question I’ve thought about asking. My parents let me read whatever I wanted from a very young age. I don’t remember there ever being restrictions on what I read, although my parents bought most of it so they could have easily imposed them. I started reading romance novels when I was fairly young and even though my mom at least had to know what was in them, they never stopped me. I think I was in middle school because I definitely remember giggling over them with my middle school friends. I was about 15 when I started in on horror and adult fantasy.

    But I recently read The Luxe and I thought, teens shouldn’t really be reading this! And the fact that young girls are reading the entire Twilight series bugs me, too. I think my reasoning at least is that I can see how emotionally immature I was at that age and how I didn’t really need crap female role models. I turned out okay, though, and I grew up eventually, no scars. I’ll probably try to do the same with my kids and let them read whatever they think they can handle.

  2. September 13, 2009 11:16 am

    My parents never actively suppressed any books that I can recall. However, there were many books I assumed (and probably correctly) that they would not approve of. Those books I hid. I have a very distinct memory in late junior high or early high school going to the library and checking out a Jackie Collins novel. I told the librarian that my mom asked me to check it out for her (sorry, Mom!). I’m sure she did not believe me.

    I think that reading can be a safe way to explore things you’re not ready for in life. It won’t be long before my daughters will be reading on their own. I don’t plan on restricting anything. If I see something they chose that contains questionable content, I’ll ask questions about it to let them know that it’s okay to talk about those things. I would much prefer them to explore in a book than anywhere else.

    • September 13, 2009 11:30 pm

      Same here, except I concealed Anne Rice and other vaguely erotic books instead of Jackie Collins. I don’t think it hurt me any, since I didn’t understand most of them until I was older, anyway! And it was kind of fun trying to hide Stephen King books under my bed (my mom always found them).

      I think there’s a difference between giving a kid a book like Interview with the Vampire and letting them find it for themselves. I’m not comfortable GIVING books like that to younger teens, but I don’t care if they actually read it. I think I just don’t want to a) be responsible if they DO get messed up because of it (though that’s a little far-fetched), b) know that they’re reading it (like how I don’t want to know if my mom is reading erotica, for example), and c) take away the fun of finding “naughty” stuff and trying to hide it, etc.

      It’s complicated, I guess. :D

  3. September 13, 2009 11:30 am

    I feel the same way as Meghan about young girls reading Twilight. Such crappy role models. It really bothers me that marketing rises above content in the publishing business.

    As for Tender Morsels, I had the same response as you did when I read it. There are some students I would not give it to but there are others I would give it to. I would love to have a discussion with a group of 16 year about that book.

    My impulse to censor comes from wanting to protect fragile psyches when what they really need is the ability to be independent and make decisions for themselves!

  4. September 13, 2009 11:39 am

    My parents were like yours and I read anything I wanted. The only time I’ve censored my son’s reading was when he was very young and wanted to read a book that was way beyond his ability. I was afraid it was frustrate him and turn him off of reading.

    I think you need to judge the child’s reading ability and maturity level when helping them select books.

  5. September 13, 2009 1:42 pm

    Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear was required reading freshman year in my high school. As in, read and studied in class. My high school was (well, still is) a Catholic high school to boot.

    Anyhow, kids don’t need protection from books. At all.

  6. September 13, 2009 2:45 pm

    I’ve never really worried about age appropriateness, possibly because I did read quite a few books that were probably too mature for me in my time. What happened was that I mostly didn’t understand them. I mean, I understood what was happening, but I didn’t connect with those stories emotionally, and so they didn’t really have much of an impact on me. I think most kids are pretty good at protecting themselves, at self-censoring what they’re not ready for. I also very much agree with Jennifer: “I think that reading can be a safe way to explore things you’re not ready for in life.”

  7. unfinishedperson permalink
    September 13, 2009 2:47 pm

    My mother, who is very conservative, allowed me to read Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsyth books when I was young, which included both murder and sex (gasp!). However, I’ve have gone around and killed anyone (yet ;), although I have had sex (with my wife, of course :).

    Also wanted to let you know you are the winner of a Lemonade Award, which can be picked up here:

  8. September 13, 2009 2:59 pm

    I’m of two minds about this. I can see why some folks would want to shield younger readers from certain things, and I keep this in mind when I choose gift books for my younger cousins, but at the same time I tend to think that reading should be self-regulated rather than parentally-controlled. I remember what it was like to be a younger reader. I read mostly children’s books when I was in elementary school, since that was what the school library had, but I began reading adult stuff as soon as I hit junior high. (In fact, I shunned most children’s and YA material for the next six years). And yeah, I came across sex and violence and terrible happenings, but if anything made me too uncomfortable I’d just skim over that bit. I turned out just fine.

  9. September 13, 2009 3:46 pm

    Like you, my parents let me read what I wanted. Although to be honest, I don’t think they always knew what I was reading.

    When I was in junior high school, I read a bunch of Danielle Steele books that I checked out of the school library. After reading about three of them, I decided that they were formulaic and too predictable and I have not read another one of her books since.

    At the same time, I also read some Ken Follett. I think I read The Man From St. Petersburg. I remember reading some scenes that just made absolutely no sense to me at the time (yes, they were graphic.)

    I don’t believe reading those books scarred me in any way. At the time they left me with some questions, but permanently scarred? No way.

  10. September 13, 2009 4:53 pm

    The same thing happens to me when I read books, and for a while I had mentioned whether or not I thought there was objectionable content in the books that I reviewed. Then I had a moment just like you did where I questioned, “Who am I to say whether or not this appropriate.” Now if I mention the content I don’t make a recommendation whether or not it’s appropriate.

    I did read a lot of stuff that I would not be comfortable recommending to young kids, and I think as an adult my tendency is to want to protect younger kids. But I was reading harlequin romances in junior high (with paper bag covers so that my mom didn’t see what I was reading).

    And let’s not even get into the shows that my dad let me watch as a youngster. (I still have an irrational fear of pitchforks due to watching Big Jake, and my dad let me watch the Rambo movies and the Die Hards at a young age.)

    I don’t think I was harmed by reading those books or by watching the movies, yet I still wouldn’t be saying “hey little kids, come over here and watch this.”

    As a parent I have told my son that he can check anything out of the kid’s section in the library even if it’s too old for him. I told him that I trust him to figure out what he wants to read. He brought a couple of huge books for older kids (the Warriors series by Erin Hunter) and then realized that it was a bit above his reading level.

    On the other hand, I did tell him that there are certain books I won’t buy (like captain underpants) but if he wants to check them out from the library that’s his choice. I think if I prohibit it it will actually make it more attractive to him.

  11. September 13, 2009 4:54 pm

    Wow, I hadn’t realized I basically added a whole post to your comments. Talk about long-winded! :)

  12. September 13, 2009 6:33 pm

    I had a similar experience with books, my mother never really controlled what I was reading. Sometimes she would pick one of my books and read a few pages, or ask me what it was, but that was it. Our library allowed access to the adult section to kids 13 and up, and I felt really grown up on my 13th birthday, borrowing my first adult book! Now, looking back to those days is funny for me, because I read at 13 books that, today, I would never recommend for a kid that age!

    I think it depends a lot on who’s reading the book. I see age as a “general rule”, but not as a real limit. Yes, some things are very innappropriate (I wouldn’t hand the Twilight books to a 9 years old), but I think that many teens are going towards books with rock n’ roll subjects (sex, violence, death, etc.) because this is a time in life that does feel extreme. Also, not every teen has the same maturity level or interest. I think it’s good that parents keep an eye on their children’s reading, but trusting them is also important.

  13. September 13, 2009 8:41 pm

    I don’t remember my parents ever telling me I *couldn’t* read a book. Very occasionally they said that they thought I should wait to read this book or that book, and a lot of the time I don’t think they kept up with my reading. Mainly when I read something that in retrospect I was too young for (I can think of a few examples), I felt uncomfortable and returned it to the library straightaway.

    I vaguely remember Milton saying a thing about how reading was like a practice version of real life. I think reading books that espouse bad views or are full of sex and violence isn’t all that harmful, if you have parents who are teaching how to do real life. Then you read and you’re thinking, Well, the protagonist is doing this, but I would do it that way. (At least I do. But I am a judgmental person. :P)

  14. September 13, 2009 9:03 pm

    Excellent question! My mom pretty much let me read whatever I wanted. I was reading romance novels in the 6th grade and then passing the book to my crush so he could read the dirty parts…what was I thinking? Obviously, I wasn’t.

    I think that is why we censor. To spare our children the dumb things that we did and thought as children. But can we really censor them? Probably not and that is the scary thing about parenting.

  15. September 13, 2009 11:20 pm

    This is a great question!

    When I was reading THE SCREWED UP LIFE OF CHARLIE THE SECOND, I was thinking I wouldn’t give it to anyone younger than 16 or 17 because there was a lot of talk about masturbating and having sex. But someone pointed out that they read way more graphic things when they were young. And I realized they’re right! Did reading a Harlequin novel scar me for life? Absolutely not. Why do we think kids aren’t ready for heavy, deep subjects?

    However, if I thought my kid was reading trash (like Twilight), I would do my best to introduce them to books I thought were better. :) There’s nothing wrong with a little misdirection!

    Also, Nicki, I’m sending you an email. Hopefully it doesn’t go to spam!

  16. September 13, 2009 11:30 pm

    I am raising my kids in a household of books. Right now many of them are off limits just because they lack the skills to read them. My oldest though is becoming a strong reader. While I plan to guide him towards books that I think will interest him I don’t plan on making certain ones off limits. I was exposed to all sorts of marvelous books and sure there were some shocks tucked in between the pages too but I’d rather have him reading “dangerous” books than trying dangerous things for himself.

  17. September 13, 2009 11:35 pm

    Good questions! I don’t think my parents “watched” what a read, though I never wanted to check out things that would be too mature anyway. I remember reading aloud from The Grapes of Wrath to my sister in high school (who really didn’t like reading) and being a little shocked by its content, but I don’t think I was scarred.

    I do think parents should be aware of what their kids are reading, and if something isn’t quite appropriate for them, talk about it. I think that is part of a parent’s job. Then again, it must be done in such a way that it doesn’t discourage reading. A tricky balance!

  18. September 14, 2009 4:43 am

    I attempted to read a few things that were too old for me at the time and it didn’t scar me. I just remember either giving up on it or reading it now that I’m an adult and liking it more since I actually understand it.

  19. September 14, 2009 9:38 am

    Thanks for the great comments, everyone; I’ve really enjoyed reading people’s thoughts on the matter.

    For me this is a lot more of a hypothetical question than for most of you, since I don’t have kids, and am not in a position where I would be handing books to teens (or not, depending). Still, it’s been interesting to think about what I could handle as a kid, and what I think other kids could handle.

    I really like the point that it’s better for kids to encounter negative/serious/disturbing situations in a book rather than in real life… that’s a very good way to look at it. And a lot of people are mentioning that kids self-censor parts they don’t understand, which I’m sure is also true.

    Maybe there’s a distinction to be drawn between books that deal with negative, disturbing situations, but treat them realistically (i.e. as Bad Things with real consequences), and books that feature things we consider undesirable, but feature them in a positive light. (And the truth is, as much as we could wish it were otherwise, nasty things do happen in real life, and wanting to sterilize them from literature is doing a massive disservice to those potential readers that they have happened to.)

    I mean, Tender Morsels deals with rape and incest and sexual violence, but it’s not presenting these things as desirable behavior… far from it. On the other hand, Twilight holds up a codependent, emotionally-abusive relationship as a romantic ideal, and an exceptionally passive girl as role model. And, given the choice, I think I’d rather teens – even young teens – were reading the former rather than the later.

  20. September 14, 2009 11:41 am

    Really interesting question. My mom was a bit of a book censor — I got banned from The Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High for awhile when I was in elementary/middle school. But my mom didn’t know much about fantasy, the genre I enjoyed, so I “got away with” reading books she may not have approved of because she wasn’t familiar.

    Hypothetically, as someone not a parent, I don’t like the idea of banning my kids from books. I guess what I hope will happen is that we’ll consider books together. They’ll show me what they’re reading and we can talk about the stories and messages rather than me censoring the messages ahead of time. That’s a little idealistic, I know, but I hope that’s what might happen :)

    And I agree with you on Twilight.

  21. September 14, 2009 11:41 am

    I will never forget going into the Public Library sometime in middle school and being denied a copy of some Babysitter’s Club book because the librarian felt it was too mature for me. At that time, I had already read Stephen King’s It; I had already giggled over the almost-but-not-quite-group-sex scene. Babysitter’s Club didn’t even measure on the Richter Scale of Questionable Material I was reading at the time.

    I have been a voracious reader for as long as I can remember and my mother supported it by letting me read whatever I wanted (although I never tried to buy the 1980s equivalent of Madonna’s Sex Book, whatever that would be), so I can’t be sure she wouldn’t have had her limits.

    I’ve always felt that it’s more about maturity than age. I know 22 year olds who should stay away from It, and 12 year olds who could handle it. So, in my typical non-definitive way…it all depends.

  22. September 14, 2009 5:38 pm

    Wow, what an great question, and what interesting responses! I love all these stories of getting around the the grownups to get to the books. It’s like a secret society we didn’t even know we were members of!

    I’m surprised that I’m the only commenter so far whose parents wanted truly excessive control over their reading–does that mean readers who grew up with excessively controlling parents aren’t the ones who read book blogs? Huh.

    They *wanted* control over my reading, but they didn’t have it because I made sure to hide it. The rest of my life was such a dreary press of Evangelical Christian parental control, I knew I had to protect my reading from them like a new chick from stomping boots. I did this by reading old books that lured them into complacency; they thought I was such a smart kid I would simply never read something they wouldn’t approve.

    Also, not readers themselves, they were too lazy to monitor what I was reading unless a cover or a title rang alarm bells. If they saw an early nineteen-sixties Newberry winning cover or a 19th century classic, they saw something conservative simply because of its age–a great joke because I knew it wasn’t true: they would have found Onion John and Witch of Blackbird Pond positively seditious! If they had seen me reading a book with a fantasy cover they would have suspected Dungeons and Dragons and black magic and potentially satanism, so I read the “bad” looking books where they wouldn’t see me (e.g. Patricia McKillip, Dune)–at my grandma’s or outside. The *really* bad ones, which I knew could get me totally busted based on content rather than just cover art (e.g. the Wizard of Earthsea, The Children of Green Knowe), I hid. I never left any of the books I was reading lying around the house.

    Since the only innately acceptable reading material was religious drivel, or C.S. Lewis (thank God for Narnia!) or something more than a hundred years old, this made pretty much all reading of good 20th century books a delicious forbidden pleasure. It also brought me to the classics really young, and to more pulpy things much later–which I think is the way to best enjoy them. And since no one knew what I was really reading, I came to the sensible conclusion that I had to regulate it myself. I’m with a lot of the other commenters in feeling that most (but maybe not all) kids do this naturally. I just knew what I was ready for. Now I’m almost grateful for the controls, simply for the good I got out of circumnavigating them. *Almost.*

    The only trouble with self-censoring is that the kid has to sample the sex scene or emotional manipulation or spatter or whatever to know it’s too mature for her, and then you can’t unread what you’ve already read. I was really disturbed by the brutal sexual power play in Clan of the Cave Bear at age 11, but I loved the setting enough to finish the book. It bothered me for a long time. Unlike Nymeth, it didn’t always slide past me. For me it was like the reader’s version of mild food poisoning: not fatal, but certainly not comfortable. I think it’s okay to want to protect a kid from that. And to want to give them all the wonderful books you know they will enjoy RIGHT NOW more than any other time in their lives, which they won’t have time to read if they’re puzzling over Danielle Steele.

    • September 14, 2009 5:47 pm

      Sorry for the detour, but actually, my parents were extremely overprotective in every other area of my life (they still try to be). I could list just how, but I’ll spare you all that – let’s just say my freedoms were far behind what most other kids’ were. I’m a little grateful that while I was a rebellious teenager, they’d taught me enough about right and wrong that I could judge for myself. I never made a wrong choice in my rebellions – it’s not like I did drugs or anything – and the results of some of those are among the best decisions I’ve made in my life. Honestly, though, I would have done just the same things if they’d been open enough to consider what I wanted and talked to me about it, so that’s the plan I want to try and go for with my own kids. Talk things through first, don’t just forbid them automatically. Same with books – I want my kids to talk to me about what they read and why they want to read something I think is controversial, and if they still really want to then we can read it together. My main goal will be to prevent secrecy.

  23. September 15, 2009 1:37 pm

    My reading material was only censored to the extent that the librarians may have censored what they bought for the libarary. Still…there was the used book store and the book sales. I remember reading The Happy Hooker when I was still a teen–and I remember that my dad’s sci fi books had a lot of sex in them. I didn’t care for romance novels, so there wasn’t a lot of sex in the stuff I read as a teen. As far as censoring my teen’s reading–I’ve pretty much decided it is impossible to do, so why make it forbidden fruit (unless it is porno of course)

  24. September 15, 2009 6:54 pm

    My parents didn’t censor my books either – they figured if they banned them it would make them more interesting to me. I don’t remember not understanding anything I read but I’m sure some of it went emotionally over my head.

    No kids here but I do know that while I wouldn’t stop anyone from reading anything they wanted, I wouldn’t necessarily give them certain books.

    Interesting question and responses!

  25. September 16, 2009 8:56 pm

    Interesting topic. I remember my parents being very permissive about what I read, but now that I think on it they weren’t; they just couldn’t keep track. Since they both worked, it would have been impossible for them to be aware of every book I read and its contents after a certain age. My mother did scream at me for reading romance novels, but that’s another story….

    I think you probably only worry about book content because you know what’s in them. My dad and grandma aren’t readers and they were the ones who let me read whatever I wanted (including Playboy).

  26. September 17, 2009 4:19 pm

    YEP and NOPE. i went to live with my dad when i was 13. he was an avid reader and i guess figured that if i wanted to read it and didn’t have questions or concerns to talk to him about, then so be it. i do remember he would not take me to see elmer gantree because he said it would destroy any religion i had left. so freshman year lit, what was the first book i just had to read? boy, was i disappointed! and i kept what religion i had before i read it. before i went to live with daddy, i had the school library and the bookmobile and was into books about dogs and horses and army families. german tv was …well, german. and the good stuff on armed forces radio was on about bedtime. let me tell you, listening to the radio play of THE BIRDS scared the poop out of me! so naturally, as he had a ton of books, i picked out the ones that interested me or that he suggested.

  27. September 20, 2009 11:15 am

    I’m in agreement with most posters here–if they’re you’re kids you probably should not set restrictions on what they can or cannot have access to. I was fortunate enough in having parents that let me read whatever I wanted, because they believed if it was a potential “hot” topic–drugs, sex, etc.–it was better that I learned about it in a book than on the playground, ‘cuz Lord knows most kids aren’t willingly going to have the sex talk with the Ps.

    That said, I still believe books are dangerous–and they should be. They’re ideas, they’re imagination, they’re the unreal made real. They have the ability to give power to the foreign and unknown. And the good ones, they can make you feel, see, hear and touch things unfamiliar. But at the heart of the matter, isn’t that a part of why we read.

    Should books be moral? Should there be consequences to negative actions? Should good triumph over evil? Never at the expense of the story. Not every book needs, nor should, be “teachable” in terms of moral living. That’s a job for churches and parents, not authors. The population at large has no right in dictating my thoughts or my code of ethics, which is what the real drive of censorship is–controlling thoughts to control behavior. A book doesn’t need to teach. It doesn’t need to entertain. It simply needs to sweep readers away through a partnership between the author and the reader.

    Despite all of my blather, I’d never give a so-called “dirty book” to someone else’s kid–and I wrote one. I’d hope they’d get it from the library. But then again, who’s to say what’s dirty/age-appropriate? I laughed about the poster who found scenes in Grapes of Wrath scandalous. i just remember being bored to tears and then laughing about trying to breastfeed the dead baby (thought it was way too melodramatic).

    Great discussion.

  28. Ella enchanted permalink
    October 15, 2012 11:10 pm

    My parents allowed me to read many classics that had somewhat explicit scenes in them as a child. I was probably about 11 when I started reading classics. I usually skipped past any sex scenes I came across & still enjoyed the book. I think it really depends on if a kid can self police what they read. If a parent thinks they’re child is not responsible enough to not read those parts they can always tear out those pages of mark through any explicit words


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