Saturday, February 14, 2009

Age-Appropriateness, again

I've been really interested in the idea of "age-appropriate" books since I read a hilarious-to-me review from a mother who had read The Dark is Rising to her five-year-old (and, even though she didn't think it was good, recommended it for ages 6-9) a year or so ago. I don't have any children, but I have nieces who have been reading on their own for several years now, and I laugh at myself for sometimes being uneasy with them reading the kinds of things I read when I was their age. (Well, the oldest one is nine, so I'm projecting into the future a couple of years, maybe.)

Conversations about what books are and aren't appropriate for kids at particular ages seem to come up a lot on blogs and in the journals, so I take it a lot of people share my interest.

It occurs to me that I have stricter standards for what kids might see in movies than what they might find in books, and I'm comfortable with that. I think kids can roll over content they're not ready for in books much more easily.

I posted a while ago about a censorship article in School Library Journal; Justine Larbalestier wrote a terrific response to it, and many of the comments on her post are excellent. I especially recommend scrolling down to the two comments by "Lesley".

Since Justine, and others, have already written many of the things I might say, I'm going to ask a question instead. Is this really such an important topic? Did anyone here read anything during childhood that seriously upset/bothered/changed you, or made you lose your innocence too soon, because of content that someone might say was inappropriate for the age you were when you read it? (So, I'm not talking about things like the picture of raining gorgonzola cheese in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs; that's disturbing, all right, maybe nightmare inducing, but I don't think anyone could call it age-inappropriate.)

I'll be writing a post soon about my experience reading Gone With the Wind at age 11, but I'm still trying to think of any other examples. I can remember a couple of scary books, but I'm not concerned about my response to them. Mostly, I can think of books with possibly age-inappropriate content that I didn't understand until I was quite a bit older (like A House Like a Lotus, Madeleine L'Engle).

The only book I can think of that I really wish I'd never read, because it was too disturbing, was Apt Pupil by Stephen King (I know, it's really a novella or whatever), but I was 21 when I read THAT.

(I hope it's clear that it's totally okay if people do have examples to share--I hope you do, because that makes conversation more interesting.)


Melody Marie Murray said...

Oh, good question. I can answer both as a reader of wildly inappropriate books as a child and as a parent.

I read a lot of sci-fi and learned about alternative relationship styles before I ever met monogamy. I think that certainly had an impact on who I am today, but in my opinion it was a hugely positive impact. I can't say that my reading changed me because I was so young- more like it formed me- I learned early that science was good, religion perverse, government corrupt and society's dictates suspect. I was a cynic before I had two numbers in my age.

I wish I had never read Sand Kings by George RR Martin. I thought it was sci-fi but it was something entirely awful. And has stuck with me as a simmering horror in the back of my mind and as a nightmare for decades. *shudder*

When I became a parent, I forbade only Call of the Wild. My son wanted to read it when he was 4, and I couldn't bear to read it to him. So I distracted him with The Jungle Book and he came back to London later.

Anonymous said...

My mom had this theory that it was better not to put any limitations on my reading because she thought that any book that was too "mature" wouldn't be interesting to a little kid and I'd put it down by myself, and if she took any books away it would only serve to make them "forbidden fruit." I can see where she was coming from, but it didn't work at all.

The one that really stands out is The Godfather, which I liked for the most part but it contains a very minor plot point (which I think is only hinted at in the movie) about a character named Lucy, who is one of the bridesmaids in the beginning of the story. Apparently, poor Lucy has a medical problem -- she is enormous "down there" and can only be satisfied by a large man, so to speak. Between the fact that this is described with a lot of innuendo (like all the "down there" business) and then some things that are just plain wrong, as in female body parts don't work like that, I developed some VERY strange ideas about standards for the female anatomy, and that it would be the woman's fault if sex wasn't pleasing enough for her male partner. I wasn't even upset about this at the time, I was sort of glad that I learned about it in a book so that I would know what to do later in life if it turned out I had a freakishly large vagina.

When I read that book again as an adult, I was shocked at how clueless the author is about women's bodies. I don't even think he was doing it on purpose, it's more like a reflection on that 1970s weirdness where some men supported the sexual revolution because it meant that women were now openly responsible for more aspects of men's satisfaction.

I'm not really sure this was appropriate for any age, actually.

Anonymous said...

I remember being a little shocked by A House Like a Lotus, but it was in no way a traumatizing experience, and I was probably in middle school so it wasn't really age-inappropriate. It probably opened my eyes a bit, but not in a bad way. I also remember reading a book that was scarier than what I usually read (but shelved in the children's section), and being both fascinated and repulsed by it. In terms of sophistication, not content, the first time I tried Anne of Green Gables I thought it was a huge yawn (and I don't think I finished it), but I tried it again a year or so later and devoured all the L.M. Montgomery I could get my hands on.

I think most kids know their limits, but on the other hand there's nothing wrong with giving kids guidelines about books.

Becki said...

I was a really early reader, and when I was about 5 or 6, discovered a "comic book" in the basement (to my parents' credit, they had tried to hide it from me). It was that Stephen King story about the mysterious box that gets delivered to a business, and a monster ends up coming out and killing the two men who found it. I was scared of the basement for YEARS, up through high school.

I was also completely terrified of "Behind the Attic Wall", and I'm still surprised when people remember it admiringly as a story about dolls. I think I was 11 when I read that, and I was so scared I couldn't even keep the book in my room. (However I was enough of a book dork that I wouldn't just throw it out!) I re-read it in college, and still found it really weird and twisted.

Sandy D. said...

Wendy, I'm going to direct some posters from my parenting forum here, because we've had this conversation there and there were some very good examples. "It" by Stephen King was one I remember (can't remember the exact age of the poster).

I read some rather fucked up sexual passages in a Harold Robbins book (involving rape and cocaine) when I was 9 or 10. And I remember that part from "The Godfather", too, but don't know how old I was when I read it. I don't know if I was seriously messed up by this, but it is definitely not stuff I want my prepubescent daughter reading. Because it's not just sex, it's bad sex, it's horribly chauvinist, etc.

I remember being terrified by "The Amityville Horror" but I think I was 13 or 14 then.

Sandy D. said...

OK, I'm back after reading Justine's thoughtful post.

All of the examples from the comments seem to be about censoring what kids over 12 are reading. I'm most concerned with "age appropriateness" when it comes to kids under 10. My 7 y.o. daughter reads at a 4th grade level, last time her teacher tested her, but I don't want her reading about rape, murder, etc. I think most of the parents I know that are concerned with "age appropriate" reading are in the same boat - they have a precocious reader who is under 10. I'd rather having her learn about sex from reading "It's So Amazing" by Robie Harris than excerpts from Hustler.

So yes, I think some censorship falls under the "necessary as a parent" role. Of course, since I'm pretty liberal, my ideas of "age appropriate" are pretty different from many others. But they are still there.

PS I really hate seeing 5-6 y.o. kids at R movies, especially at ones with lots of violence. Does it scar them for life? That I don't know. But I can't see that it does them any good.

Anonymous said...

I read anything and everything. Nothing was ever censored and I was reading Stephen King's Christine in 2nd grade.

Nothing ever changed me or made me lose my innocence. I read many many things that people would probably say were inappropriate for my age.

I do the same with my daughter. Any book she wants to read she can. So far all she reads are books that are about 3-4 years ahead of her (she's 7). Only book I've warned her about is Marley and Me because it is sad.

Sandy D. said...

Well, here's some comments from (you have to register there, but it's free if any of you all want to contribute)

"I read a book at age 11-12 which was ghastly- grotesque account of rape and had other horrors in it as well. It was in the kids section (in the 80s did we even have young adult?)

I read it all, gave it to my mom and told her it was not for kids. She read it and told the library and they moved it.

I had no ill effects."

and then "My childhood as a whole wasn't appropriate for children so I can't pinpoint that any certain books had a negative impact.

I do have a very active hand in what my kids read and I have censored."

"I remember Clan of the Cave Bear and the Handmaid's Tale having a pretty deep impact on me. Of course my parents also let me watch Friday the 13th at 10, so it wasn't too bad comparatively."

"almost everything i read was not age appropriate from the age of about 7 or 8 on and nothing left any sort of lasting damage"

"As a child I didn't read much until around 10 years (didn't think I liked reading, then discovered books I liked and never stopped).

All through middle school I read things like Flowers in the Attic and subsequent books, Stephen King, John Saul etc. At some point I discovered my mom's romance collection and added trashy romance novels to my reading list all before I entered high school.

The only thing that really disturbed me, and I think I was in high school was Pet Cemetery and that one still disturbs me now, so I don't think age was the problem.

I didn't have nightmares, I didn't do drugs, and I didn't run out and find some giant alpha male to have sex with.

I am not overly convinced that reading choices once a kid is older really has that big an influence on a child.

I think with younger kids parental censorship is fine for content-but I am not convinced a 10 year old reading The Shining is going to turn them into a crazy ax murderer or necessarily make them fearful of crazy men bearing axes. I probably wouldn't hand my 10 year old a copy of the book either, and if they were determined to read it, I would probably discuss what they were reading with them.

Around here 13 is pretty much when I open the bookshelves up to whatever books they want to choose, up until then I think parental involvement and control to some degree is in order." (N.B. this poster's handle is "The Church Lady").

"The Happy Hooker. I'm not sure that book is age appropriate for anyone

I am forever changed and warped for her jacking off a dog, and the little penis cover for the japanese guy with a penis the size of a pinky."

"HOw about the Old Testament? All the damn raping and pillaging sort of gave me a hardened view of murder and mistreatment. Also gave me the idea it was ok to hate people God didn't like

Seriously, it wasn't till I was an adult that I looked back and thought, "It is FUCKED. UP. that they consider this good reading material for children."

"Happy Hooker was not on my reading list.

But the VC Andrews books are pretty disturbing in a lot of ways, but I think the content disturbs me more now then it did then. I didn't really make a blip on my "Oh my God this is disturbing" radar. I think a lot of kids are probably that way-the things that may throw an adult or a more world wise teen for a loop may just not click at all for the more naive among us."

Wendy said...

Thanks for all the very interesting comments. It seems like most of the disturbing books mentioned are either books that are written for adults (which, while interesting, is sort of an offshoot of the original discussion, which has been mostly about YA books) or books that had an individual effect on the reader that couldn't have been predicted, sort of like the gorgonzola-cheese example.

Sandy, I had thought about whether it's different for younger kids, too. As I said I'm not a parent, but it seems like in my experience most younger kids read mostly what they're exposed to--what's in the children's section of the library and what they find lying around the house. Young children will explore books, but not as much as I think a 12-year-old will, and probably that's why (I, at least) see less conversation about it. Also, I have a feeling that most parents/teachers/librarians sort of take it as a given that parents exercise a certain amount of control over what their young children read--whether actively or passively--and it's only once they get into the YA age-range that we find a sharp divide with many people on both sides of the parental-control issue.

After hearing these responses, I doubt I'm ever going to mention anything in a review again about a book being "appropriate for ages [blank] and up"--it seems to me like it just doesn't matter much. But that is, of course, an entirely different issue from what ages I think will find a book interesting, something I'll continue to mention. (And for the record, I still think The Dark is Rising is a humorous choice for a five-year-old's readaloud.)

Kelly said...

My son Jack is 10 and reads at college level, so we deal with age-appropriate vs intellect appropriate all the time. He just finished reading "Devil in the White City" and I had my qualms about that. But he also reads the Chicago Tribune most days -- so am I supposed to cut out the articles I think might warp him later?

I remember reading "Fear of Flying" when I was young, and like Elizabeth, got some weird ideas about human anatomy from the book. I find my misperceptions hilarious in retrospect.

Anonymous said...

I know this isn't just what you meant in terms of books that are age-appropriate, but misinformed shelving did present me with a book that I still wish I hadn't read. When I was about eleven (twelve? middle-school-aged), I found a copy of Piers Anthony's Firefly shelved in the YA section of the public library, right next to the Xanth books. This particular book is so adult that I'm surprised the library had it at all: it's basically porn, with positively-presented scenes of pedophilia. Seriously creepy. I can't even believe that I've never heard of a book challenge on this one, especially as the librarian at my small-town library probably wasn't the first to mis-shelve it.

I'd escaped from V.C. Andrews and Clan of the Cave Bear relatively unscathed -- albeit with some weird ideas about anatomy and the effect that bosoms could have on leotards -- but this book really did some damage. I know it doesn't seem relevant because it was intended for adults, but I think there's a strong argument for age-appropriateness there: I read that book and subsequently believed for a year or so that consensual sex between a child and adult was possible. I wasn't old enough or informed enough to understand that an author could write anything and be completely wrong.

I generally believe that kids self-censor and that most too-adult things go over their heads or they have the judgment to deal with it appropriately, but this was really a situation in which that didn't hold true. I could have put the book down or talked to an adult about it, but those weren't tools I had in my middle-school toolbox.

That's one of the reasons that one of my primary points in Banned Books Weed discussions is what to do if you hit a point in a book that feels wrong to you: how to put it down and walk away, talk to an adult, and think about if it's inappropriate or just a different perspective on an issue. I spend as much time talking about that agency as I do about why you can't make those decisions for other people. I think the two discussions need to go hand-in-hand, especially at the upper elementary level.

On a lighter note, I remember that the first book that I checked out independently from the public library was Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. I was in first grade and I was so excited to check out a chapter book that I just grabbed one of the first ones I saw. I did read half of it before giving up.

Anyway, I find that I think a lot more about age-appropriateness as an elementary school librarian than I did in public libraries, in part because we're acting in loco parentis in a way that public libraries aren't. Usually I just try to dissuade second graders from reading, say, His Dark Materials, and recommend something that I think they'll like better. Earlier this year I got nervous when a new fourth-grader checked out a Sharon Flake book that was definitely on the edgy side: I talked to her about it before checking it out, reviewed how to tell if it's a just-right book for you, and gave her teacher a heads-up and a copy of the rawsistaz review of the book in case either the student or parent freaked out. But again, I was more concerned about the parent's reaction than anything else. I think she would have either stopped or kept going and been fine either way.

I worry about it more with graphic novels than with fiction, since those could easily make it home with a first grader. I'd love to have Death Note, for example, since it's what my fourth and fifth graders are reading on their own -- and I haven't found anything in it that they couldn't handle -- but that Teen+ rating would send some parents through the roof, especially if it went out to a younger students. I'm embarrassed to say that I can completely believe these SLJ stats about censorship through collection development.

So I just use those (and books like Twilight) as another way to get kids to the public library in addition, and I'll happily talk with them about *whatever* they're reading even if it's a book that I can't put in my library.


Wendy said...

Thanks for that example, Claire. (I read a few reviews of Firefly, and that was bad enough.) I think the adult books that you and others have mentioned reading as teens do show that it's definitely possible for inappropriate material to be "bad" for a kid, and that's something to keep in mind for parents/teachers/librarians--and, as you point out, for kids themselves. Maybe if more people thought about what books are bad for them, personally, there would be less of people trying to keep others from reading books?

It seems like when a book is published for YA (at least at present), no matter what the subject matter, it's generally done in an accessible way that won't be too rough on, say, a ten-year-old; adult books, not so much. So I'm sort of assuming that will continue to be the case, or I might reevaluate my thoughts on the issue.

Hey, I read Thirty Seconds over Tokyo in fifth grade--it was part of an ancient reading program the teacher still had--and I loved it, for some reason. I'm not sure why I picked it out--maybe it was the thickest book? Anyway, I've always thought that was an awesome title.

Kelly said...

I'm still thinking about this issue! I think Claire's example of that Firefly book (ew!) is a good one -- and not something I really considered. I mean, I probably shouldn't have ben reading Fear of Flying at age 10 or whatever, but I don't think there were any ideas that were truly harmful to me...

At the same time, I'm thinking about last year when Jack expressed a desire to read Gone With the Wind. I read that when I was 12, and at the time, sheltered as I was, I totally bought into this idea that the slave owners of the Old South were benevolent parents to their slaves. Seriously, that the LAST idea I want implanted in my white, middle class son's head. So I didn't mind if he read it, but I really wanted to be able to talk about it with him. (In the end he decided not to read it because the first chapter was all clothes and boys -- bleh!)

Sadako said...

Elizabeth K--I read Godfather when I was an adult, and that whole thing skeeved me. Wow, Mario Puzo, so ahead of the plastic surgery/make women feel horrible about their bodies curve. Not too surprising though since Don Corleone's response to "Did you ever beat your wife" was "She never gave me any reason to."

I read Apt Pupil when I was 14 and it didn't bother me--I really liked it, but then I'm kinda twisted. I remember that the only thing that really, really scared me was Roald Dahl's The Witches since he made it sound so real. To this day, I STILL get skeeved if I see a woman wearing gloves! Gotta look close to see if she has purple eyes/spit.