Age-appropriate

A parent once e-mailed me, asking if my first novel was appropriate for a thirteen-year-old girl to read.

This kind of question is impossible to answer.

Parental opinions vary wildly as to what thirteen-year-old girls (or boys, or children of any other age you care to name) should and should not be reading. One doesn’t want their kid encountering anything rated worse than G. Another doesn’t mind fairly graphic violence, but won’t tolerate sexual content of any kind. A third figures, hey, they’ll find out about sex eventually — but God help you if your novel features two men so much as kissing.

What are you worried about? Sex? Swearing? Blood and gore? Bloodless suspense that will give your kid nightmares for a month? Drug use? Where exactly do you put the bar on all of these topics? And how the heck am I supposed to know?

And that’s just the question of what the parent is looking for. How about the one who will be reading the book? All thirteen-year-olds are not created identical. One girl may be ready for a story that would utterly traumatize her friend. One boy has the judgment to understand that the bad behavior of the characters isn’t something he should emulate; another doesn’t. It’s a function of their maturity, not their age, and those two things don’t map as perfectly as we’d like. Age is an easy thing to communicate, though, while maturity isn’t, and we therefore cling to those numbers as if they tell us something useful. “This book is suitable for readers 10 and up.” Maybe. On average. Assuming your priorities match those of whoever assigned the ratings. But their idea of how much blood a ten-year-old is ready for might not be the same as yours, and it’s possible that neither one matches what your ten-year-old is ready for.

But there’s no easy way around it, either. Kids have to decide what to read, and parents have to decide whether they think that’s a good idea or not. And authors (sometimes) have to answer questions about whether their books are “suitable.” The best I can do from my end is to answer with a description: it has X amount of violence and Y amount of sex and Z amount of swearing, and anything else I think a parent or reader might be worried about, and then let them make up their own minds.

I’d be curious to hear from parents who face this question, or teenaged readers who maybe have different opinions. What things bother you, and what things don’t? I’ll be sans Internet access when this post goes live, but have at it without me — just keep it civil — and I hope to come home to a lively discussion.

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  1. 1. LJCohen

    As a child, I was a precocious reader and once I plowed through all the books in the children’s section of the library, there wasn’t much in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the way of what we think of as YA today.

    So I ended up in the SF section of the library and read everything I could get my hands on. For the most part, these were books that were an appropriate reading level challenge, but were also appropriate on an emotional level, where many of the other books for adults were not.

    Fast forward a bunch of years. I now am the parent of 2 teenage boys who are both strong readers. While they have a wealth of YA books to choose from, they are also starting to gravitate to the adult SF/F genre. I pretty much give my 16 yo a free hand to choose books to read. He is mature enough to deal with references to sex/violence/swearing and understand in a nuanced way, what the context is.

    I still monitor some of what my 13 yo reads, previewing it if I haven’t read it yet, advising him if I have read it and believe he’s not ready for it.

    I remember running across a SF series when I was a kid that had all these weird and explicit sexual things going on. I understood the ‘mechanics’ but the books made me uncomfortable, so I stopped reading them.

    I have seen my kids turn off movies that strayed into uncomfortable territory. I have given specific permission for them to see/read some things considered more adult (the first Matrix movie) and not other things (movies 2 and 3) and have given them the reasons for my decision.

    We also discuss things they have seen/read about, talk about violence in video games and how a lot of media portray women in a narrow and unrealistic light. Sometimes I hold the line on what I will and will not allow them access to. Sometimes, I even change my mind. (The eldest made a convincing argument for allowing him to play ‘left for dead’).

    Does it take a lot of work on my part? Yes. Would it be far easier to just rely on someone else’s rating and be done with it? Sure. But that wouldn’t honor my own parenting beliefs or knowledge of my kids’ cognitive and emotional ages.

    Short answer: ain’t no substitute for parental discretion.

  2. 2. Adam Heine

    As a parent, I would never ask anyone (other than my wife) if some book or movie was appropriate for my children. Not even the author. How are they supposed to know what I think is appropriate? I don’t even agree with the MPAA all the time.

    If I asked at all, I would ask how much sex and violence it had as compared to, say, a PG-13 or R movie. More likely I’d either read it for myself or let my child read it and (if I was having a Good Father Day) talk with them about what they read.

  3. 3. Kate

    I’m curious, what was your response?

  4. 4. Elias McClellan

    LJC/AH, if you’re gonna insist on thinkingand acting rationally I don’t believe you’ll go far in this whole, parenting-thing. Considering what I’ve seen so far, anyway. It seems to be a culture of blame and excuse. The wife and I are currently working two jobs each to save for an adoption. Suddenly, I’m hyper-aware of age-appropriate books, TV shows, and movies. I don’t think most of the stuff on Cartoon Network makes the cut. For that matter, I don’t think ‘The Transformers’ movie makes the cut. It amazes me how so many people just take it on assumption that a rating system somehow eliminates the need to PARENT.

    Honestly, I think it’s more a matter of saying, ‘well, the author/singer/rating/label, told me it was okay.’ Or the parent has a scape-goat for what might be a kid that isn’t wired right or is just bad. That book/song/video game turned my baby into a goon that shot-up the school. Yeah, L. Frank Baum or WOW did that. It wasn’t the fact that maybe you should get to know your kid and not trust a book, TV, or video game to know emotional/developmental level or look out for your kid’s best interests.

  5. 5. Skip

    As a grumpy semi-old guy, honestly if you can’t immediately answer yes, the answer should be ‘probably not’, to be safe. Even if you describe the contents, your impression of ‘a little x’, ‘moderate y’ will probably not match up with theirs.

    I don’t know what I’d do if I had kids, other than let them read through my library, appropriately segregated. I certainly couldn’t just let them loose in the public library like I was at that age. I’m sure the equivalent to today’s Laurell K Hamilton sex with a hint of plot books, or Richard K Morgan’s violence-fests existed in 1982, but they sure weren’t in the public library SF&F section in Texas at the time, like they would be today.

  6. 6. Laura

    There is no cut and dried answer. It doesn’t matter if it’s books, movies, or games.

    I’ve raised two kids to adulthood and I censored both of them differently depending on their maturity levels and interests.

    My main goal was not to let them become desensitized to violence and my second was to make sure they maintained their ability to keep reality and fantasy seperate.

    At to those ends, I succeeded. And as a final note they are both avid readers and game players.

  7. 7. Daemon

    I remember reading dragonlance, for example, in grade 4 or 5. By the time I was 13, around 20 years ago, I was reading 2-3 books a day (seriously!) – mostly adult sf/f, having long since worked through the stuff for younger folks. I was a big of Lovecraft too.

    I think the majority of adults radicually underestimate kids – especially their own kids. Too many overprotective parents listen to media parenting advice/scare stories, and not enough actually pay attention to the kids. Not to mention the parents who want other people to make their parenting decisions for them – and who will cry bloody murder if those decisions don’t work out well.

    If a parent is going to censor their kids books, then they should bloody well read the books themselves.

  8. 8. Elias McClellan

    Daemon, I’m not sure from your post, but I think that I respectfully dissagree. While I previously stated that parents cannot depend on anyone to raise their kids for them, I whole-heartedly believe that parents should censor what their kids, read, watch, and/or play.

    I read the Gor books as a kid as well as Lovecraft and many comics that were not appropriate to my emotional/maturity (or immaturity)level. The Gor books are misogynistic at best. And world-reknowned praise aside, Lovecraft was a bigot.

    Further, I grew up in Texas where only lip-service is paid to respect for women and cultural respect is a token-effort at best. No one I knew read, or they didn’t read SF/F anyway. My parents were not readers of anything more challenging than the sports-page and thought that as long as my nose was in a book, I was okay. It’s only by dint of other works, other associations that I wasn’t more influenced by the myriad authors I read. Rather than argue to the adsurd I’ll simply say not everything that was good to me, was good for me.

    Just like clothing, vehicles, and even food, some things out there are marketed just to kids. And just like ‘those’ products, there are books that are down right hateful and harmful to children. Only the parent can determine where their kid is and if their kid is ready to deal with messages and agendas apart from entertainment.

  9. 9. Adele

    When I was about 14 I went through a major horror phase, reading Herbert and Masterton, neither of whom you could logically consider suitable for the age, but it didn’t bother me then. I couldn’t read some of those books now.
    Anyway, my present difficulty is that I recruited a friends kids as reviewers for a youth version of my book blog, they are 10 and 12, both precocious readers in terms of ability. When the books come through to me I have to make an assesment, do I pass them to my friend with a recommendation for her kids or not? Actually if they are borderline I chicken out and let her make the decision but the whole process has been an education to me and reminded me that kids are not quite as delicate and easily influenced as one might think. The 10 yr old incidentally read a book aimed at slightly older children and has made it perfectly clear he would love to read the rest of the series but in a year or two.

  10. 10. David B. Coe

    I’m a Dad with two daughters, 14 and 10. I’m also a writer who has faced the same question that was put to Marie. As a Dad, I rely on my knowledge of my kids and what each one can and can’t deal with. My older one deals very maturely with sexual issues and matters of personal behavior, but she gets freaked out by gore. The younger one tends to frighten easily — not just gore, but also implied violence or the threat of it. Each child is different; every book is unique. As a parent, there is no easy way to deal with this. As a writer, I can only give a sense of what’s in the book and what I would do were my own kids to approach me about reading my books.

  11. 11. Atsiko

    I’ve always been a “precocious” reader. And I read fast. When I was a kid, I would constantly be begging my parents to take me to the library, or–preferably–the bookstore. I remember some serious stuff I read when I was 9 and 10. I would read a lot of my parents’ books as well. And I couldn’t believe some of the stuff they let me read. Eleven year-olds having (implied) sex with 15-year-olds and stuff much more squicky.

    I don’t think it was too mature for me, but to my little ten-year-old mind, my parents were totally falling down on the job. I couldn’t believe it. And they had read a lot of these books. They couldn’t *not* know what was in there.

    Overall, I think parenting is important, but even parents who think they are very informed about their children under-estimate them. On the whole. In general. Obviously, they *over-*estimate some kids. Children are not that innocent. They’re just afraid to let the parent know it.

  12. 12. peacerenity

    I agree with Daemon. I think a lot of parents focus too much on the idea of what a kid should be able to handle and not enough on what they were actually like at that age. for example, when i was in fourth grade (so about 9 or 10 i guess), pretty much every guy in the grade already knew at least the basics of sex, let alone violence. when i was in second grade, the animorphs books were all the rage with my classmates, and those have violence aplenty, albeit none of it too graphic.

    once your child reaches a certain age, about 10 or 11 or so, i dont think you should censor anything unless its powerful enough to affect you, an adult (like sex fetishes or something like that), and even then you have to think carefully about it, because making something the forbidden fruit just makes them want to read it more.

    anything your kid is going to be reading pales in comparison to what they see on the internet or have been told by their friends. at a certain point a parent has to accept the fact that their job has ceased to be protecting their child’s innocence and has become instilling a strong set of moral values, which involves allowing them to choose for themselves what disturbs them and what doesn’t.

  13. 13. Marie Brennan

    peacerenity: I think the one time my mother put her foot down regarding my library selections was when (at whatever tender age; I was in elementary school) I tried to walk out with books on medieval witchcraft. Given how I reacted when I read about the Inquisition in college, she made the right choice.

    Parents should definitely stay engaged with their kids’ choices, but yeah — I don’t think you build moral values by trying to keep your kids ignorant of the stuff that’s out there. Better to discuss things, and thereby try to make sure “what disturbs them and what doesn’t” is a set of fields you can live with.

Author Information

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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