One of the biggest fights you’ll witness in a bookstore is between the tween who feels ready to dive into more “grown-up” books and the adult who is terrified that they will read something too mature for them. As a children’s bookseller, I’m often the referee in that fight. It isn’t easy. I sympathize with kids who don’t want their reading policed, but I also understand their guardians’ urge to try to protect them. My job is to find the compromise.
In that spirit, my next blog post will be recommendations for tween-friendly YA. Before I dive into that, though, I wanted to examine what exactly we mean when we say we want a book to be “age appropriate.” Last week on Twitter, I asked people to answer a poll about what kinds of content they worry about the most when choosing books for 11-14 year-olds. The majority (46%) said sex, with violence (28%), drug or alcohol use (22%), and swearing (5%) coming next. This is pretty consistent with the concerns I hear from adults who are shopping for books for tweens.
From the follow-up polls I ran, the things that worry us most about those kinds of “content” have a lot to do with the impact they might have on young minds. People are concerned about what kids learn about sexual safety and consent and relationship dynamics. They’re concerned about the glorification of violence and whether or not it’s traumatic for tweens to read about it. They don’t want to make drinking or drugs seem cool or encourage kids to start swearing. In short, a lot of adults want their tweens to read books that teach and reflect morality.
(There is a separate discussion to be had about what “morality” is and when that veers into censorship, and how that varies from community to community, but for the sake of this post we’re going to focus on these answers as an average.)
Personally, I see a lot of our own insecurities in that answer. Do we want our tweens to get morality lessons from their fiction because we’re not confident that we’re teaching them those lessons ourselves? Do we want to avoid, say, sexual content in books because we don’t want to have those conversations off of the page? Or are we worried that kids just don’t listen to us — but that maybe they’ll listen to the message of a book?
I don’t think anyone who answers “yes” to these questions is wrong or a bad parent/guardian. Tweens and teens can be hard to communicate with, and the world is scary, and there are some things that kids just aren’t ready to tackle on their own. If you follow YA Twitter at all, you’ll also see a lot of conversations about the “adultification” of YA, the fear that we are aging up the genre to appeal to readers in their 20s. Concerns about what tweens might find in the “teen” section are not necessarily unfounded.
There does come a point where we have to trust our kids, though — and we have to make sure our kids trust us. It’s normal for tweens and teens to be curious about more mature topics and to test the boundaries of their (or our) comfort zones. Indeed, many of them will start reading adult books in school by 7th or 8th grade, and not all of those books are going to be “child friendly.” For me, more than shielding kids from “content,” I want to ask adults — when tweens explore these topics, are you making sure that they have a safe place to retreat and process? Are you talking with your kids about what they’ve read and how it makes them feel? Are you not just passively present in their lives, but actively engaging with them?
There is not one true answer to the question, “Is this age appropriate?” In my opinion, we’re still a long way off from deciding what we think is “age appropriate” just within the Young Adult genre. The question we can try to answer, though, is “Is this age appropriate for this child?” To do that, you need to know your children — and you need to bring your questions to booksellers and librarians. We’re here to help!