How much is too much for kids?

It’s that time of year again where I start focusing my attention on my fall buy, and in categorizing the fiction selections into Middle Grade/Tween/YA. One rule of thumb that I’ve always used as a guide is the theory of reading up. If I work on the assumption that most kids like to read about characters who are at least a couple of years older, then the decision should be easy. Books with thirteen or fourteen-year-old characters are being read by kids who are ten through twelve and thus belong in my middle-grade section. By the same token, books with fifteen or sixteen-year-old characters belong in my young adult section.

When content becomes a factor (as it does for the schools I work with), then suddenly the age categorization and measure of appropriateness becomes more challenging. Recently, I finished reading the second book in a middle-grade fantasy series with thirteen or fourteen-year-old characters. I had already felt like the first book in the series was at the higher end of the middle-grade spectrum (definitely more appealing to ll-olds than 8-year-olds) which is fine, but in the second book, it felt like the author had completely lost track of how old these kids were, and their behaviour and conflicts felt more appropriate for teens than middle grade.

This leads me to the big question I wrestle with when I’m placing books. Does having child/teen characters automatically make a book appropriate for children/teens? At what point does content age-out the book, and it becomes too much for the intended audience?

Kids mature at different speeds, and in my time as a bookseller I’ve certainly met some extremely worldly and mature kids, but is there a such thing as too graphic? I’m all for fiction being a means of exploring and understanding difficult topics such as consent, mental illness, body image, etc… but where do we draw the line? In a literary YA horror, the descriptions of the abuse that the father inflicted on the boy’s mother was so graphic I was disturbed by it. The author certainly did his job in making the reader understand how evil the father is, but I found it more frightening than the most frightening adult book that I’ve ever read. Do ten-year-olds get the concept of displacing a friend for a boy? Should date rape and consent be addressed in a book aimed at 7th and 8th graders where the characters are only fourteen? (Which is totally different than addressing this issue in true YA books)

Kids today know more than we did when we were there age. The Internet and Social Media have certainly made information more readily available and easier to access, but does knowing more mean that they are also more mature- or more importantly, mature enough to get the message?

4 Responses to How much is too much for kids?

  1. jeffo May 27 2015 at 7:07 am #

    To your last question, No, it does not. Kids are maturing faster physically than they used to (or so I’m told), but that does not necessarily mean they are maturing psychologically.

    An author of a series, particularly one aimed at MG/YA has a tough road to follow. Can you freeze your characters in time and never have them develop, like Nancy Drew? If you allow for the passage of time, then you’re going to find yourself with a maturing set of characters, and all that entails. J.K. Rowling did a fantastic job of this with the Harry Potter series. I remember reading one of them and thinking, “Wow, Harry is a surly teen!” Those books became darker, grimmer, and her characters dealt with some of the adolescent stuff, but she never let it overwhelm the books to the point where an 8- or 9-year-old couldn’t read them.

    Finally, anyone who thinks the age of the protagonist sets the age of book’s audience should read “Room” by Emma Donoghue. That will change their minds (I hope).

  2. RC Hancock May 27 2015 at 10:18 am #

    I know I’m setting myself up for an angry backlash, but I thought I’d take the opportunity to explain how I feel “gritty realism” impacts our kids.

    Many recent YA contemporary novels, if made into a movie (with dialogue and graphic content intact) would be rated NC-17 or even higher.
    Is it different to read through dozens of ‘F’ words? Why do we have the move rating system in the first place? (clue: it’s not because a bunch of outdated prudes want to keep kids from knowing the truth about life)

    It’s no secret that the bar for protecting children from “realistic” content has dropped and shows no sign of slowing. That’s what makes your article so important. Many would rather congratulate themselves on finally achieving free speech and liberating young minds than face what this “realistic” conditioning is actually doing to these liberated minds.

    Until about their twenties, children’s brains are not fully developed. The last thing to develop is the frontal lobe (which helps with determining what it socially acceptable.) Funnily enough, a stroke in this area will release foul language.

    So big deal, right? Teenage swearing and sex is a part of growing up.
    What about bringing guns to school? What about murder? Now, I don’t believe that kids who read Forgive Me Mr. Peacock will set out to murder their father. And I don’t believe kids who read bad language in books will necessarily began to speak that way themselves.

    The problem is that with their immature frontal lobes, they’re still trying to figure out what is right and wrong, healthy ways to deal with problems, and what is normal.

    Although most gritty books have some sort of moral lesson at the end that the kids may or may not pick up on or agree with, the more sure (conscious or subconsious) lesson they are getting through this deluge of realism is that it’s normal to sleep with your classmates, to use the F (or C) word in everyday conversation, to use violence to deal with your problems, to abuse others, to commit suicide, to shoot up your school as a revenge for the way you’ve been treated.

    Adults reading this may think me absurd. Whether they believe underage drinking is the norm among teens (It’s not, only a small percentage do) or that no one actually graduates high school a virgin, adults understand that the other problems I mentioned are certainly not normal or even common.

    But adults know this because they have a fully developed frontal lobe. They (most of them) understand how to seperate their morals and decision making from what they read in their free time.

    It is scientifically documented that kids cannot. So before you call me a censoring prude, or a blue-nosed a**hole (as did Cory Doctorow) ask yourself if you want your teenage daughter to subconsiously think cutting herself is a common, legitimate way to deal with her emotional problems.

    What adults read is of no concern to me. (Well, that’s not entirely true, pornographic content leads to violent sex crimes, and trafficking of children, but that’s a debate for another day.) But is it realistic for us to ask teens to keep their language and behavior clean at school, while we fill their books with deviant behavior? No wonder they’re confused.

    Yes, kids can easily get their hands on adult novels, but when you package and market a book specifically for young minds, you’re sending them a very clear idea of what is acceptable. Children should learn about the problems of real life eventually (when they are emotionally mature), but from a parent or responsible adult and not glamorized as entertainment.

  3. Reg May 27 2015 at 4:57 pm #

    I think there’s an age appropriate way to write about most every topic, including rape, date rape, and consent. Kids have to know that it’s okay to SAY NO to anything, not just to sex but to kisses and even to dating on the whole. If we refuse altogether to even mention it in literature until they’re older, they may not find out what consent is until they’ve already felt compelled to yield their own, or worse, been forced to. Kids are unfortunately victimized at every age, it isn’t just an older teens’ phenomenon therefore I feel that it’s important that writers talk about it so that those kids don’t feel quite so alone. Additional discussion with trusted adult figures who can shed light on these difficult issues would be ideal, but I’ve seen enough young people fall through the cracks to know that that isn’t always possible. Sometimes books are all kids have. Age appropriate but frank and honest is the way to go.

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