Every day, we’re asked about the age-appropriateness of individual books for the children who come to our store. With 25 years of experience as a teacher, school librarian, and bookseller, I have a pretty solid sense of which books will resonate most with which age ranges. But, oh, there’s a range, and oh, there are dangers.
In books for elementary school-aged kids, parents worry most about ideas and images that might disturb their young ones, cause nightmares or introduce them to issues the parents feel their children aren’t ready for. When we get to books for the tween years and beyond, parents are worried more about sexual content (and sometimes violence, but usually just sex – which is a topic for another post) that their 12-and-ups might encounter on the page.
A number of problematic issues arise when a parent asks, “Is this appropriate for my child?” The first is that we usually don’t know the parameters set by each family. Some parents don’t mind language at all, but want no mention of substance abuse or sex. Or the suggestion of sex is fine as long as it isn’t graphic. Or sex and substance are tolerable if “responsibly handled,” a phrase that itself might be interpreted variously. The variety of preferences held by adults is specific, individual, and takes some nimble, nonjudgmental questioning to suss out. Those are just the adult’s preferences.
Which leads us to the second problematic issue: the young reader has preferences and limits of his or her own, which can lead to some interesting conversations (read: arguments) at the store between parent and child. We booksellers are often pulled in by parents who want us to support their case against reading a book. Booksellers need to be trustworthy for both parents and young readers. If we recommend books parents later decide are too mature, we lose their trust. But if young readers feel we are patronizing them, or colluding in censoring their reading, we lose their trust, and that feels even worse.
We also have our own biases. Every time a 12-year-old picks up a book that we adult booksellers know to have intense scenes or themes, the quandary arises: how much do we say to the customer, and why are we saying it? As former young readers ourselves, we know how often as children we read books way beyond our “age appropriateness,” and we know that those books helped form us – as critical thinkers, as armchair adventurers, as people forming our own identities and opinions. We also know that our child selves read books we might wish we hadn’t, encountered scenes that seared images of horror or devastation or cruelty in our tender brains that perhaps we weren’t ready for. The responsibility feels big to tread this ground thoughtfully.
Add to this mix that we are retailers, who must answer to all of our customers or lose business. We are also viewed as authorities in our field, trusted advisers to readers of all ages, so we take a hit if we miss. And finally, we are fallible, forgetful human beings, who may not remember that a character halfway through a middle grade book drops the F-bomb or, 10 or 15 years after reading a YA title, recall that two campers had sex in a tent. (And is that really our responsibility?) There’s a lot going on with a simple book recommendation.
So how do we toe the line between our strong belief in the rights of readers to choose whatever they want to read for themselves, and helping parents make informed decisions about what they buy at our store? How much do we trust that kids will stop reading what’s too much for them, and skim over mature content they don’t understand?
Personally, I try for a lighthanded approach, aiming to respect both parent and child. Talking with kids about the books they’ve read and loved so far gives me a sense of where their own radar lies, their preferences, their tolerance for challenging topics, darker writing, mature themes. And listening to the ways parents voice their questions and concerns gives me a sense of where their own lines are drawn. It’s not always easy navigating those often conflicting waters, but it’s some of the most important work we do if we are to be welcoming gatekeepers rather than censors.