Censors at the Gate?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 6th, 2015

see-no-evilEvery 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.

5 thoughts on “Censors at the Gate?

  1. Totsie McGonagle

    Thanks for writing this post. Questions about book suitability are frequently asked and as you have succinctly noted, there is never just one answer. Your comments provide a good blueprint for answering this seemingly benign question.

  2. Kenny Brechner

    Great post on an important topic! It is a high wire act. One thing I try to avoid as much as possible is being asked by a parent to play censor in front of her child. I understand that a parent might want an outside party to play that role, but I don’t like being trapped in a dynamic that results in harming our standing with a young reader either. It’s a tricky thing but worth a little elbow grease to separate the parties, or not choose that environment to be definitive.

  3. Jill

    This was one of the hardest things I struggled with as a children’s bookseller at Powell’s Books! I have to say, no matter how I feel about it personally, this site was really helpful in refreshing my (terrible) memory about swear words, sex in tents, etc.: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/reviews/category/book
    Sometimes the age recommendations skew young, but it’s a pretty good resource.
    I definitely oppose rating systems–look at how much it hobbled creativity in the film industry. Now almost every movie is PG or PG-13 to try to capture the widest market, no matter the subject matter or original intent. It’s sad.

  4. Stephanie Kilgore

    I work with parents and educators every day and it’s a fine line. There have been times where I have had the conversation that includes “you know your kids way better than I do”. I want them to remember that. I can recommend and sell anything they want. They have to decide if it’s appropriate. But I feel it’s my job to make them aware of potential issues. Especially with my educators. They might still buy a book for the library/school/classroom that has mature themes, and they know I will sell it to them, but they go into it forewarned. It is for this reason they, and many parents, trust me. I have worked hard to earn that trust. I never realized going into this industry I had to be a tightrope walker but I learned and enjoy what I do!

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