We spend a lot of time on the sales floor handselling in the summer, when kids have more time to read, and less assigned reading by genre to complete for school. Usually, at our store, this is a conversation between three people: the bookseller, the young reader, and the parent or grandparent with a credit card. Often, the adult is the one asking for recommendations, as left to their own devices, most kids are very capable of finding reading material that they think they would enjoy. Adults, too, often have an agenda for their children. They want summer reading to be something healthy like exercise and eating kale, with a vaguely educational tone to the content or the process itself. Sometimes they want the “magic bullet” for a reluctant reader… “I don’t understand it, his brother LOVES to read, and but he’s just not that interested. He’d rather play (fill in the blank with sport, video game, or fidget device). ” Cue sympathetic look from the staffer, who then gives our secret sign* towards the register, alerting another bookseller to engage the kid as quickly as possible, in hopes that we can have a conversation without a hovering parent. Perhaps they want to feed the voracious reader with a new series, preferably one with lots of titles for ease of purchasing subsequent books, or a shiny sticker that exudes quality. Perhaps they want to share books they remember from their own school days, or provide some context for an upcoming family trip (quick, name three middle grade titles that reference Colonial Williamsburg. Ding! Ding! Ding!)
Inevitably, any stack of books presented to the parent will elicit three questions: “How much is it?” (This is asked casually with a quick flip over to find a nonexistent discount sticker. Ahhh, big box store, you’ve trained them well.) “What’s the reading level?” (You can substitute grade level or lexile or word count into the answer, which we often do just to keep life interesting.) And our favorite…“Is there anything inappropriate in it?”
And there, dear fellow booklovers, is where we pause. I know what I wish they were asking. I wish they were asking, “Will there be things in this book that might be frightening to a reader of this age, things which we should discuss? Will there be people who are cruel, animals who are hurt, children that are locked up, or other nightmare triggers? Are there guns, or knives, or crimes committed with weapons? Is it, frankly, BORING… even though it’s on a lot of social media lists of “books you should read by age…”? Nine times out of 10, however, that’s not what they’re asking. Parents care about those things, and will nod appreciatively when I caution about topics like these. But that’s not what they want to know before I ring up the sale. They’re asking about sex. They’re asking about kissing, and making out, and hands wandering. They’re asking about specific body parts, and the words used to describe them. They’re asking about fantasies, and characters wishing for a boyfriend or a girlfriend, and backseats and movie theaters and skinny dipping. They’re asking about all the things that they remember being fascinated with, but are mildly (or very) uncomfortable with their kids reading about. And often, even the suggestion of those elements in a book can be enough to set it aside.
My friend and fellow ShelfTalker blogger Elizabeth Bluemle and I have had a couple of conversations about this phenomenon. Books containing violence, cruel stepparents, children taking on adult combat roles in wartime, and dystopian societies with soul-crushing lack of value for freedom or self-determination are acceptable choices for middle grade and young adult readers in the eyes of many adults, and yet the very mention of physical attraction or PDA can be a disqualifier in the process of book selection.
I’m all for age-appropriate reading. In fact, that’s one of the things I think that good booksellers and librarians do best — recommend books that are stepping stones to thinking about the very issues that a young person is facing or will face very soon. There’s no value in offering books that don’t engage, either by subject or style. And while 99% of our readers are “gifted” — aren’t yours? — and have allegedly consumed a seven-volume fantasy series set in a school for wizards, getting my young customers to read “older” is not my goal. As a bookseller, I want to have a host of choices at my fingertips, and based on the last book a reader enjoyed, the few clues we get in conversation about current interests and general reading preferences, I want to wave my bookish wand and present three or four titles that intrigue, engage and delight. I want to open windows and doors, and let that young reader wander through them to make choices. Some of those choices, in the very near future, will involve thinking about boys, and girls, and crushes, and long text conversations, and notes on lockers, and kissing in and out of cars. And books, without real-life consequences and embarrassing fumbles and breaking curfew, are the very best way to find out about all of those mysterious wonderful things. Books allow a reader to hear out loud the very thoughts they don’t have words for, and let characters express them in the reader’s mind, not on the screen or a video game, where plastic is real and everything ties up neatly in time for the commercial or the credits. Books allow that young person to set the situation aside, put it under their pillow (and hide it from their sister), and take some time away if it’s just too much. Rarely do I see any reader stay with a book that makes them uncomfortable, and yet I vividly remember horrid dreams and flashbacks from my own childhood after seeing movies with older friends that I had no business watching. Books are the safest of windows, even when the scenes we see through them are just a bit dangerous, wondrously so.
*the secret sign is the lifesaver of booksellers and retail warriors. At our store, it’s a tuck-the-hair-behind-your-ear-and-look-up, or if hairstyle or ambient noise level doesn’t accommodate, it’s the phrase “was that the fax machine?” and a quizzical look towards the stock room door. (We haven’t had a fax machine since 2008.)