What to Do, What to Do?

Josie Leavitt -- June 15th, 2009

Now that schools in Vermont are officially on summer break, I’ve noticed something I’m not sure how to handle.

School let out on Friday and since then I’ve had four nine-year-old girls ask for one or more books in the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think Twilight is a fine series. I enjoyed it immensely when I read it. I am forty-four, not nine. I’m not sure what to do with this current phenomenon. I don’t like to judge purchases by anyone in my store, but this troubles me.

These bouncy, pigtailed nine-year-olds seem to have no reason to read these books other than "my friends are reading it." They don’t even like boys. I find asking them "Do you like boys?" is a great weeding-out question for some of the younger set. A giggle, and a sheepish "no" can usually sway them away from any book, except Twilight.

Well, this is the first time in 13 years of bookselling that I’ve had a real problem with a trend. I just think it’s wrong for innocent nine-year-olds to read a book about a vampire love story centered on a 17-year-old girl who loves a vampire. Yes, the first book is fairly innocent, but as the books progress so does the mature behavior, marriage, sex and a fairly intense birth scene. And I wonder how many parents would let their nine-year-old daughters, or sons for that matter, read any other book that dealt with such mature themes.

My fear is twofold — the first is they are coming to a good book too early and they won’t get out of the book what they would if they read it at the right age. The second issue is now that these girls are reading about characters so much older, they won’t have patience or the desire to read about children their own age. It saddens me that for three years parents who have put their foot down to their daughters who wanted to read Twilight before they were 12, have lost the will to make their kids wait. I worry that girls will think Harriet the Spy is too young for them, that The Great Gilly Hopkins has nothing to do with their lives, Walk Two Moons isn’t relevant. It pains me when nine-year-olds head right back to the young adult section and bypass the riches that make up the middle-grade section.

There are reasons books are written for the middle-grade set — they are appropriate for that age child, with maturity level they can handle and a complexity of the story with characters who speak to a child who is eight to twelve. As I explained to a befuddled Dad, kids who are nine and ten and go straight to young adult sometimes don’t come back to the books that were written for them. And that to me is the real tragedy in all of this.

So, how do I, as a bookseller, gently sway parents from buying a book their child is so obviously happy to read, but I feel is far too old? It’s a question I’ve been grappling with, unsuccessfully, for weeks. Any tips would be greatly appreciated.

31 thoughts on “What to Do, What to Do?

  1. Kami

    First off, I haven’t read the Twilight series and never intend too. My sisters told me it was written poorly albeit a page turner, and since my number one pet peeve is horrid writing, I decided it wasn’t worth it. Secondly, if my 9 yr. old daughter asked to read it, (which I wish she had the reading comprehension level to actually do that), I wouldn’t let her. Just like I won’t let her watch some tv shows or movies. End of story. But then I tend to be rather authoritarian. My parents never stopped me from reading anything, but there were definitely clear guidelines of what was acceptable. I wish they had been a little more observant though and perhaps stopped me once or twice, for example, reading Dune in grade six. I just think some books are better read when your maturity and comprehension match the book.

  2. Lisa

    One more thing, our local bookseller has done a pretty good job cashing in on the craze while displaying the books in the main part of the bookstore and not the children’s section, though the titles are also on the shelf there in the young adults section (books tend to be divided into younger readers, bigger section independent, junior high, then young adult), but no to do about them there. It won’t stop the determined shopper but I appreciated they weren’t a dominate event in that section of the bookstore.

  3. Lisa

    Ah, I hadn’t realized such young girls were intrigued. My older dtr caught the Twilight fever this past year (6th grade) & spread it to the babysitter. I was a little concerned. Then read the series myself after she finished & we discussed it. She’s actually much more naive that I at her age… What I focused on was how she felt about it & was mostly honest in my assessment – the first two books were fun and fine for her age. The 3rd felt like a rehash for the second and thus a little boring. The fourth I disliked, but more for the violence ( the sex actually seemed ok for middle school to older except the suggestion of eventual sexual relationship between a baby and a grown youth, no matter how she tried to make it more acceptable) and the deux ex machina resolution… As for selling the books I would suggest asking your young patrons perhaps why they are interested. I suspect most younger readers who pick up the first book will lose interest after reading just a bit. I would recommend they only get the first and would definitely try to speak w/parents when available regarding the finale. At very least recommend the parent read first to decide for themselves how appropriate it is for their child.

  4. Christie

    I agree completely with you! Children are going to regret rushing their childhood when they’re 30 years old. Yes, reading at a young age is all the better, but when they aren’t the right books, well, what’s the point? If the content isn’t appropriate, what wisdom will they gain from it? Only adult lessons, and if they apply that to their pre-mature life, things could get ugly. However, I apologize: I have no advice to help you. Being the fact that I’m only 14 and have no parentage experience whatsoever. One last comment: I LOVED Walk Two Moons when I read it. It would be a real shame to have a child pass up such a deep, innocent story for Romance… I’m sorry, I CAN’T STAND Twilight! Its ruining our next generation (and for the fact that I have read it and disliked it)

  5. Kristi

    The thing that bothers me about the Twilight series (which I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed) for younger children is not so much the romance and sexual nature, but the violence. It’s not graphic but pretty detailed as to the fight scenes, and I would worry more about my child reading it for those reasons. I was an avid reader as a child and ‘self edited’ when it was something embarrasing or over my head (even when it came to TV). I don’t think it caused any damage but I still don’t believe a 9-year old needs to read Twilight!

  6. nes

    i completly agree. it’s unfortunate that romance is so overabundant in everything that is geared towards teens and children, so there is a real tension to choose what age is appropriate. I would say children in high school level and up since that’s the age Bella and her friends are in. Girls 9 and 10 are not mature at all to understand and be exposed to this story. There are so many great books that they can read at their age level. Just because a book is about older characters doesn’t mean it’s an advanced book that will challenge a child. It needs to match their emotional level as well. I think Stephenie Meyer should say something about this issue. It’s so in vogue and oversaturated in the media that she has to realize the problem parents, teachers and librarians are dealing with.

  7. Bronte McGuire

    I definitely agree with you – and to be honest with you, I think Twilight really is only appropriate for 14+, when children are old enough to make decisions for themselves, and are less likely to be influenced by the content. I really think a rating system as the one used on films – showing where sexual content is featured, violence shown and horror and other such concerns may lie. I have never come across anyone disagreeing with this system – and believe Twilight should definitely feature warning labels for younger readers to take heed of.

  8. elissa

    one more thought: i’m glad when any teenager is reading anything. some adults seem to think of books as food, and so teens should only read what the adult thinks is “good” for them. some kids like “healthy” books and some don’t! all reading has value (as opposed to some foods, like candy, which really don’t have any nutritional value at all). it’s a way of engaging your brain that you can’t get any other way. would i prefer that they engage with something other than TWILIGHT? yes! but i’ll take it if that’s all they want to read.

  9. elissa

    I don’t like the idea of stopping kids from reading any book. I don’t think anybody should be worrying about that except the kid’s parents. It’s too bad if parents aren’t paying attention to their kids, but if that’s the case, then reading some books that aren’t necessarily appropriate is going to be the least of their worries. I think there are much better books than TWILIGHT, but I don’t think it’s going to make anybody “miss” any younger books. Kids read up and down in level, and many kids don’t read for fun at all. Maybe some of the kids who read TWILIGHT will go on to read more books when they wouldn’t otherwise, and no one person is going to read every single great mid-grade novel.

  10. Anidori kiladra

    steer them twords other books, is all i can say, being no expert. i love to read, spend so much tme doing it, and for some reason or another, while i inhaled shannon Hale, and Sarah beth durst, twilight, a book i read for an english class lit circle, did not strike me as a book i wanted on my shelves. being the un-official “book recomender” for my mothers middle grade violin students and siblings, i filled their hands with papers, listing age appropriate books- things by Peg kerhet and bruce colville, kathryn lasky and brandon mull, hoping to prevent them from reading something that even i at 15 thought to ..adult( although i have lived a very sheltered life, so i am not a judge) but it was also because not only are some of the themes to intense, but because i did not want to encourage girls to be like bella. think only of ‘hot’ boys, fall apart if they leave, have no will of their own… when this failed, and 11 year old cate began, i informed her mother that the books were not apropriat for that age, and handed the girl the latest ’emily windsnap’ and edwards spell was abandond for the girl with a mermaid tail. i wish it was this simple- all i can say is this- offer reviews from kids about good books. if all else fails, ‘run out’ of copies when the little ones ask. heh…

  11. Katharine E Kimbriel

    Thank you for bringing up such a hard question. My nephew, like myself, is a voracious reader, and wanted to read everything in sight that merely had a whiff of fantasy in it. I was careful to try and pick great books that would be accessible to a bright, socially awkward young geek. As for violence, he watched anime from a young age. What did he take from it? He’s studying Japanese and Chinese, so there’s something good from it! He wants to do graphic design for a job, and I suspect try writing books like his aunt (me.) My biggest concern was things about sexuality. My sister’s take on religion is conservative, and I did not want to undermine her raising of her children. I dearly wanted to give C. the Barry Hughart BRIDGE OF BIRDS books, but it was only available as a huge three volume tome — and a major character of the second book was a sweet-natured, beautiful young man who would have sex with anything that moved. It is played for comedy, but I knew she’d be upset if she stumbled into it. She’d had trouble explaining overtones of the Xena series, when it was on. Their not being old enough for those discussions was her main concern. So I asked her about the book. She listened and told me, “If you think it’s good, send it to him. He’ll probably want to tell me about it and will say: ‘This is just weird, mom.’ He’s reading the Wheel of Time stuff.” I sent the Hugharts, he liked the books, and we went on from there. (He’s getting some of his sexual education from romances, sigh.) I read my mother’s SF novels at age 9. THE DOOR INTO SUMMER was a cool idea (time travel)– I overlooked the sexual overtones of the adults, and an adult man telling a nine year old that if she still wanted to marry him when she reached twenty-one, she could choose to Sleep, and he’d find her, was in the myth of the fairy tale. On the other hand, a fairly graphic recounting of “Are you ready for sex?” in SEVENTEEN magazine showed me I was NOT interested, at 13, so that bluntness slowed my curiosity for years. Kids take what they can handle. But I liked the suggestion of pointing out to parents that “The teen decides to die for her boyfriend.” You may want to think of a way to warn the nine-year-olds, too. My mother let me read the Fellowship of the Ring when I was nine. But she read it first (I didn’t know she had.) She also stopped me from reading FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH by ripping the book in half and tossing it in the trash masher. She’d gone to HS with the author. I asked if that was her review on the book (I was about 15 then) and she said: “You can read it if you want, but it was trash, a complete waste of time.” That got my attention, and I didn’t read it. I had too many other things to read to bother with trash!

  12. JBird

    I don’t think you can have any idea what kind of reader you’ve got in front of you, and I would never, never discourage a child or young adult from reading ANYTHING. If the parents are involved enough to care, they’re going to see what the child is buying or reading anyway and can make the decision then. Telling a child they need a parent’s permission to get a book will only discourage some children from picking it up. Children DO self-edit; that’s why they love fairy tales from young ages even though the violence is terrible and frightening. You don’t have any right to tell a child what they should read. And how do you know that after reading the book, and loving it, they won’t then be voracious for others, and come back for more, when you can them point them to books they should love? Just because they like Twilight doesn’t mean they WON’T like Walk Two Moons. And even if they just want to read books like Twilight, for goodness’ sake…be glad they’re reading anything. My parents let me read whatever I wanted. I read Dean Koontz before age ten, and there certainly aren’t age-appropriate scenes in there. I still loved reading everything else. I wasn’t stunted by it, I assure you. I still read everything in sight.

  13. TheReadingZone

    I teach 6th grade, which seems to be on the cusp of the Twilight trend. I have a handful of girls who read and loved the book, even to the point of obsessing. They went on to read the rest o the series. But for the vast majority of the class, they picked it up (because of the movie’s popularity), read a few pages, and put it back on the shelf. They knew it wasn’t the right book for them, whether it was due to the length, content, or numerous other reasons. I have found that most kids self-censor. Will they want to read what’s popular and what everyone else is reading? Of course. But will they find it’s not for them and put it back on the shelf after a few pages? Nine times out of ten, yes. Those who stuck with the book in my classes were either mature beyond their years or extremely well read already. I have found that telling a student NOT to read a book only succeeds in making them want to read it more. I had one mother and daughter read FOREVER together this year. I panicked, picturing a room full of 6th graders giggling and reading the worst parts out loud. However, I decided not to make a big deal of it, not mention it, and not discuss it during school hours with the student. The mother and daughter finished it in a few days, moved on, and not one other student even noticed. And because the student is mature beyond her years, she didn’t make a big deal out of it, either. I know that if I had acted horrified or made a huge deal out of the content, I would have just encouraged more kids to pick it up for the wrong reasons.

  14. Sarah in NY

    Hmmmmm….this is a tough call. My son is 10, and has read the whole series. I actually read the books first, so we could have discussions about the things that weren’t age appropriate. I try to do this with a lot of the things he reads. I do think many if the more “adult” content goes right over the heads of the younger readers. As far as not wanting to read the great books for the younger set, I think it depends on the book and the subject matter. My son tackles the “kid” stuff with as much gusto as the YA books. I am just thankful that he is such a voracious reader!

  15. Cinda Chima

    When I was a child, my mother never saw danger between the covers of a book. I used to pick up the novels she checked out of the library. As some have already said, I tended to self-edit. I remembering wondering why adults were so eager to go to bed together! I’m torn, but I’d have to say that forced to make a choice, I’d choose selling the book to a reader that wants it and hoping that parents parent according to their beliefs and sensibilities.

  16. AKMasterson

    I’m a librarian and I have run into this numerous times, especially with the Twilight series. We like to encourage kids to read and never tell them not to check a book out. But if a parent asks whether a title is appropriate we either verbally give them a summary or show them the summary of a book and give them some reviews to look at. This way they can make up their own minds without any biases from us.

  17. rebecca

    As a young adult (22) and having read the Chronicles of Narnia (because my older sister was) at age 8. I read the series almost every year through middle school. Each year I read the series, I looked at the books in a new way. As an 8 year old I brushed over the words that I didn’t know. Now that I understand the word it completely brought light on a situation I completely overlooked the time before, simply because I didn’t understand it. I’m not saying the Chronicles of Narnia is necessarily inappropriate by any means but perhaps these 9 year old girls will indeed brush over the parts of the book they don’t understand. I also read a book at a young age that talked about a girl wanting her breasts to be shaped like pomegranates and I just thought that was really weird, but now, haha, I understand. Another point, my parents never talked to me about sex and I think that is more common now than ever. It might be an outlet for these young girls to learn about something before they’re under the bleachers with some boy trying to figure it out. Maybe that is why they’re interested in the book because they know it contains something their parents wont talk to them about? I think there are a lot worse alternatives for curious 9 year old girls reading romance novels.

  18. H.C. Zuerner

    When I was that age I had read all of the Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Black Stallion, Bobsey Twins and other series. At this point, most of us were burning through the Sweet Valley High books. Now, those were ridiculous for YA. I think that these books are perfectly fine for kids of most ages depending on the child. It should be up to parents to have the discussion with their children on what can be read. The entire Twilight Saga is innocent and much less mature than most television programs, even Hannah Montana. We need to be encouraging children to read & parents to raise said children.

  19. Stephanie

    I am an 11 year old girl who has read the whole saga and loved it. I understand what you are saying. Children that young shouldn’t be reading this kind of reading material. The parents should read these books first to see if their child would be able for this type of material. But parents these days couldn’t be bothered to take the time to read them. This generation’s parents give their children what they want and couldn’t care less if there is anything their child reads that is not suitable. We need to get these parents more interested in their child’s life! [sorry for the long rant.] Don’t get me wrong though, I love Twilight. I’m obsessed with it.

  20. SUMMER LAURIE

    Yep, it’s all about the parent. Without them present there’s not much I can do as a bookseller. Younger girls aren’t stumbling upon these books and asking what they’re about, they are making a bee-line straight to the teen section and running up to the counter. When I *can* get a parent’s ear, it’s fairly easy to get them to say “no”—essentially it’s about a teen girl who chooses to die for her boyfriend. I wouldn’t hand them Romeo and Juliet either at nine. But their friends are reading it and their older sisters are reading it and the next door neighbor is reading it…and their moms are reading it!

  21. Amy

    I’m afraid I don’t have any suggestions, but I just wanted to say I’m in full support of what you’re saying here. I had the same problem with Harry Potter. I loved those books, but when I asked my daughter about them as she began reading them, it was very clear that she could not at all grasp the evil that was Voldemort. I let her read through Book 4, but I didn’t want to ruin the series for her by allowing her to read the final books too soon. So I kept her busy with many other book suggestions! I was lucky – she could accept my “no” with my reasoning. As a bookseller, it’s terribly difficult for you. You need parents to parent, and so many of them don’t. If they’ve thought it through and made a conscious decision to allow their child to read something somewhat controversial for their age, that’s fine – it’s a decision. But so many parents can’t be bothered, and that’s not a good thing.

  22. Just Erin

    Hey Josie: I’m not a book seller – but I am a twilight lover — and I run a website – which I’m going to link to your post. You made a really great point about age appropriate books — and how they’re lost after a certain amount of time. I really feel like the youngest age that should really enjoy the Twilight Saga Series is 13. But I really wonder why they made it YA, especially when compared to the Host which is not. Thanks for your thoughts.

  23. Ellen Richmond

    Years ago with Judy Blume’s Forever, I’d ask the child if her mother was with her and then talk to mom. I’d make sure mom knew the book dealt with a first sexual experience, suggest that she read the book before (or with) her daughter, and then let mom decide. Some bought the book, some didn’t…most of them thanked me for giving them a heads up. I see very few kids in here without a parent/grandparent, so I’ve been doing much the same thing with the Twilight series. Lots of moms have said, No, you can wait.

  24. Sheila Welch

    As an author of children’s books and short magazine stories for many ages (preschool through young adult), I’ve grappled with this issue, too. Parents are often proud of having a child who reads far above grade level, but they don’t seem to realize that books for teens are not designated as such because of reading level but because of content. I usually tell parents that one of my books, THE SHADOWED UNICORN, isn’t hard to read, but it does deal with some issues that are best understood by 10- to 14-year-olds, not 8-year-olds. HOWEVER, while I agree that young children reading above their maturity level might skip some great books meant for them, in general, I believe in letting a child have access to a wide range of books. Issues and content in books above their maturity level will more than likely go over their heads. If they aren’t ready for a book, I think they will stop reading it or skim. I am glad no one restricted my choice of books when I was a child. I remember at nine how I loved MY FRIEND FLICKA, which includes a graphic description of gelding, sections told from an adult’s perspective, difficult and complex family relationships . . . I’m sure it would be considered a YA novel if published today. So, I guess I’d suggest talking to the parents and pointing out more appropriate books and then stepping out of the picture. If no parent is present, I’d say much the same thing only directly to the child. That said — we authors all appreciate booksellers who handsell our great backlist books! Thanks!

  25. Ellen Mager

    Josie, I’m right there with you! I actually stopped carrying a lot of titles because of this situation. I’m Children’s Only and I now stop at 8th grade so I don’t have those titles out. I still “special order” for my long time customers & call them when I get something in. I I try to book tlak and show to the kids 4th grade and up “romantic looking” titles I admit that these kids know me & do listen to suggestions, while some just want to leave and go and find the book. Since I really don’t get a lot of kids without their parents, I explain to the parent about the books and if it just goes over their head, why don’t they wait a cuople years to read it, when they will understand it, but it is ultimately up to them. These books with sexual or adult themes are the Goosebumps of the past- forbidden fruit. We started a session on this topic last Fall at NAIBA and it will continue this Fall. Sarah Todd from Children’s Book World asked some GREAT questions about our part as booksellers. I especially liked this: “What do we stand to lose? I sometimes fear that in our desire to please kids and meet supply and demand needs we are inadvertently causing really great backlist books to go out of print. If stores are filling their shelves with tween ‘fluff/trash/insert descriptive noun of your choice/etc,’ what is coming off those shelves? Is there a penalty to pay over time by honoring the books of the moment with too much shelf space?”

  26. WILLIAM OUGHTON

    Decades ago Broadcasters had a Code of Good Practices which worked very well. Each program producer new where the line was drawn. Of course when “acceptability” became what ever the producers needed to draw more audience THE CODE became irrelevant. I suggest an age appropriate rating system like Hollywood uses to rate movie fare. Bless you for raising the issue.

  27. B Booth

    Thank you! I was beginning to think I was the only parent of a 10 year old who felt Twilight wasn’t appropriate. My daughter will visit her 10 year old cousin this summer and the fight has already started about allowing her to read the books like her cousin and watch the movie. I like the series (thought the movie was goofy), and gave the books as Christmas gifts to my 15 year old, but I think it’s too much for my 10 year old. I tell her that the books/movie will be there waiting for her to read and watch in three or four years. I have no tips for you, but truly appreciate reading your post. I was starting to doubt myself. 🙂

  28. S Duvall

    I know this sounds a little too conservative but I would recommend saying to anyone under 12 that you would like their parent’s permission? I mean, if young kids (supposedly) can’t get into R-rated movies…should kids be reading rather adult-young adult books?

  29. Monica Edinger

    Josie, we were flummoxed when the 5th grade girls at my school began reading the series, but then my 4th graders (still only girls) began. They would tell me the same thing adults say — that it was a page turner. I do think children read to their level and would guess the sexual (of the abstaining sort) aspects of the stories went right by them. I could at least check to be sure their parents had okayed the books, but I guess you can’t.

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