What is age-appropriate fiction, really?

When I was around eleven, I started reading Anne Rice’s vampire series. I can’t remember what led me into it, but I was hooked, even if it did require periodic dictionary visits to look up a term. One day, one of my father’s girlfriends saw me reading The Queen of the Damned and she confiscated it from me. Howling with outrage, I appealed to my father, who was clearly deeply unhappy about having to adjudicate. She said it wasn’t ‘age appropriate’ because of the explicit content. My father asked if I liked the book, and I said yes, and he queried me about one of the scenes that had her dander up, and I didn’t really get the scene, or what the fuss was about. She insisted that I was going to be hopelessly corrupted, and he fished the book out of her hands and gave it back to me.

My father never once told me that I shouldn’t read a book when I was a child. Sometimes he suggested that if I had questions I should feel free to ask them, but usually I didn’t. And books filled with things that didn’t interest me, like sex scenes, were books I tended to put down with the intention of maybe revisiting them later. I was certainly shaped by the books I read, just like anyone, but the fact that my father didn’t censor my reading habits meant that I didn’t approach books with the thrill of the forbidden, either. Sure, there was a copy of the Joy of Sex around somewhere but I had zero interest in it because there was nothing in it that was even remotely relevant to my interests.

Later in life, I learned that many of my friends weren’t allowed to freely roam the library, the bookstore, or their parents’ own book collections. I was introduced to the concept of age-appropriate reading, and the notion that children should stay within the confines set out for them. Working in a bookstore, I was plunged into the progression of board books to picture books to chapter books to middle grade books to children’s fiction, which later came to be known as YA. But when I recommended books to young readers, their age and where they fit into the scale was not relevant to me.

I wanted to know who they were as people, and who they were as readers. So I talked to them. I asked them what they’d read and liked lately, if there were books they’d encountered that weren’t interesting and why. I asked if they liked being challenged by their reading or if they wanted something low-key. I asked them, in fact, pretty much the same questions I asked adult readers, and I recommended accordingly. Sometimes that meant handing an 11-year-old a book from the adult fiction section. Sometimes it meant giving a 16-year-old a chapter book. I wasn’t as interested in categories as I was in readers as people.

Because kids are complicated, interesting, dynamic people. And they have wildly differing reading tastes and emotional capacities at the same age. Age appropriate is meaningful to me only inasmuch as: ‘Is this book appropriate for this specific child at this specific age?’ I didn’t judge or make preconceptions about our customers. A small kid with rounded, youthful features might love books that I wouldn’t even give to grownups — a lanky, angular teen might really just be happy with children’s literature. There’s nothing special and amazing and wonderful about reading ‘above your age level,’ because you’re reading at your age level, the books that you want to be reading, in a way that you want to read them.

Periodically, someone comes out with another article gasping at all the sex and violence and whatever in young adult fiction, talking about how it’s corrupting the youth and where are the decent, nice, fluffy books of their childhood. These books make much moral hay out of the fact that YA can be dark, and sticky, and challenging. Children, evidently, are supposed to read sunny, fluffy, nice, fun books; and some kids loving reading those, just as adults do! Others, however, do not, and need something a little bit darker to better suit their tastes and needs.

What strikes me about a lot of these articles is that fundamentally they’re complaining about age appropriateness, often in a way that contributes to marginalisation. Thus sexuality is bad, but REALLY bad if it’s queer, or between people of colour, or involving disabled people. Violence is bad, but only certain kinds of violence. Books can be dark if they’re instructive object lessons for the reader, but not if it they’re just supposed to be fun, entertaining reading.

And they are fundamentally about patronising children. Making it clear that adults are better than them. Reinforcing the notion that they are cut from the same cloth and should be treated uniformly. These things are used as code to make it more difficult to access some media in the mistaken belief that letting them see it could somehow damage them. Arguably, what’s damaging is having the facts of life kept from you, is being unaware that the world can be a dark place, but also of being unaware that consensual sex is fun! Going on adventures with people who aren’t like you is fun! Solving complicated puzzles and being exposed to different things is fun! This panic over whether books are ‘age appropriate’ often feels like a bid at keeping children subservient, quiescent, dormant.

As my father noted all those many years ago, if I was reading the book and I was liking it, I was getting something out of it, even if it wasn’t grasping all of the content. If I was asking questions about what I was reading, it showed I was engaging with it. And as a teen, if I was reading smutty books in the living room while eating bon bons, perhaps that was preferable to going out and getting myself into trouble because I was bored to tears and alienated at home — I was the least rebellious teen imaginable because I had nothing to rebel against, and one of the reasons why is that my father never tried to police what was ‘age appropriate’ for me.

Image: Nick reading to Rachel and Sequoia, Neeta Lind, Flickr