On Appropriateness (and the lack thereof) (and learning not to worry about it)

It’s a problem that’s been brewing for a while now. I’ve ignored it, glossed it over, made excuses. I’ve done my best to pretend that I was in control of the situation, that I was driving, leading and in charge. I am not; I can admit that now.

Here’s my issue:

My kid reads too much.

Actually, no, that’s not the problem. My kid reading too much is clearly a point of pride – hell, I’m a writer for god’s sake. I whispered stories to her when she was in the womb, stories as she slid into the world, stories as I wrapped her and sang to her. That child was suckled on stories, so it’s really no surprise that she would read a lot.

But her reading – because of its sheer volume, because of its insistence on continuing itself – it pulls her away from the sphere of my protection. It pulls her away from me. And this is a good thing. Except when it’s not.

When she was in third grade, it became clear to me that the child read faster than I did. (As many of you already know, I was a delayed reader as a child, and remain a relatively slow reader. Or not slow. I saunter through books. I’m a saunterer.) Prior to that, I read everything she read just before she read it. I scanned for hints of inappropriateness or violence or hatred. She lived then in the world I built for her, and I wasn’t going to hand her over to the world at large. Not yet. Not without a fight.

I stayed up late reading. I read while I cooked. I read while I put her siblings to bed. I read for her. (Incidentally, all that reading likely built me into a Middle Grade Author. Prior to that I wrote a couple of crappy grownuppy novels that won me some praise from editors and agents but no actual sales. This experience taught me who I was as a writer, and I’m grateful for it.)

I wanted to protect my child – protect her from pain, protect her from fear, protect her from grief. And mostly (and this is a big MOSTLY) I wanted to protect her innocence. Her innocence, I felt, mattered. I pre-read most of her books, and scoured reviews and discussions online when she was chomping at the bit for a new book.

But even in third grade I was losing ground. She was reading hungrily, greedily. She was desperate for more.

By fourth grade, it was a lost cause. Because she was good in math, and quick, her teachers (in their infinite wisdom) (are you noting my frustration with the public school system? Yup. It’s there) sent her to the library during math class to read, since they knew that she was already ahead of everyone else, and would still boost up their math average by blowing the test out of the water, so why not just let the child read if she likes it so much?

(I am noticing that I still have some unresolved feelings about this. Must blog about it later)

In any case, she started reading books that I had no access to. That I had no knowledge of. Her reading life had gone beyond me, beyond the structures that I had placed around her life to keep her safe, to keep her from pain, to keep her pure.

I had already lost. Her reading life no longer belonged to me. It belonged to the world.

By fifth grade, she was reading a book a day. And she read everything – grownup books, kid books, teen books. When we went to the library together, I’d go with her in the teen section. I wouldn’t forbid books out of hand – instead I would offer the books that I had read, or the books that I had heard were good. I’d say things like, “You can read that if you want, but you should know that it has a TON of violence in it, and it might be upsetting.” Or sex. Or drug use. I explained, I cautioned, I analyzed. I did not overrule. I did not ban. I was no longer in a limiting role. My role was purely advisory.

At Christmas time, her grandmother gave her a Nook. Now, she can download books from the library – though she still prefers paper books. In any case, the library trips plus the electronic gadget keeps the kid in books which keeps her happy. But I am entirely outside now. She reads the book descriptions, reads the user comments, makes her lists, downloads, reads, repeats. She reads all the time, all the time, all the time.

And not just kid books.

Grownup books.

This summer, as she has geared up for seventh grade, she read a bunch of Jane Austen, and Charlotte Brontë, and Douglas Adams. She read Terry Pratchett, Charles Dickens and Alexander McCall Smith. She read a couple vampire romance novels that were very fun and light and chick-litty – and with a couple very …. um…. detailed sex scenes. I learned about this later. Here was my conversation about it:

ME: So, I guess there was some sex in this book you read.

HER: Oh. Yeah. I don’t know why writers insist on putting that stuff in.

ME: You’ll probably understand why someday, but it’s okay not to now. Was that upsetting to you?

HER: What? No. Why would it be upsetting? If it was a movie, I’d just fast forward it. Since it’s a book, I just skip ahead. It seems to me that writers just put scenes in like that because they don’t know what’s going to happen next in the story and they’re wasting time. But I’m only interested in the story, so I flip the pages until the story gets good again.

ME: Good strategy.

HER: It’s like when there’s swear words. I don’t like hearing swear words at school, and I really don’t like reading them in a book. So I just make a BEEP sound in my head when I read it and everybody’s happy.

Have I mentioned lately how desperately I love that child?

And I’ve been thinking about this in the wake of this awesome article at The Millions and this crappy article at the NYT. Both deal with this notion of separating books – whether by gender or by age. When we balkanize books, when we divide them, sort them, put labels on them – we are implicitly telling readers:

This book is not for you.

This book is not appropriate for you.

Go away and come back when you are older. Or when you have turned into a girl. Or transformed into a boy.

Bollocks, I say.

When I was in seventh grade, I read The Grapes of Wrath. It politicized me, galvanized me. It was the first time that I understood that money was power and that power corrupts. There is also sex in it. And desperation. And despair. Was it inappropriate for a twelve year old?

I defy anyone to tell me that it was.

When I was a little bit younger than that, I read Call it Courage. Is it a “boy” book? I certainly see it now on lists of “boy” books. Was I channelling my inner boy when I read it (or, for that matter, my inner Polynesian)? Was I less of a girl because I read it and loved it?

Right now, as we speak, Ella is reading Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen. I’m pretty sure there’s some sex in it. I’m pretty sure there’s some violence. I’m pretty sure there’s some bad words. But I’m absolutely sure that what she will carry away from that book will have nothing to do with sex, violence or cursing. What she will carry away from that book will be something larger, richer, and ultimately more pure. When she reads, she inhabits the world that the writer designs and that she herself builds. When she reads, she makes the world new again.

This is why I do not limit. This is why I do not worry about appropriateness. This is why I trust my child. And this is why we talk about the books we read. The conversation matters, the connection matters, and the re-hash matters. It all matters.

Here’s a thing I know for sure: the reason why we read, the reason why we engage in stories,  is to remind ourselves that we are more than ourselves. That we are part of a larger human family. That we, indeed, have souls. When we read we connect ourselves to other cultures, other times, other genders. We remind ourselves that human experience is fluid and changeable and wild. We remind ourselves that every man, woman and child on this earth – no matter how wicked in their actions – is worthy of compassion, worthy of empathy, worthy of redemption, worthy of love.

The reading and telling and listening of stories is the one uniquely human thing about us. It is our birthright. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to put any limits on it. Screw appropriateness. Now, where did I leave that book…..

23 thoughts on “On Appropriateness (and the lack thereof) (and learning not to worry about it)

  1. I have lived the same scenario in my childhood and now as a parent of a 13 year old daughter. We have had some of the same conversations. If she is not ready for something or it bothers her, she skips it. The instinct to shelter is definitely there, but I am glad that she is developing her own reading habits and can navigate her books on her own. I won’t always be with her to guide and shelter anyway. You have said it better than I ever could. Thanks!

  2. Great post, Kelly! Your daughter reminds me of my younger reading self. I devoured books daily, and by the sixth grade I was reading grownup books. I learned a lot about the world, but mostly I just enjoyed reading. It’s nice to read what other sane parents do with their children before mine actually reach that point. For now, I’m still reading to my son and looking forward to the day when he takes on his own love of books.

  3. Thank you so much for having a sane strategy and blogging about it. I’d been wondering if the times had changed so radically from when I was a kid and was reading adult fiction early on. I’ve heard wild accusations of *Twilight* causing a group of middle school girls to cut themselves, for example, which completely mystifies me.

    • OH FER GOD’S SAKE, really? The fact is that no matter what the kids are doing nowadays, somebody’s gonna fuss about it – be it reading Twilight or watching Purple Rain or listening to the Beatles or cutting their hair and dancing the Charelston or discussing philosophy with Socrates. In the end, it’s all the same – OH EM GEEEEE! WILL NO ONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!?

      It would be funny if it weren’t so predictable.

  4. Many thanks! As a new Jr. High Librarian this is a discusison I have been having with parents. The ability to self-sensor is a valuable skill & great avenue for discussion about the world. I love your approach to not forbidding, but rather advising. I will refer parents to your comments!

    • Oh, thank you, Shannon. And I had many of those same conversations with parents when I was a middle school teacher. Parents worry – it’s what we do. But in the end, our kids are WAY more resilient than we give them credit for. And they know what they can – and should – leave behind. And be sure to also point them to the the article I link to at The Millions.

  5. I love your comments… Isn’t it wonderful to know we can raise children who are able to sort through the muck and find the wonderful when given the opportunity to do so. As an elementary librarian (with my own children who are now college students, high school students and even a little toddler– )it has been wonderful to go from “control” of their worlds, to having those amazing conversations, then watching them morph into forward thinking, passionate, and brilliant young people.

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  7. Hmm. If your daughter has any interest in blogging, how great would it be for her to do her own book review site for kids her age? I remember when I was growing up I had no one to recommend books to me so I stumbled around a lot–mostly looking for books with horses on the cover or in the title, but finding them so lacking. I remember reading Jurassic Park in fourth grade and starting my SF binge, but even that was mostly informed by summer reading lists which were filled with books I’d either already read, or already felt were too young for what I wanted.

  8. This was a great post. I have two sons that are huge readers. My oldest is 10 and reads much faster than I do and I read fast. I no longer can read his books first and it worries me too. The great thing though is that we’ve built a relationship to talk about the books and he is willing to come to me when he doesn’t understand some of the content (alcohol, sex, even vocabulary). I didn’t want him to lose his innocence to quickly but your article makes me realize that we do need to trust our children to know what they are ready for. I’m quite confident my son supplements “beep” too.

    Thanks, Kellie

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  10. Most adults would be surprised to realize how much they did this themselves as kids–I’ve recommended books (and movies) to teens and they’ll report back on how much x, y, z stuff there was… Stuff I had NO memory of. What I’d remembered was the story, the characters, the scenery, or something else meaningful. Bad language? What?? Totally forgot that part–or, likely, it went right over my head.

    • I know what you mean! We watched re-runs of Three’s Company when we were kids because we loved watching Jack Tripper fall off couches. All the sex stuff went right over our heads. And once, when I was teaching 10th grade Literature I had the kids read THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN and they completely missed the sex scene. They could talk intelligently about what happened before and what happened after, but during was just a blank space. Kids are fascinating.

  11. Wonderful post. This is very much how I remember my mother and father tackling the issue of dubious content in books and films. Apart from giving my siblings and I the confidence to choose for ourselves, it taught us that we could actually have conversations about books with our parents–because we didn’t just discuss the ones that might be troubling. We read together and we discussed books all the time (which, of course, made the conversations about troubling stuff easier).

    And I love, love, love your daughter’s characterizations of detailed love scenes as the writers’ efforts to get through places where they were being lazy or hadn’t figured out the next bit yet. Flipping hilarious and brilliant.

    • I know, right? That kid rules for serious.

      And I think it’s true that when kids encounter potentially dodgy content within the safety of their books and their rooms and their houses – and with the assurance that everything CAN be discussed with the people who love them the most – it’s preferable to any other way in which they might read about or experience the dodgier moments of human life, you know?

  12. Thank you for not being a banning parent. I’m 17 now, and I was the same as your daughter is. But adults constantly felt the need to say I was too young, that books were too mature, that they didn’t want me to read. I always felt like they were underestimating my intelligence, and my ability to judge the good and bad portions of what I read. It’s awesome that you respect your daughter enough to let her choose for herself.

  13. I love this. I love every word of this. Thank you for finally saying what I’ve been trying to say for so dang long. If it’s okay with you, I’m going to cross-post this to my blog, and probably my Tumblr. Because I couldn’t say it any better.

    Thank you,

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