The NYTimes had an article in its “Room for Debate” section (which, admittedly, I usually skip because it is a) about something entirely uninteresting, b) not really a topic that seems to have any room for debate and, c) because it doesn’t load properly in Reeder, the app I use for checking the Times) about books for children and when/if it’s appropriate to allow them to read above their age level. The article can be found here.
For those of who have no patience or interest for it, the responses take two, mostly non-contradictory positions.
1) Don’t stop kids from reading what they want to read because they’re “too young” for it; if a child is really too young for a book, they will recognize and put it down and if they’re willing to get through it, who cares if they’re missing nuance.
2) Don’t give kids books beyond their age level because you want to.
Both of which I can get behind. This was not so much room for debate as a large room of people more or less agreeing. The one (comparative) voice of dissent was Paolo Bacigalupi, who recounts the experience of reading a book that was definitely not age appropriate, encountering a rape scene in the first 50 pages and being traumatized by it. He does note, though, that many of his friends were entirely unbothered by the scene, so his point is closer to “Know thy Child” than “Censor!”
I, personally, would have gotten annoyed at anyone taking books away from me, but I was also the kind of child who just read straight over things she didn’t understand. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve revisited a book I had first read as a child and found myself thinking “Wait, there was sex in this? How did I miss that?” It just entirely failed to register. But, then again, I was also very good at reading things I didn’t really understand. Which is not to say that I didn’t get the story of Pride and Prejudice the first time I read it, merely that I had no idea what the carriages looked like, how the dances were danced, what the characters were wearing, etc. and that never stopped me from following the story. I just let the things that didn’t make sense pass by . This was also my approach to vocabulary, which explains why I cannot pronounce anything. I learned too many words by reading them, rather than learning what they meant.
This makes it sound like my reading was entirely self-directed, which it wasn’t. I do disagree somewhat with the responses that chide parents for giving their children books beyond their age level. Okay, not with the librarian who complains about parents giving A Tale of Two Cities to their eight year olds because they are “precocious”. That’s appalling (and not just because it is Dickens). But, realistically, if I had just been let loose in the library and only read what I picked out myself, I don’t know if I would have ever left the science fiction and fantasy section. (As it is, the library approach leaves what to be desired. I never read Asimov because he was shelved too high for me to reach on my own.) My mother, however, would often give me books and tell me “read this, you’ll like it”. She was usually right. She would also resort to interesting methods when I was a teenager, such as sending me away to camp with reading material carefully selected by her.
So I firmly believe that encouraging children to “read up” is a good idea, even to the extent of providing them with books beyond their age-group’s reading level…provided you are giving them a specific book because you think they will like it. Giving a child Dickens as a kind of reading lesson/educational gambit is ridiculous. Giving her Bronte because you think she will like it is an entirely different story.
Although, you might want to beware Bronte at a young age. It could be a bit too influential, in the same way and for the same reason that there is all this worry about young girls modeling their romantic desires after Edward Cullen. Arguably (and, by all means, argue) Rochester is just as problematic an object-of-desire as Edward.
Here’s the point where I poll the audience, because I have a vague theory about the differences between children readers and adult readers brewing, but I’m curious whether this is just my experience or a broader one. (Also, I’m using reader as a stand-in for “media consumer” because its convenient. If there were movies, TV shows, video games to which these questions are applicable, feel free to answer using them.)
So, audience, were stories “realer” to you as a child than now? Did you find your reading experience more immersive, was it easier to get lost in the stories and pretend they were real? Did you pretend they were real? Is that something you do as an adult, lose yourself so completely in a story that it seems tangible to you? Did your favorite main characters as a child shape who you are? Do your current favorites still do so?
Feel free to post your thought in the comments!