If You're Under 18, Stop Reading. Seriously.

This post talks about censorship, sex and drugs.  You’ve been warned.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what’s appropriate for kids to read.  Partly, it’s because I have a book of my own out, and I’ve seen Evenfall listed as YA (Young Adult) in a couple of places.  Every time I see that, or read about a high school kid wanting to read it, my Catholic school-raised innards give a very uncomfortable twist inside and suggest I  reach through the computer, snatch the book out of their hands, and hand them a nice copy of Little House in the Big Woods or Voyage of the Dawn Treader instead.

Part of it is because my daughter, at nine, is reading at a high school level, and we’re having lots of conversations along the lines of “Just because you can read something, doesn’t mean you should, and that particularly applies to my book, thank you very much.”

And part of it is that I’ve become more conscious lately of the books I’ve read that are coming under fire from parents who would like them removed from schools and classrooms.

If you haven’t read it, Evenfall has a love scene.  It’s short, but it’s definitely steamy.  It’s that scene I’m thinking about when someone I know says “I read your book!” and smiles at me in the carpool line at school.  It’s that scene I’m thinking about when I read that someone in high school has added Evenfall to their ‘to read’ pile.  And it’s that scene I’m definitely thinking about whenever my daughter makes moves to read past the first chapter.

But.  But. But. But. Growing up, my parents were strict.  Stricter than most of the parents I knew (hi Mom!  Stop reading now!) in every way but one – they never told me what I could or couldn’t read.  In third grade, my mom wrote me the note that gained me access to the entire school library.  (When I picked a book and Sister A asked me if it had any sex in it, I didn’t know what the word meant but I was smart enough to say no.)  By fifth grade I was exchanging books like Evergreen with my favorite nun, and The Thorn Birds followed shortly thereafter. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been reading pretty much everything I can get my hands on. Books with drug scenes.  With sex scenes.  With magic and profanity and time travel and murder and baseball.

Yet here I am, all these years after I picked up those books, a writer and mother and mostly sane person.  I don’t do drugs.  I don’t sacrifice animals.  I don’t time travel and I sure as hell don’t play baseball. (I apparently do swear, though.)

One of my favorite writers, Barbara Kingsolver, has a scene in which one of her characters is a teacher who decides to hold an impromptu, unapproved sex education class after one of her best students shows up pregnant.  She rationalizes by saying something like this: “Just because you know how to use a fire extinguisher doesn’t mean you’re going to burn your house down.  But if your house is on fire, kiddos, it just may save your life.”

And that’s how I think about books.  Just because you read about drugs, or sex, or baseball, doesn’t mean you’re going to go out and do those things.  But knowing those things are out there may help you make more informed decisions down the line. It might give you the vocabulary to hold a conversation with the adults in your life.  It might help you navigate the tricky waters of adolescence.  It might give you the life line you need to get through them.

A few months ago, my book club chose a book written by a young man about his experience as a drug addict. It’s graphic and although it in no way glamorizes drug use, it’s definitely realistic. When I went looking for it at my local library, I was a little shocked to find it in the YA section.  Would I want my daughter reading it as a third grader? No.  But for some kid in middle school with no trusted adult to talk to, it could be a life saver.  Just because a book isn’t right for my child doesn’t mean it’s not the absolutely critical book at that moment for someone else’s.

If you object to your kid reading about drugs, or sex, or baseball, that’s your right.  But insisting a book be removed or banned for everyone presumes to make that choice for MY child, and that’s stepping on MY rights as a parent.

Will I let my third grader read Evenfall?  Not on your life.  But will I let her read it as a sixth or seventh grader?  There’s a good chance I will, or that she’ll have found a way to read it no matter what I say.  (If  I’m lucky, it will spark a conversation about sometimes, when adults fall in love, they have sex.  If I’m unlucky, she’ll roll her eyes and refuse to talk to me for a few days for embarrassing her in front of her friends.)

So where do you stand on all of this?  I’m really interested to hear.  Comment before Monday and you’ll be entered to win Wake, a book that came under fire when a parent requested it be removed from school because she objected to the adult language and felt it promoted drug use and sexual misconduct. Her request was denied and for now, it remains on shelves.  (For the record: I’ve read it and in my opinion it does no such thing.)

Liz Michalski


  1. Lela Gwenn on March 7, 2011 at 11:15 pm

    I read everything as a kid. Everything. My parents didn’t censor anything. Should I have read everything I did? NO. Did it lead me anywhere that I probably wouldn’t have gone anyway? No.

    Whatever I read, I was better off because I was reading.

    • liz on March 8, 2011 at 7:41 pm

      “Whatever I read,” I was better off because I was reading.” I love this –thank you!

  2. Jan O'Hara (Tartitude) on March 7, 2011 at 11:34 pm

    Essentially, I’m for informed, involved and educated parents who keep all topics of conversation on the table with their children. I think the health literature is pretty clear that’s the best way to keep kids practicing safer sex, off drugs, non-smokers, and in school.

    That’s not to say I’m permissive. My kids know I want them to make good choices for themselves — and what I consider those to be, in general. But I want them to learn to think critically. I want them to trust their own judgement. It’s my job to keep them safe as they take on an ever more mature role in the world, and that includes their choice of reading material. It’s too simplistic to believe that comes with a particular age.

    Schools should not be parenting and there’s a simple answer if they’re concerned with a kid’s choice of reading material: send home a permission slip.

    For the record, I started reading romance at age eleven. I’ll let you judge how warped that made me. 😉

    • liz on March 8, 2011 at 7:50 pm

      It sounds as if we share similar parenting styles, Jan. (As well as early taste in books!)

  3. Other Lisa on March 7, 2011 at 11:48 pm

    I’m not a parent, but as an author and someone who used to run a library, I would always err on the side of allowing the information to be available.

  4. sam on March 8, 2011 at 12:15 am

    Great post. I refuse to let other people dictate what my children can or cannot read. The responsibility of book shepherding my kids is mine and last I checked, i did not sign away those rights.

    • liz on March 8, 2011 at 7:53 pm

      That’s my philosophy too, Sam. And although I tend to veto some books now, Lisa, my time for being able to do that is rapidly drawing to a close. (I’m having a hard time reading ahead of my daughter right now.)

  5. Hillary on March 8, 2011 at 12:18 am

    My child isn’t yet in school, but as he shows an avid interest in books, I have no doubt I’ll soon be fretting over content with him.

    I remember reading books with adult content when I was very young. Some parts I didn’t understand until later. Some made startlingly permanent impressions on me. But, overall, I think they were good for me. I may try to direct my child’s reading when he’s young, but I wouldn’t want access to any good book revoked from the public.

  6. Miz S on March 8, 2011 at 6:29 am

    I remember reading The Godfather when I was about 12. Certain parts of the story–the parts that were inappropriate for a 12 year old–mystified me, but I still got the gist of the story and it certainly didn’t scar me.

    Black Beauty, on the other hand, scarred me for life!

    • liz on March 8, 2011 at 7:41 pm

      It was Jaws for me. I still get nervous swimming in the ocean.
      : )

  7. Helen Z on March 8, 2011 at 8:27 am

    What a great read! You make some very valid points. I too read all of those books that you mentioned as a very young and very naive young adult. I, like my oldest son was a voracious reader. I would read everything I could get my hands on. I probably read about sex way too young, but it did not make me more promiscious (I think it actually scared the bejeezis out of me more than anything ;o)! Do I worry about my 1st grade son reading things above his understanding level, yes. I wish there were more books geared towards the younger crowd at a higher reading level. But I would never ask the libraries to remove books off the schelves. I think it’s up to the parents to decide, not the schools.

    • liz on March 8, 2011 at 7:55 pm

      Hilary and Helen, someone once told me that kids take what they need from different books, and what they don’t understand or aren’t ready for they don’t take in. I’m finding that to be true, to a degree. I also remember reading certain books and then rereading them years later and being amazed at how much more was there than I’d recalled.

  8. Jenna on March 8, 2011 at 9:15 am

    I parent like Jan, keeping all topics of conversation open and on the table. (ok, so it’s usually in the car, but still). I have come across this exact issue w/ my oldest, in that I just finished The Glass Castle. Most of it I want her to read but I won’t deny the fact that I have not voiced this recommendation to her b/c I fear a few of those chapters.

    At the same time I feel reading a book versus watching television is a HUGE difference. (The ‘crap’ on tv is a whole ‘nother blog). But I feel that it is easier for children to tell the difference between ‘real and pretend’ in books more than tv. They are able to write…whether it be a journal, short story, poem, etc. They themselves have created fiction…they are NOT creating tv shows….this may change w/ youtube, etc., but for now.

    My 13yr. old is not comfortable discussing anything “sexual” with me/us…my 11 year old is the opposite. I think it depends on the child….their maturity level…which brings us back to the Parents decision. Parents know (or should!) what their child is ready for.

    And Miz is right, what we expect to affect our child a certain way, may not affect them at all, and vise versa…

  9. Rebecca on March 8, 2011 at 9:16 am

    I don’t think I’d ever tell my kid they couldn’t read something (not that it’ll really be an issue for a few years), although there are certainly some books I’d want to discuss with him while he was reading. For me, I think the urge some parents have to ‘sanitize’ their local libraries comes down to both fear of the effects the big, scary world will have on junior’s childhood and the misguided belief that if they can remove the tangible influences, everything will be fine. Childproofing for tweens, I guess. Teach ’em not to stick their fingers in the metaphorical light socket and everyone will be better off in the long run. [I shall now resist the urge to further extend a lame metaphor with a discourse on free electrical sockets and interesting books]

  10. Leslie Peterson on March 8, 2011 at 10:12 am

    In my opinion, when one is armed with knowledge one is armed with power. At this young stage of my children’s lives, I try my best to be aware of what and how information is passed through their sponge-like brains. But I can not filter out life forever. I can however, set boundaries, and keep my mantra of; just because you can doesn’t mean you should! Evanfall will have to wait…. 🙂 So should they happen to read about sex, drugs or the like, (hopefully in a very distant future) I trust that they will be able to filter the information and not be shocked to learn that babies do not in fact come from storks and taking drugs is not glamorous. That they have a solid foundation from which they step off from. If we censor everything, then we deny ourselves the chance to explain things from our standards, from our family values. We lose the chance to explain from a place of love and concern.

    • liz on March 8, 2011 at 7:57 pm

      Jenna, Rebecca, and Leslie, I’m all for the open communication as well. (Just not at 8:30 a.m. on the way to school, which is when it usually starts!)

  11. charmingbillie on March 8, 2011 at 11:02 am

    Great post!

    I too had parents who were strict about some things but let us read anything we wanted to read. In some ways I think reading widely is key because it helps kids (and adults) realize that it’s a great big world and, no, you don’t have to have sex or do drugs or whatever, that there are choices and that different people make different choices.

    I also have to echo a couple of comments above, that generally when I read books that were above my head I either didn’t get parts or didn’t like the book.

    • liz on March 8, 2011 at 8:03 pm

      For me, the whole issue comes down to what you said — there are choices and different people make different choices. Banning books takes away that choice. As a parent, I want to be the one to make the decision about what my child is ready for.

  12. Fran on March 8, 2011 at 11:35 am

    Liz, my mother was a avid reader and she believed that she should allow us to read what ever we wanted, from comic books to ketchup labels to wonderful books like the Tontine by Thomas Costain. I had an uncle, who was a priest, who came to visit and found me reading that particular book and went ballistic he was “shocked” my mother read him the riot act about the importance of reading period!!! My mother and your grandmother Rose were a lot alike and obviously your mother had the same parenting notions, (thats why we all turned out so wonderfully) Censorship about things like drug use doesn’t prevent use, but does blind kids to the consequences of usage. I would prefer that all kids see the dangers and not be ignorant of them. I hope the copies of Evenfall are flying off the shelf!

    • liz on March 8, 2011 at 8:00 pm

      Kudos to your mom, Fran, for standing up to your uncle. I totally agree — I think censorship makes kids more curious rather than less. (And I hope you are right about Evenfall, too!)

  13. Christine on March 8, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    I certainly wouldn’t forbid my 12 yr old daughter from reading anything, because I know doing so is a sure way to peak interest! I do appreciate knowing what is in a book before she reads it so I can warn her, as she is very sensitive to certain things. For example, she asked if she could read your book, Liz, and I said she was welcome to it but there is a sex scene. Well that did it for her, she said, uh, no thanks! Another example: Marley and Me interested her at one point and she asked me about it, so I let her know that it is sad in the end, and again she said no thanks! I have a self-censoring kid so that makes it easy!

    My only worry about some material is that children and young adults can get a skewed perception of sex, drugs, whatever… from overly dramatic, romanicized or exaggerated stories and characters. For example, read the Gossip Girls and you may start to think that all teens act that way or that it is okay to act like the characters. You have to be available to your children to have those conversations about “Real people don’t usually act like that, and it is inappropriate for you to act like that. It’s just fun reading!” (incidentally, my kid wouldn’t be caught dead reading something like Gossip Girls! She might be caught burning it though.)

    Hey how about the Captain Underpants series? My dear non-reader husband brought those home for our daughter when she was 5 as his contribution to her literacy. Let’s just say we had many conversations about “squishies” and I was sure to confiscate any packets of ketchup whenever we visited a fast food restaraunt.

    Personally, I remember going through a period of reading a lot of depressing articles when I was a teen, stuff like Go Ask Alice and volumes of Sylvia Plath and biographies of overdosed and dead celebrities. I also remember how it added to my depression at the time– such reading had a very negative effect on me. I also went through a witchraft phase of reading, but didn’t convert to Wicca.

    So I don’t believe in censoring what kids read, but I do believe they deserve some guidance, and if you notice a pattern in reading choice that is out of character or somewhat obsessive, non-judgmental discussion is probably warranted.

    • liz on March 8, 2011 at 8:05 pm

      I love what you wrote about guidance and being aware, Christine. (Mercifully, the Captain Underpants craze has mostly skipped us so far. Why do I think that will change in the next year or so?)

  14. Coffee and a Book Chick on March 8, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    I think it’s definitely key to stay engaged with what children are reading – my sister prefers to read the books that her twelve-year-old son wants to read, as sometimes some stories might walk the line (in her opinion) of things that she feels her son may not be ready for just yet. But, most of the time, all books are welcomed into the house anyway, and an open discussion is ultimately what my sister has with her kids, which I love. As some of your other commenters mentioned, every child can be a little bit different, though. My sister’s anticipating her younger daughter to be more open to discussing certain items when she gets to be twelve than her brother is right now. I think it’s great for the parents to stay engaged with their own kids, versus a library or other place, banning a book outright, which doesn’t really make sense. A parent getting involved with their children’s reading interests is always a great way to stay involved, I would imagine.

    Of course, I did sneak a copy of The Thorn Birds when I was thirteen about twenty years ago, and hoo boy… that was a shocker for me at that time, let me just tell you…! 🙂

    • liz on March 8, 2011 at 7:58 pm

      Me too with The Thorn Birds — it’s amazing how much I still remember years later! : )

  15. Christine on March 8, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    Liz, yes I think your Captain Underpants time will come. I do picture your little guy giggling away…

  16. Lynn on March 9, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    I think it may just be a rite of passage to be a reader as a kid and pick up some books that may not meet your parent’s approval- I certainly did, and I expect my kids have and will do the same. I have neices who were sheltered from anything deemed remotely “too adult”, and I watch them struggle now, in their twenties, to navigate certain situations and conversations. I’m pretty sure I learned a few things earlier than I should have, but I was always grateful that I had some general knowledge of things ahead of time. (Thanks, Judy Blume :)!) If my kids do pick up something that I think is not appropriate for them, we have a conversation about it. (whether they want to or not) Open dialogue, I have found, is one of the best ways to help them learn right from wrong, and to give them the tools to handle the information they take in. That, and keeping all my fingers and toes crossed!

  17. Linda on March 18, 2011 at 8:45 pm

    Why do books get certain ratings? Does YA mean the content is appropriate for young adults, or does it mean that the reading level is appropriate for young adults? (And do they really mean young adults, and not children who are excellent readers)?

    • liz on March 21, 2011 at 11:25 am

      It’s more of a category than a rating, I think. And it’s usually content geared toward teens, with a teen protagonist. The subject matter tends to be more mature than stuff for kids, but not quite ‘adult’ in terms of profanity, topics, etc.. (I think — it’s not what I write.)

  18. Linda on March 18, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    Personally, I would have been disappointed had there not been a sex scene in Evenfall!

    • liz on March 21, 2011 at 11:08 am

      Ha! Yes, but if there wasn’t, perhaps we could encourage certain relatives to purchase it with a clean conscience!

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