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.)