The problem of finding age-appropriate books for a high level reader

My tween daughter reclined on the sofa, reading a book. As I walked by, I glimpsed the book’s cover: the picture of a young couple paused mid-kiss. Little alarm sirens went off in my brain. “What’s that book?” I asked.

In reply, she held up the book for further inspection and kept reading.

“Where’d you get it?”

“Library.”

Hm, I thought, and asked to look at it more closely. YA romance. The blurb told me next to nothing about the appropriateness of the content for a twelve-year-old, so that afternoon, I skimmed through the book. Two big things appeared:

  • Plenty of raw language (the f-word was frequent).
  • The sex scenes were not explicit by adult romance terms, between two teens who obviously cared deeply for one another. They used protection. They respected one another and were in a monogamous relationship. The young man’s father had a “pre-sex talk” with him about respecting women, mutual pleasure, and respecting his girlfriend if she said “no”. In other words, it was the best case scenario for premarital sex.

This is when I hate being a responsible parent. Now I had to decide: Was this okay for a tween to read?

I’m not a prude. I’ve talked to my daughter about sex, sexuality, rape, my personal convictions and expectations for her behavior toward men. We’ve talked about STDs. We’ve talked about menstrual cycles. She rolls her eyes, as if to say, Mom, we’ve talked about this before!

(At one point, when I said we need to discuss something when Cecilia wasn’t around, she asked, “Is it about puberty?” Apparently, my talks about “becoming a woman” aren’t appreciated. This particular time the talk was about Cecilia being accelerated a grade. No rhapsodies on the joys of periods and bras. She was relieved.)

I’d rather her hear the facts from me and her father than peers.

But in a novel? What was the right thing to do?

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A few weeks ago, a Christian literary agent was discussing authors moving from the CBA market (Christian market) to the general market. A commenter made the suggestion that authors who didn’t want to have explicit content (language and sex) in their novels could always write for the YA and middle grade market. “They’re cleaner!” the commenter enthused.

Um, no. Obviously, this commenter hadn’t set foot in the YA or middle grade sections of a bookstore in a while. Books marketed for teens and tweens have just as much language, sex, and violence as anything in the adult section; it may be toned down (as the sex scenes in this novel were) but it’s still there. It’s marketed for a younger audience, that’s all.

We’ve encountered this problem frequently over the years. Both my daughters read at a high level for their age. One reads at a college level, the other at an 8th grade level. But they’re still twelve and seven, with the emotional maturity levels of those ages.

What is both challenging enough and age-appropriate?  

This may seem like whining about being too thin or too rich. I wish I had that problem with my kids, some parents grumble. I can’t get mine to read at all. Or, try having a dyslexic child!

But like being too thin or rich, there are problems with being too good at reading. As a twelve-year-old girl, I had this issue (or rather, my parents did). I was bored with the brain candy my peers read, I’d read all the standard children’s classics, I desperately wanted to read more grown-up things. I was also a fast reader; a three-hundred-page novel might be devoured in a day or two.

But I was still a child in many ways. It wasn’t like my mom could hand over Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov or Moby-Dick and expect me to understand them. Finally, she let me read Agatha Christie’s novels and the newly re-edited George MacDonald books. Murder mysteries and theologically-driven novels were deemed safe enough for my consumption. My sixth grade teacher asked me for book recommendations.

So I’ve been here before. Only now I’m the adult. Now I have to decide.

On one hand, I don’t want to unnecessarily censor content. That leads either to unfounded naiveté, believing the world is a safe’n’squeaky clean place, or to sneaking around, reading the banned books on the sly. Or, worse, sneaking around online.

On the other hand, she’s twelve. I’m the parent. I am responsible for my child and for exposing her to the real world in an age-appropriate manner.

Could I have used the sexual content as a springboard for a discussion? I’m sure I could’ve, and would’ve, if she were slightly older. It seemed to be a little too much information for a twelve-year-old, though. (Does she need to know how a guy puts on a condom?)

And what about the language? It’s one thing to know certain words and what they mean, and to know when it’s appropriate (or not) to use those words. It’s quite another to read a book where these words are presented as normal words for conversational usage.

I told her, “If you were older, I’d let you read this and we could talk about it. But I think the content may be a little too mature for you.” I explained my two areas of concern. I added that the book appeared reasonably well-written and when she’s older, I’ll let her read it so that we can discuss it together.

She groaned. “But I don’t have anything to read!”

“Wait until school starts. Then you’ll have plenty to read.”

And thank God for English teachers. Now she has a stack of books to read and she’s delved into The Screwtape Letters.

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22 thoughts on “The problem of finding age-appropriate books for a high level reader

  1. I remember feeing the same way when my daughter was 10 or so. She read everything she could get her hands on, but it was tough to balance her reading level with age appropriate content. Frankly, I don’t remember finding a good answer. It’s probably tougher today. The good news is that she survived just fine in spite of the drivel that she probably read. Good luck!

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  2. My daughter is only 7, and I’m glad I’m not there yet! But I know I will be and I too started talking about sex (in simple terms) long ago. As parents, it’s so tricky to teach them to guard their hearts and minds, but it’s our jobs. It sounds like you did the responsible thing!

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    1. I’m running into issues with finding things for my 7 year old, actually. It’s not sexual content or language, really, but just a general question of what do I let a 7 year old read that is actually challenging for her? She has to read between a certain AR range for school, but she’s quickly running out of books that she hasn’t read that she can take AR tests on. So far, she hasn’t run out of Nancy Drew books, but the end of the series is rapidly approaching!

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  3. Wow. This is such a hard thing, and as you know well, there are no cut and dry answers. I was a high- level reader, and my parents didn’t go above and beyond with censoring what I read…but they paid attention. I didn’t make the best grades when I was in middle school, so I wasn’t in the most accelerated classes, and sadly I didn’t read much for enjoyment from middle school until my mid-20s. I will say this though — every time my parents criticized or even questioned the books I was reading, I did whatever I could to seek out the most controversial parts of those books. A big difference though, is that my parents did not openly discuss sex nor did they clearly convey their values to me. I think that makes a huge difference. It sounds like you’re doing a great job.

    My son is 7 and his reading ability and interest has just recently exploded. I’m thrilled, but this brings challenges. Yesterday, we were driving and he got into a box of mail (we’re in the process of moving) without me even realizing it. He read an entire article in a news magazine about the pros and cons of . . . legalizing prostitution. It made for an interesting family discussion, and one I wasn’t remotely prepared to have with my 7 and 6 year-olds. I think I handled it okay, but he’s 7!! I never dreamed this stuff would come up at such a young age. Great post and a topic I need to consider more as my kids get older.

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    1. Oh my. Legalized prostitution? I’m not sure how I would’ve handle that with my 7 year old. Yikes!

      On your experience as a young reader: I think a big key to parenting is communication and communicating values. The more open we can be in discussing things–whatever it is–the more trust is built between the parent and child. And that makes a big difference.

      I’ve always felt that, given how complex the subject of sex is, that it’s better to start talking about it when the kids are little rather than have one “big talk” when they’re older. There’s just too much to cover! I started talking about reproduction when my kids were potty-training, just the basic fact that women have menstrual cycles where they bleed once a month, that sort of thing. It’s a bit like teaching math. You don’t drop calculus on a 13 year old and expect them to understand. You start with the easiest parts and build up to the more complicated stuff. 🙂

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      1. Well I had to completely wing it on the prostitution, but I’ll be more careful about the magazines I leave around. In fact I need to go back & look at the article. Our co-workers are always hitting us up for school magazine sales. You’d think Time would be tame enough! And I agree completely with you about talking early & communicating values.

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  4. We read a lot of what our kids wanted to read so we could talk about it with them. It led me to some great books that i really enjoyed, and some others I would have dropped after ten pages if it weren’t for the need to keep up with the kids,

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  5. Yes. This dilemma speaks to me on many levels – as something I navigated myself as a child/teen, rather loosely supervised, and as something we’re likely to face sooner or later. I think you handled this one well.

    I remember what my dad said to me when I was eyeing Crime and Punishment when I was a still quite young teen. He said he won’t tell me to not read it, but that he felt that when he himself had read it at 18, he had not been able to appreciate the book as well has he could when he was older. Well, I decided not to read it yet at the time (or maybe I read a few chapters and dropped it as “too boring” – I don’t remember). Also, I understood my dad’s words better when I was a bit older myself: having a bit more life experience meant that I found a lot more in a book that I could understand and relate to.

    And that’s something I’m keeping in my mind when I try to find new books for my son to read. Even if it’s a classic I love, or a “clean” book in other ways, it might not be a good read for him if he’s not mature enough for it yet.

    I hope you’ll keep finding good books for your daughters to read and also to have good discussions about them.

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    1. There have been several books that I read as a teen that I reread as an adult, and invariably, there was so much that I missed the first time around. (Heart of Darkness by Conrad was one. The Scarlet Letter was another.) Crime and Punishment was a doozy; I liked it as an 18 year old but I think I would find it a much more rewarding experience now. Russian novels always seem like the sort of novels that I want to read under the supervision of some older, wiser person. When I read The Brothers Karamazov, I really wished I were back in graduate school so I could find other people to read it with me; I know I missed a lot of depth in it!

      That’s a really good point: even “clean” books can be inappropriate for a child’s maturity level. Thanks for making that point.

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      1. Thanks – one way I look at it, it would be a pity if my son dismissed a really good book as “boring” and never picked it up again, just because I tried to make him read it before he had the maturity to appreciate it.

        I’m glad that my son likes to re-read his favourites from time to time – that gives us some time to try to find new books…

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  6. We have the same problem. I remember reading all sorts of books at too young an age. My parents gave me free rein of the local library, in a naive belief that ‘books are good’. I also recall a girl at school bringing a magazine into school, aimed at young women, which described quite clearly certain sexual matters. We were 12! Nowadays we have the internet, which is probably worse, but at least I’m more aware of protecting my children’s innocence because of my own experiences. Thankfully my 12 and 10-year-olds are still very much little girls (phew) and very lovely with it o_O

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    1. It’s definitely even more difficult to patrol the internet than the physical books brought home from the library; being aware of the issue and communicating clearly with the kids is really important, I think. I’m glad your girls have you to help protect their innocence. 🙂

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  7. My situation was very similar to Grief Happens’ when I was younger. I’m 45 and my parents still haven’t had the “sex” talk with me. Thank goodness for my school…anyway…check in with a homeschool group. There should be a group in most areas (check with bookstores and teaching supply stores). Members of a group like that should be able to give you a ton of information on good reads for age appropriate.

    And if she hasn’t read it already find her a copy of Watership Down.

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    1. Oh, believe me, we have TONS of homeschool groups in our area! (It’s easy to homeschool in our state, so lots of people do it.) But that’s a great idea. There’s also a classical Christian school in our area and one of the English teachers goes to my church. She might be a great resource, too. 🙂 Thanks for the idea, Leslie.

      Watership Down was a book that I had on my shelf for years before I read it–last year! Enjoyed it, too.

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  8. My daughter (now 17) has always been a voracious reader (she used to have 100 library books out at one time), so I could never keep up with her reading. Basically we’ve pretty much let her read whatever she wants, and while it doesn’t seem to have had any negative effects I still wonder if that is/was the right approach. She has Asperger’s and I think there is a lot of benefit in her delving into the range of emotions/subject matter of YA fiction; it has also made her a much stronger and deeper fiction writer as a result. But you’ve raised a very important and challenging topic here – not sure if there is one best answer.

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    1. That’s really interesting, Jeannie. I never thought about how a wide range of subject matter (“clean” or not) might help someone with Asperger’s. I don’t think there’s one best answer; maybe “it depends” is the only clear cut one.

      Oh my goodness, though: 100 books?! My library will only let me check out 30. And yes, I’ve hit that limit.

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  9. I speak as someone who isn’t a parent. I really enjoyed reading your thought process. Here’s another thought to add: many kids are sexually active starting as young as 13, so she IS going to hear it from her peers (so glad she heard it all from you first though!). The question becomes whether she needs to be protected from sexual content because it may tempt her to partake, hoping such protections won’t lead her to a fear of sex, or whether she’s old enough for reading it together and discussing.

    I really like the way you worded your answer.

    Random question – did you talk to her about girls too? Since most parents assume their children are straight, rarely do they talk with their kids about sex, protection, and proper behavior with attractive members of the same sex. I wish I had gotten the girl-girl side of things from my parents instead of my peers: my parents did such a good job with the girl-boy side of things.

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    1. I’ve talked about being gay or lesbian with both my daughters, actually, and explained the ongoing debate about same sex marriage, discussed being trans and bi, all that. (Thanks to you, I can more accurately explain these things!) We’ve had high school kids at our Christian school come out as gay in the past few years, so I knew I needed to explain some things to both girls. It wasn’t an easy discussion. While I distinctly remember my mother’s birds-and-bees talk(s), I don’t think she ever explained about same sex attraction; it wasn’t on the radar at that time (80s and 90s) where we lived. So I had no point of reference for how to talk; I just ventured forth and tried my best and told them to ask me any questions, at any time, and that I’d give them an honest answer.

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