Friday, October 5, 2012

Lessons from a ten-year-old girl

A mother approached me in the store earlier this week, looking a little confused. Her ten-year-old daughter had read and loved See You at Harry's, by Jo Knowles, which they both viewed as intermediate, but we had her other books shelved in Young Adult, and they had age guidelines on them. In particular, she was asking about Lessons from a Dead Girl, which is recommended for ages 14 and up. Before launching into a discussion of Lessons, I mentioned that Harry's has some mature and serious themes, too, so I would guess that her daughter is a fairly mature reader; the mother agreed that her daughter really liked a good "weepy" story. Then, I explained that Lessons is about a controlling friendship between two girls that becomes sexually abusive. The mother's eyes got a bit wide. Still, she didn't immediately write it off; instead, she asked, "Would you say it's too old for a ten-year-old?" I told her, "I would pause. Every reader is different, and it's definitely a very good book, but it might be one to keep in mind and read in a few years."

At this point, the mom called the daughter over. She repeated my explanation of what Lessons is about. (I don't think she used my exact words, but she did use "friendship," "controlling," and "sexual," and acknowledged that the friendship themes, at least, were something her daughter understood.) The mom made it clear she was hesitant, and the daughter agreed: "I'm ten, mom. I don't want to read about sexual... stuff." I agreed that if the reader herself was saying that, it was worth waiting, and repeated my suggestion that they keep the book in mind for a few years down the road. In the meantime, I suggested Wonder, which they were excited about.

In all the Banned Books Week talking we do about letting people make decisions within their own families, it was a perfect example of how well communication can work. A ten-year-old who knows she doesn't want to read something racy is probably a ten-year-old whose family trusts her enough not to constantly try to hide things from her.

Still, before posting about this encounter, I thought I should check with Jo, who was my writing professor at Simmons. After all, the story didn't end with the sale of one of her books. Here's an excerpt from her response, which came in minutes:

"That is a PERFECT example of individual choice, not censorship. Love it! I can't imagine recommending Lessons to any ten year olds I know. I'm so glad they chose something else. I think 14 is the appropriate age recommendation. Same for [Jumping Off] Swings. She might be ready for Pearl, which is 12 and up. But again, the mom should read it first to make sure...

"So often parents are like, 'My kid reads above her level' or whatever, and they don't get that it's about content, not advanced vocabulary. I've convinced many parents not to buy my books, too, for the same reason you outline... Right book right kid right time. It's an important formula."

Jo says she has two more YA novels in the pipeline, and then a middle grade. I can't wait to help them find the right readers.


  1. Exactly! As a librarian I see this but as a mom I deal with it more. My son is an advanced reader. He could deal with the reading level of a lot of books. However, his maturity level isn't there. He's eight - just because he *could* read 'Hunger Games' doesn't mean he *should* read it. And he knows that he can trust me to let him make those decisions (with my guidance) for himself. Choice is good - informed choice is even better.