Emily S. Whitten: Think of the Children
When it comes to reading, what is “age appropriate”? I’ve been thinking about this lately, especially after that school in New Mexico pulled Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere from its reading list and library after a mother complained about a certain passage in it.
Yes, when taken out of context, I can see how the passage might alarm a parent on first glance. It’s about sex, and it contains cursing.
However, as pointed out on the Tor blog, in context the passage is more than the smutty little interlude the complaining mother presumably thought it to be. It’s an “intimate” moment between a couple who probably wouldn’t be behaving that way if they knew there was someone sitting next to them, intended to show how literally invisible the book’s main character, Richard Mayhew, has become to those in Gaiman’s “London Above.” This scene also furthers the relationship between two characters, Richard and one of his guides in “London Below,” Anaesthesia. In the context of the book, it makes sense and it adds to the development of the story.
It’s all about context, something that seems to be ignored by those complaining about this book or demanding it be banned. Have these people even read the books in question all the way through? Maybe, but somehow I doubt it.
Now I’m not saying parents shouldn’t have a care for the media their children are consuming. I do. But, 1) parents should read the entire book before requesting it be banned; 2) parents shouldn’t use their own value system to affect what an entire school’s worth of children have access to; and 3) parents should trust a little more in the nature of print media and of children.
In regards to point three – there’s something about things that must be read that makes them different and more wonderful than any form of visual media: the reader’s imagination must be used. No matter how much the author spells out the scene, the reader must still imagine, even if not consciously, the exact way a character looks, or the smells being described, or the tone of voice being used, or the look of the scary old house on the hill, or what–have–you. Each page is another adventure for the imagination, and this element of intellectual involvement naturally and deeply engages the reader in the action. It personalizes the experience for the reader. This leads to a deeper connection with the characters and the themes at work, and with what is really important in the story.
If I was reading Neverwhere straight through, and came to the offending paragraph noted above, I would not be so concerned with what the couple was doing and the fact that the word “fuck” is used than I would be with poor Richard and his situation – his extreme loneliness, his outsider status, and the question of what is going to happen to him next. I know this because I have read Neverwhere, and, while I barely remembered the questionable passage until it became a news story, I distinctly remember Richard walking the streets of London Above and having a series of encounters like that one. I remember feeling sympathy for him, and concern, and, in terms of the two people on the bench, anger and disgust that they and the others in London Above could be so self-involved as not to see this character I’d begun to care about. That was the importance of that paragraph; not titillation or a scheme to corrupt today’s youth.
It is in the nature of print media that, if you engage with it the way the writer intends, i.e. read through the scenes in the context in which they were written, you will get something else entirely out of them than if you were to read just one paragraph, or even a few pages. In most cases, what you will get is something deeper than incidental curses used for emphasis, or a description of a slightly vulgar display used to highlight another’s loneliness. You may get an understanding of the feelings the character is dealing with – his desperation or his confusion. You may get a window into his soul and a deeper connection with the story. That is a valuable thing to experience, because in understanding others or sympathizing with them, you grow as a person.
Now, if a parent reads the whole of a book and determines that it is not something they want their children to read because it is badly written or repugnant overall, then, okay, it is their choice whether they want to shield their child from that story. Although I do not think that choice should be allowed to affect others by removing a book from a school library.
This brings me to my second point – that with most books, parents should trust a little more in the nature and intelligence their of children. Children won’t generally want to read what they’re not ready for, which is why “age appropriate” varies from child to child.
I have been a voracious reader all of my life. I read many things at ages where they would probably have been considered “inappropriate” by somebody, somewhere.
For years, I never picked up a book without finishing it. But when I was in the sixth grade I began reading The Grapes of Wrath. It was so. Darned. Depressing. Despite my innate feeling that it was somehow wrong to not finish a book once begun, I couldn’t bear to keep reading it because I wasn’t ready for it yet. I remember being actually angry at it for being something I loved, a book, and yet being full of dust and death and depression. I literally chucked it under my bed, something I would never do to a book – books are sacred! I left it there.
Two years later we were assigned The Grapes of Wrath in school. I started it again. This time I kept reading, and I wanted to. The story was still full of dust and death and depression, but now I got it. I got why it was important to read about these characters, and I cared for them because I had the capacity and maturity to care for them. I was ready.
As another example, my favorite book as a fifth grader was Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Did I understand, at that age, all of the nuances of Twain’s humor and satire? Undoubtedly not. I did, however, get enough of Hank’s humorous narration of the Arthurian court to enjoy it. I very likely learned more about humor and satire by reading it. Because I both enjoyed it and sensed that I didn’t get all of it the first time, I re-read it several times over the years, gaining more understanding of the text and of the nature of satirical humor with each reading.
That book also got me interested in the world of King Arthur, which led to my reading classics such as Le Morte d’Arthur at an age where I probably would not have otherwise. It led to my picking up Mary Stewart’s The Wicked Day on one of the pilgrimages I made with my mother each year to the storeroom where she counted up the school’s books. (My mother, being an English teacher, would go before school started each year to count up the books she wanted to teach and determine whether she needed to order more. I would go along and was allowed to wander around and borrow any books I wanted. It was a wonderful thing for a reading child.) Now that book certainly had some things in it that shocked me – there was incest and intrigue and there were family members lying to each other and literally fighting to the death. But those story elements didn’t harm me. They just expanded my worldview, as did so many other stories.
The ability that books have to expand a person’s worldview and understanding of people and places otherwise not within their immediate experience is one of the most valuable things books have to offer. Books reflect the patterns of thinking of their authors, or they reflect the writers’ views on history, or on family situations, or on any other topics you can think of. They are windows into the minds of others and into other worlds as seen through the authors’ eyes. Each of us has to grow up and live in a world filled with a mishmash of people who are not like us, but the more encounters we’ve had with people (even if they are book characters) who are not like us, or perspectives that are not like ours, the better able we may be to understand the other people we encounter in life, and to find our own places in the world. I’m not a parent, but I was a child; and I can’t even enumerate all the ways books helped me with this, and continue to help me.
So what is “age appropriate”? I don’t know, and more to the point, I don’t care. What I do care about is that children be allowed access to the books for which they are ready. I really do believe that allowing such freedom will make each child’s life, and our whole world, better.
So when you “think of the children,” think about the value they gain from reading something new and different and, yes, occasionally a little adult or shocking. Think of how much being able to see different perspectives and understand other people will help them in this world. Think about being an advocate for literature, instead of against it.
And until next time, Servo Lectio!
TUESDAY AFTERNOON: Michael Davis
WEDNESDAY MORNING: Mike Gold