“Is this appropriate for my child to read?” the man asked, turning my book over in his hands and looking at me as if I was trying to put something over on him.
When I decided to start writing my own work, I really didn’t give too much thought to its appropriateness for children, since I was gearing it toward an adult audience. I should have guessed, I suppose, that being fantasy, people might assume it was for kids (because adults certainly don’t read that stuff, right? :D) There’s no graphic sex, the profanity is mild, and the violence is a PG-13 level. Once it came out, many of my students started showing up in the library telling me they’d read it and liked it, so the librarian at the time bought some copies for the school library. I’ve received emails from young people who read the book, which just delights me. But I still hesitate to answer the question of its suitability, because there’s just no way for me to know. As my son’s school librarian said recently, “The only person who can tell you what to read, besides you, is your mom or dad.” Everything depends on the child’s reading comprehension and maturity, which is something the parent should know better than anyone else. My parents never forbade me reading anything I chose. I remember reading Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land the summer I was twelve, and trying to talk to them about it after. It was uncomfortable for them, but they didn’t back away or freak out at the sensitive subject matter. I was lucky to have parents who knew what they were doing.
As a writer, I can honestly say I don’t write with one eye toward what’s appropriate or politically correct. If you try, you’ll end up second-guessing yourself right into a hole you can’t climb out of. Trust me, I tried it once. Nearly drove me crazy! I worried over every word, until my head was spinning. There’s a story to tell, and I’m going to tell it. If one of my characters is a foul-mouthed bum, I’m not going to clean up his language just to satisfy some possible objector down the line. That’s how he talks. If his socially unpleasant manner succeeds in propelling the story along, I’m right in what I’ve written.
These days there’s quite a lot of sex and violence lurking in the pages of books. I’ve been reading a number of articles in library journals lately bemoaning the profanity and sex in young adult literature. Sure, it’s there. But it’s not the cause of young people’s poor choices – it’s reflecting them. So many kids have no one paying attention, no one to talk to except peers (who are busily making lousy choices themselves.) Sometimes the only wisdom they can find is in the pages of a book. Is it appropriate for a twelve-year-old to read a book about date rape? Maybe. Could be she’s being pressured by her older boyfriend, and doesn’t know what to do. The book might be what gives her the strength to say no. Even a book that begins in ugliness can show a searching reader the way out of his dilemma, but only if the reader can get his hands on the book in the first place.
So I can’t tell you whether your child can read my book or any book. Nor is it my job to only write happy-shiny work that pretends the world is a wonderful place. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s ugly. My job is to tell the story in my head, with all the blood and anger and thrills and joy that come along with it.
Whether it’s appropriate or not.