Today’s a bit of a departure from the norm since I won’t be talking about a specific book so much as a theme: Ages. Not the Ages of the World, but the age to which a book might, in general, be best-suited.
As a bit of background, I was nine years old, I think, when I first read The Odyssey. I snuck it from my mother’s study, if I remember correctly. It’s a fair guess, anyway. My mother and I have an ongoing war of who’s stolen more books from whom. (Mum, I swear I cleared all of yours from my room on the last visit, OK?) The point is, I didn’t ask anyone if I could: I just went and did it, and loved it. I read it through, images in sepia colours coursing through my head (probably due to that classic faded orange cover of Richmond Lattimore’s translation). Let me quickly add: no, of course I’m not saying I understood it at the level a college student might, much less Lattimore himself. That said, I was happy. I just went and did it without asking questions or permission or even thinking whether I “should” or “shouldn’t,” and I enjoyed it immensely. I was on a Classical mythology kick, and this was one of my discoveries.
Sometimes this approach failed. I remember reading a story which, as an adult, I know was about a vulnerable young man, homosexual, who hired an escort to pose as his girlfriend or fiancée (I forget which) when he went home to visit his parents. I completely, 100% missed the entire plot when I read this story at age ten, perhaps. I remember my poor mother coming up to me, cautiously asking if I had any questions. I think I said something like, “It was sort of an odd story. I’m not sure I got it.” She nodded, and said she thought I might like this other one better (which I did).
My point? I’m the world’s worst person to ask about the age to which a particular book is suited. I have general mental guidelines: novels are not for toddlers. (Except, apparently, Moominland Midwinter?) Picture books are not for adults. (Except I write this blog, so, well.) But God bless people like my mother, who always knows the appropriate age for a book. “Is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory good for Grade 2?” I ask her. “Well, I’d normally say Grade 4, in general,” she replies. How does she know these things? I marvel. (Answer: years’ experience as an excellent English teacher, probably.)
But let’s think about some books which are normally way out of the age range I seem to have fallen into for this blog. I’ll roughly arrange them from “OK for younger age” to “Not for children at all ever.” I was just at Cat Valente’s book signing for her last Fairyland novel. While there, they had her book Six-Gun Snow White for sale.
Of course I bought it. I love Cat Valente. This is a wonderful book. It’s the story of Snow White as set in the Wild West. Snow White’s father is a silver baron, her mother was a Crow woman who was effectively forced to marry him. When the young wife dies soon after Snow White was born, the man, Mr. H, remarries, taking for his new wife a blonde New England woman who mockingly names Snow White for what she will never be. You can tell from this brief overview two things: a) This is a fascinating book and you should read it; b) This book has some themes which do require a certain amount of age and experience: implications of sexual exploitation, racism, violence, blood, psychological manipulation. These aren’t light topics. And yet there’s little by way of anything actually graphic going on, so you can, to an extent, engage at your own level. I’d have been a bit embarrassed by it until university, but I was shy of violence and sex in books. Maybe most high school kids could handle it? After all, if you can handle The Turn of the Screw, this should be fine. (In fact, my fellow students were fine with every aspect of The Turn of the Screw except for the somewhat high-level language– they’d have preferred this, I think. Maybe high schools should take note of it!)
What about illustrations? How do they play into this game? Stardust by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Charles Vess (one of my favourite artists working today) is about at the same level as Six-Gun Snow White: there’s one tiny swear word, one sex scene, and themes of slavery, sexuality, violence, and murder. Throughout the book, a witch is trying to catch a star who has fallen to earth in the shape of a girl– and the witch wants to cut out her heart. And yet, the whole thing is as delicate and lovely as a falling star. The violence is muted. The sex is gentle and hardly noticeable.
Well, who is this aimed at? I’d say it’s aimed at lovers of fairy tales (same for Six-Gun Snow White, of course, but that’s more of a Western, in some ways). If you love the delicacy, beauty, and brutality of Grimm and Perrault, you will love this, too. But maybe you have to be a bit older to understand that. Again, I think high school kids should be able to read this, but it depends so much on taste. I’m glad I waited, for my part, until I was 28 and had a better appreciation for the structure and artistry of the book. I’d have been too nervous about the (limited) sexuality when I was in high school (“Am I supposed to be reading this?” I’d have wondered) to enjoy the beauty of the book. And yet I strongly suspect that there are those who could read it even younger, at even 11 or 12. (NB: Don’t take this as advice. We’ve already established I suck at this.)
Those who know Neil Gaiman probably think first of his seminal graphic novel Sandman.
What about that? Most people tend to think of it as older– there are lots of high school students who are obsessed with it, but I didn’t embark on it until very recently (I’m almost 29) and, once again, I wouldn’t have been a happy camper reading it in high school. There’s very explicit– and graphic– violence in these books, although they’re not books about violence. That said, I’d say the violence would be more of a concern for me in handing it to a youngster than the sex in this particular series. Nevertheless, as with Stardust and Six-Gun Snow White, there are themes which could make a kid feel less alone, better grounded: for me it would have been the mythology and fairy tales, which both feature heavily in these books. That said, someone encountering their own sexuality would find a place in this series. So would anyone of any colour. So would anyone simply feeling a bit lonely, a bit of an outsider, or, perhaps, coping with some weighty issue from their past, which is a major theme in these books. Would those benefits outweigh strict “age-appropriateness” rules? I’d need to know the kid to gauge that, for sure.
Let’s crank it way up here: Neil Gaiman’s friend Alan Moore wrote an equally cult-famous graphic novel, gorgeously illustrated by Melinda Gebbie: Lost Girls.
Once again, we’re drawing on literature traditionally associated with children, but this is erotica. Make no mistake: we’re talking about explicit sex, drawn with the grace and beauty of a George Barbier painting. We’re talking incest, rape, and drugs, so do be careful of what works for you in your reading. The theme here is dealing with three lost girls: Alice (Alice in Wonderland), Dorothy (Wizard of Oz), and Wendy (Peter Pan). Alan Moore takes it that each has unfinished sexual trauma from their youth, and he draws them together in pre-WWI Austria to sort out their traumatic pasts, share their stories, and grow to feel more in control of themselves, their bodies, and their lives. It is a beautiful book. Never, ever, ever show it to a child! Find it, as I did, in your own time and place and way.
What do we take away from this? All of these books draw to some extent on stories we read with kids. In fact, all of that stuff (the sex, violence, brutality) is there for the kids to see, if they’re ready, right in the Brothers Grimm, right in Perrault. These books play with those themes to greater or lesser extents. Am I saying “therefore hand these older books to younger kids”? Absolutely not: I note right here, as above, that I, the girl who read The Odyssey when I was 9, wouldn’t have been ready for any of these books until university. I might have handled them, but I did way better reading them at an older age.
My point is that ages for book-reading are highly personal. I have deep respect for my mother or anyone who’s good at gauging the right general age-audience for the right book. Myself, I read too widely and wackily too young to know what was right for what age, and I lack any experience as an adult to rectify those impressions, so I’m not good at that. But what I can say is that we all mess around a bit: so much of reading is trial and error of taste, and age plays into that, too. For parents, I’d say we make things up a lot in parenting, and finding the right books for our kids is part of that.
What do I do by way of a guideline, if I don’t watch age too carefully? I watch the books. Books find other books. Notice that above I chose four very different, very related, groups of books. Anyone who likes one of those will probably enjoy any of the others. Or not, but it’s worth a try. You could easily grow from one to the other as you get older. Or you could enjoy them all as an adult. Or you could ditch them and read The Fox and the Star or The Tea Party in the Woods instead.
After all, it’s your choice what you read!
(NB: In this blog I note my daughter’s age and how she responds to books. Make of that what you will– I don’t want to mess you up by giving a “wrong” age group.)