When I was eight years old, I read The Odyssey for the first time. I’m not saying that to brag: it’s something I ended up feeling embarrassed about a lot of the time. Hearing “You can’t really have understood it, though” often enough will do that. When I was nine I first read Pride and Prejudice. Again, not bragging. I’ve had so many hosts of awkward conversations about both of these books that I stopped really talking about them so much. I felt too embarrassed to say how young I was when I read them, so I just shut down those topics in my mind. But I’m boldly confessing now: Yes, I read books which were “too old” for me, and, yes, I thoroughly enjoyed reading them. I think I understood them at a basic level.
Did I pick up on every detail? I mean, jeepers, there are PhD theses being written right now which express views so abstruse I might not understand them today. Obviously I didn’t understand those when I was eight years old. But did I understand the story? Yes. Did I pick up on points of repetition and ask for clarification about the point of the repetition? Yes. (Oral recitation, I was told. Now that caught my fancy.)
But I felt embarrassed. I felt embarrassed because I was caught in a world of “too young” and “too old.” The books were “too old” for me. I was “too young” to understand them. But, at the same time, I was reading books which were “too young” for me. If I was old enough for novels, wasn’t I “too old” for picture books? (Let me hit pause for a minute: Mummy, no, I’m not talking about you. You were great!) It seems that the world just didn’t expect people to read and enjoy D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths at the same time as they’re reading Homer.
But why not? D’Aulaires’ is a great read, Homer is a great read, and if you’re capable of reading both, then why not read both?
The problem is rooted in this fallacy of “too old” and “too young.” I will grant you one thing: there are definitely topics which are beyond the reach of some younger readers (incest, rape, violence, etc.) and it’s important to keep these in mind when recommending books to younger readers. I will also say boldly right now that sometimes it happens that a kid gets their hands on a book which has one of these topics in it (for me it was prostitution) and they might not know what to make of it. That happens. It’s OK. I survived. It was not my most enjoyable reading experience, but my mother was there to help explain things a bit, and I found other books which were better-suited to my age and my tastes. And I’m glad I read that story when I did, in hindsight, because it made me aware that such things were out there.
But, “adult” topics aside, I want to boldly advocate for knocking down some pretty stupid barriers right now. I want to point out that there are programmes for adults reading children’s literature, analyzing it, and enjoying it. I want to point out that right here on this blog I’m a PhD student in medieval literature reading children’s books, mostly picture books, and, I think, drawing out some pretty interesting insights into what’s going on in them. I want to point out that it’s pretty nasty to make children feel bad about what they’re reading, whatever level you think they should be going for: what matters is what they get out of it. Your job is to help them find the meat in whatever they’re reading.
“Too old” and “too young” is a construct manufactured to foster anxiety around reading. There’s enough anxiety out there as it is, don’t you think? Do we really need to add anxiety to reading? Can’t we let it be a space to safely explore the unsafe? A space where we can securely venture forth for Ithaca? A space to quietly rant about a man’s pride and unkindness and hope he’ll take those words to heart and grow into a better person? We can’t do those things in real life, but we can do them in books, and think about how we maybe could get a bit more adventure in life, maybe… just maybe… Literature can do all those things. And, as I’ve taken pains to point out here before, children’s literature is no exception: Quackers, I maintain, has many of the same lessons as Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
Books give us places to explore complicated topics (“Where do I belong?”) in the safety of words and closed worlds: a book is a closed system you can slip into, look around, and walk out of in safety. The very best books, for any age, are the ones which have you leaving as a somewhat stronger, bigger, more thoughtful person than when you walked in.
The other day, the Changeling stood in the middle of our living room. She looked around her at all the bookcases, and she said something which warmed my heart: “I like books.” That thrilled me. She didn’t say, “I like those books,” pointing at the children’s books. She didn’t say she liked any specific book. She liked books, books in general. I hope she’ll continue to like books, and I hope I’ll continue to foster that love.
And I hope that when she’s ready to read The Odyssey, she’ll still be able to appreciate D’Aulaires’.
My rant is over, and another review will be up on Monday. Thanks for indulging my need to get these feelings out. (Do you have thoughts about “Too young” and “Too old”?)
P.S. The new kitty, Telemachos, is settling in well, but still hiding.