Question for–Booksellers, Librarians, Teachers: What are 'Age Appropriate' Books?

In my discussion about the banning of Water for Elephants for high school age kids  by a school district in NH, the question of  age appropriateness came up, and I started wondering what that really means, and to what age does what book belong? Can one really take an age appropriate brush and color all kids the same age the same color?

I wrote about how in third grade I was a real scared kid–all sorts of stuff freaked me out-and one book on the shelves of my classroom terrified me more than others. My mother demanded to know why such as scary book was allowed. This was a different time, teachers didn’t kowtow to parents, they trusted their own judgement. So she explained that although my sensibilities were thrown, other children found it to be funny stories of ghosts, which in retrospect, it certainly was. She didn’t remove it, thank goodness, and my mom understood, also, thank goodness.

Third grade I was, uh, wait, let me do the math, ok, 9. So what is age appropriate to read? Mrs. Shepherd  had us reading chapter by chapter in class, The Wizard of Oz books, not just the first. Anyone who has actually read the books know they are not sweet and lovely as the film, excepting the Wicked Witch, of course. There are all sorts of weird creatures and situations and violence. I loved them. So, for me Wizards OK, ghost stories, not.

In 7th grade, oh gee, I didn’t know I’d need to do math for this blog, got it–I was 13.  We read Romeo and Juliet–oh boy, sex sex sex, except no one understood Shakespeare  so we didn’t reap any benefits. Ha. And I loved the play. Is this age appropriate? And if so, why isn’t Water for Elephants alright? (although, again I state that high schoolers were reading it, not 13 year olds)

And who should decide for one child or an entire class? Parents? Yeah, get a huge group of parents to arrive at a consensus on titles to use, lol. The school librarians? Individual teachers? School boards? The principal?

When selling juvenile books, how does a bookseller decide? I know many books have an age range on them, do booksellers use this as a guide? If the child is a returning customer, I would think there would be more leeway, because the seller has had time to access the kid’s maturity and reading level.

So, what do you all think? I really am curious.

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  • As a parent, for me the answer is twofold, and this refers to public versus private. As an example I am a huge fan of historical naval fiction. The O’brian Master and Commander done as a movie is also great. All of my children, youngest age 8 have seen the movie although I did not allow them to watch the one main battle as I thought that it was too graphic. The movie is of course rated R and has no place being presented to kids in school or other public settings. If I as a parent see value in it I have the option to allow my kids to watch the movie, or read the books at home. If however I were a teacher and wanted to show the movie in school parents would have every right to object. Private I choose what my child reads, Public I respect the opinion of other parents who may view it differently.

    As to your question of who is to decide for books read in school, I believe that more voices are better than the few. I also believe that it is always better to err on the side of being to conservative in ones choice. The point one should never forget as that there are a ton of great books out there that are age appropriate by most any standard. Look at the book as if it were a movie. Would it be G, PG, PG-13 or R. I do not believe that rated R movies should be shown in school, nor do I believe that books that contain R rated type material have any place in that setting. If parents see value in a book not read at school they can always have the child read it at home. My own kids each read a couple of books per year for school and about 50 more at home.

    As a book seller I stock it all and let parents decide what they want their children to read. I do not believe that it is my place to “access the kid’s maturity” for that role belongs to the parent. This again gets back to the public/private.

    • Michael–I may not have phrased my thinking correctly when I wrote ‘access the kid’s maturity”. What I was trying to convey is exactly what Pete above here wrote. As a bookseller to adults, I access their tastes through repeat exposure to them as customers, and based on experience choose a new title for them. Most of the time I hit it correctly, but there are always exceptions. I was thinking along those lines for children, after seeing what they bought over time, I could access their maturity much better than if they just walked in. And I would feel uncomfortable choosing a particular title unless given guidance from the kid, or their parent if present.

      I won’t get into the school books question again, I think we both know where the other stands by now, lol.

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  • Hello Michael,

    I just wanted to take a second and thank you for spending some of your time here and sharing your opinions with us. It’s readers like yourself that make this place vibrant,interesting and hopefully thought provoking.


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  • Diane,
    This is an issue that I can’t address as a parent only as a librarian. In my experience, young kids choose books that are appropriate for their level. They will take a book from our shelves and flip through it, just as adults do, and reach a decision much faster than adults do (at least most adults). I have yet to see a child, with or without a parental person, select a book for themselves that will be over their head or too scary or in some way “harmful”.

    Books assigned in school? That’s different. I believe the schools and the teachers should decide on the required reading and if a parent disagrees, they can tell the teacher they prefer their children not to read this book AND would the teacher allow their child to read a similar book and get the credit. The similar book would omit what the parent objects to while still conveying the same ideas.. but that’s my dream situation. Kids are exposed to far worse things from their peers than from books in over-crowded and under-funded classrooms.

    In my job I do and must assess a child’s maturity when asked for “something to read” (which is my favorite question!) because without knowledge of their ability and likes/dislikes, we could be spending all day finding something. It’s also necessary for me to know a little about their parents (religious views especially), otherwise I’m going to have to deal with a complaint! You can supply a scenario there!

    I also read one-on-one with kids through a state program. I choose about 12 books from the book pool and let each child pick what they want. I’ve never had a child in 4 years choose a book that’s too far beyond their abilities, most often they choose one book that’s right at their level, one book that’s too easy, and one book that is challenging to read but not to understand. But these books have been vetted by a group who leans towards safe choices in order to reach as many children as possible and to “infect” them with a life-long passsion for reading.

    And that’s my 2 cents for today!!

    • I believe your 2 cents is worth far more in today’s economy, lol. How cool that kids know their own level of interest, and seem to do just fine on their own–of course, as you mentioned, if for some reason the philosophy within the chosen work isn’t in lock step with the parents rigid world, that would be a problem for the child, but more likely for you the librarian for having the ‘offensive’ book on the shelves.
      Still, it warms my blackened heart to know kids sometimes have more sense that we adults. Thanks!

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  • At our shop we attack this problem on a couple of different levels. Firstly we make sure that we ourselves read a diverse range of childrens and young adult titles to keep abreast of emerging trends. Lots of these titles are good reads and it is great to give feedback to a parent/child on a book you have actually read, even if you have only read the first book in the series. Secondly we have a select number of regular customers that give us feedback on titles they have read (We just can’t read them all ourselves) particularly regarding the level of sexual content and bad language etc (You would be surprised how many adults love to read young adult fiction as their preference) We then do shelf talkers with those recommendations. If a child comes in with their parent and asks for a particular title then we don’t argue, we just sell it to them. If the customer is well know to us and I feel that I can comment without pressuring or upsetting them then I may say something. But if the parent or child asks or is unsure, we always steer them towards what we know is well recommended.

    • That seems like a perfect way to go about selling books to younger readers. Makes sense. Thanks.

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