Revathi Suresh is the author of Jobless Clueless Reckless, a YA novel set in Bangalore. The views expressed are (of course) the author’s. The platypuses have a slightly different take on the subject. Do let us know what you think in the comments!
A few months ago I was happily signing copies of my book for some eager buyers when I was asked to make one out to a young boy. So how old is he, I asked, chatting with his mom. He’s twelve, she said and I paused. He was pretty tall for his age and I’d just assumed he was older. But my book is for readers fourteen and above, I said. Oh don’t worry he’s an advanced reader, she smiled. I still hesitated. The content is not appropriate for his age, I tried to explain but she didn’t seem overly concerned because he was already reading books meant for adults. Was I supposed to refuse to sell her a copy? Finally I said, know what? Could you read it first before you pass it on to him? That way you’ll know what he’s reading and if he has questions you will at least know where they’re coming from. And if you’d like to give me your mail id, I’d be happy to suggest challenging books for his age. She agreed at once to my mailing her a list of titles and authors but on the other matter she just shrugged ruefully and said she wasn’t much of a reader. I spoke to the child and he said he’d moved on to Jeffery Archer because once he was done with the Potter books he couldn’t find anything as exciting in children’s writing that could fill his appetite for mystery and adventure. Not Riordan, not Colfer, not Stroud, not Horowitz (and let’s forget for just a minute that maybe he shouldn’t have read all the Potter books before he turned ten. But once the entire series was out, I agree it was pretty hard to restrain kids who were growing up with the boy wizard from getting their hands on the books, even if they were underage). I haven’t read Archer myself in ages, but I’m pretty sure his books aren’t appropriate reading for one so young. I got back home and immediately sent off a list of books to the concerned parent. The next day I sat down to write this piece on age-appropriate reading and gave up because I hit the bullet points wall. It meant I had to gather my thoughts and I prefer them scattered at all times.
Purely by luck, it turned out that around the same time, the topic of age-appropriate reading had come up in the children’s school. What’s more, my son’s group was asked to make a presentation to younger children about why it’s important to read the right books at the right time. He sat with me and rattled off a list of reasons his classmates and he had come up with. I thought it wonderful that the points came from the children themselves and am presenting them here in exactly the same order that he set them out for me, and more in his words than mine.
• If you’re in a hurry to read books meant for older children, you’re probably going to miss out on a lot of good books meant for your age group.
• Many books are made into movies these days and simply marketed as children’s films. They are made in such a way that they appeal to a wide audience. This does not mean that you are the right age to read the book on which the movie is based. Or sometimes, movies based on books for older children are made in a way that they appeal to very young children, like Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland or The Jungle Books. You may want to read the book after watching the film but may find the writing difficult or boring. But on the other hand, if you find the movie childish, then you may not give the book a chance and that’s doing it an injustice, because books are often more complex than the movies. Also, sometimes, films are just based on the book and may contain material that is not there in the book at all.
• If you don’t understand a book the first time you read it because you are too young, you probably won’t give the book a second chance when you are older (and probably the right age to read it this time) because you remember it as being boring and hard to understand.
• Book series are very popular these days. But not all books in the series are for the same age group. It’s hard to hold back when the series is suspenseful and you’re dying to know what comes next but if you must read it, it makes sense to have an adult read it to you.
• Sometimes authors write across age groups, eg, Roald Dahl who has written books for children, young adults and adults. You may recognise a familiar name and pick up something that is not meant for you. Have a parent or teacher look at a book you pick up and okay it for you.
• Many children these days are ‘advanced’ readers. This sometimes means that they can read really fast and not that they understand everything that they read. Books for adults may be inappropriate for the following reasons: language—just because you can read the words doesn’t mean that you can completely understand them. Also, sometimes there might be swearing and use of slang; content—violence and sex; themes—the subject matter will be adult and you will not be able to relate with the experiences of the characters.
• Don’t judge a book by its cover. Sometimes books for older children may have an attractive but somewhat childish cover. An example is Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. The book is actually meant for fourteen or fifteen years upwards but looks like a book for younger kids. Big fonts can be misleading for the same reason.
Having written this out, however, I encountered a second, trickier problem. I visited a school recently and was asked to present JCR to an audience that included kids eleven to sixteen years old. Once again I protested. Not eleven. Thirteen if we must, but not eleven. But I was told that a group of teachers had looked at the book and okayed it for the younger ones ‘who read anything these days’ and my book is tame compared with some of the others in the market. So much for sensible adult intervention.