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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.

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12 thoughts on “Revathi Suresh: On Age-appropriate Reading

  1. I loved this post! No seriously! We do need to talk about age appropriate reading..I keep telling parents that Harry Potter is not mean for children below 11 years..may be the first 3 books, but not after that!

    I remembering gifting a 7 year old girl ‘Mayil will not be quiet’ because she reads Enid blytons already. My Amma asked me to tell my friend to read the book before giving it to her daughter since Amma had read the book and understood that its for above 11 years. and thankfully my friend is a great reader herself so she read it and realised that some of the content may not be appropriate for a 7 year old! She has kept is aside for now. We really need to monitor what children read!

    But on the other side, with most parents lamenting about the fact that their children DONT read at All, any child reading is just encouraged to read everything eh?

    Also, arent children maturing faster now a days?

    Okay long comment, but really is a topic very few people write about..so thanks

  2. Hi Revathi,
    Have read your book and liked it. I think it is perfectly fine for 11 years old and 10 years old too, if they have want to read it. They may not understand everything, in which case their minds will ponder the point until they find a satisfactory answer. It is always good if they can clarify with their parents, but most of us just blunder on and thats not a bad thing.
    Adults too often do not get everything the author puts into their book on a first read. The best books are the ones we are drawn to read again and again, and each time something new reveals itself.
    So, my point is, let the child choose his own reading level, he will ‘get’ only as much as he understands. Parents need to only keep an eye on what they are reading, just as they need to watch over what they may be surfing. There’s definitely a lot of stuff that children should not access; your book, happily, does not fall in that category.

  3. Archer? Definitely not! I think this is a general yardstick to stick by, but then each child devises his or her own reading levels and rules. My 12 year old read Harry Potter around 2 years back and he has read JCR too! Incidentally, he also loved reading Moin the Monster, and sometimes, can still be found leafing through Tabby McTat.

    Completely agree with you on the reading before passing it on to the child approach.The books I am not too sure of, I read first and then tell him about the objectionable parts after which he decides whether he wants to read it then or not. He has surprisingly kept a few books for later.

    This is what I feel about it: http://tanushreesingh.wordpress.com/2013/06/28/inappropriate-books/ though they won’t be found reading book meant for adults anytime soon!

  4. Revathi says:
    Thank you all for your comments. Tanu shree, thank you for that link to your blog on the subject. I liked that you approached it from a different angle but I’m curious about how your son reacted to JCR, and the same goes for Lost in the Clouds. And it’s not the unpleasant kiss part alone I’m concerned about. For example, what did your children make of the emotional state of the protagonist right through the book? Kavya is, after all, teetering on the edge of anxiety from beginning to end. I would have thought that can be somewhat unsettling for a very young reader. And the humour is not directed at a child, either. However, I am really happy to hear that you are always in the loop about what your children are reading.
    And by the way, it’s not like I’ve followed all those guidelines laid out in those bullet points either. My daughter was a runaway reader from the moment she picked up her first book, before which I used to read to (and with) her and we too, like many other avid followers of the series, went through the Potter books very quickly (except I read them aloud to her though she had begun to read by herself by then). I do remember editing out bits as I read. Bits I thought were too scary, mostly. But though she went back to the series a few years after we were done with, my son totally refuses to touch them though he’s seen the movies many times, especially in the last year or so. I think he grew up listening to us discuss the story to raggedy little threads and got completely bored. A part of me has often guiltily wondered how, while I edited so diligently for my daughter, I completely forgot that the younger sibling too had ears and was always hovering around, listening, making of the whole thing what he could.
    Then there’s my own experience of going too fast. I read books like Mill on the Floss, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Little Women, The Adventures of Don Quixote etc when I was eight or nine. When I say ‘read’, I literally read, with no comprehension at all. I thought it all utterly boring and stupid but I remembered enough to resist Eliot and Hardy years later when they were part of my lit syllabus (psst I totally sucked at the course) As I grew up I veered towards Perry Mason rather than Poirot, and to date I’m not a fan of Agatha Christie. And there’s a part of me that will always go for the easy reads. Between a Sue Grafton and a P D James, for example, you can bet I’ll go for the Grafton. Not just because Grafton is funny and James so utterly humourless but because I like that you can get in and out of the story quickly with G instead of plodding on and building and building and building in a rather exhausting fashion with J. I’m up to date with both the lists, though.
    But ultimately, it’s always different strokes for different folks and it’s always great to get a counterpoint J

  5. See, that’s where the difference lies. I don’t know what came first in my children’s case – the chicken or the egg. Is it because they read freely that they understand things beyond their years or is it because they matured sooner that they are able to understand complex story lines? I do not know! There are books that are absolutely off the table for now since they require a deeper level of understanding, and then there are those that are clearly labelled ‘for YA’ but are thoroughly enjoyed, sometimes by the 12 year old alone and sometimes by both.

    BUt as for JCR, I absolutely agree that on an average, an older kid would relate to it better, but the fact that i saw him giggling through it makes me assume he was fine with it. Usually when I ask how a particular book was I get responses ranging from a casual shrug to an excited bobbing of the head with eyes appropriately widened and a grin in place. I don’t clearly remember his response now so, after reading your post, I asked him if he remembered anything from the book that he found confusing or bothersome. He thought for a while and said, ‘Older kids swear too much’ and hastily added, ‘ But I know the writer uses that to convey the mindset/age of the character so don’t worry, I am not going to go around swearing!’

    So thankfully, he is able to make that distinction between reality and fiction which probably I can take full credit for since he often tells me of a friend who reads on his own (without any parental check) and utters all sorts of unmentionables. As for the emotionality, I am again assuming that he understood where Kavya was coming from. Else, he would have chewed my head over it!

    I think somewhere, I tend to think back to my times when I was let loose in mum’s college library and read nearly everything I could get my hands on and maybe that’s why let him read things I fell he’d be able to handle.

    So yes, JCR was an instant hit with him! And I shall remain firmly in the loop for as long as I can.

  6. Hi,
    My boys are 9 and 12 and they aren’t readers. They obviously haven’t read JCR yet. The book is in the house, if they at any point decide they want to read it, that’ll be fine with me. The younger one is more likely to get to it first, but I doubt it will be for another three years at least.

    I was writing from my own experience. My parents weren’t happy about the amount of time I spent with my nose in books, so I ended up reading on the sly. I had a wonderful classmate, one of her best attractions for me being, her father’s book shop. I only had to ask for a title and she’d get it for me and then put it back on the shelf once I was done with it.

    I read only the books that I wanted to read. Apart from the age appropriate stuff we had access to in the school library, I read Ana Karenina, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles amongst others at 12 years of age and I liked them. I actually copied down one of Levin’s monologues in my private diary (philosophical stuff). And I did not lose my mental virginity till later that year, when I got through a few M&B. Of course, I ended up with a completely wrong idea of the process since they weren’t very explicit.

    So, I don’t think one needs to worry too much with Tolstoy or Hardy. One only needs to look out for the cheap lit stuff. There are however, writers like Rohinton Mistry, I’ll never offer one of those to anyone younger than 40! I guess, most important thing is to make sure your kids can come to you at any moment.

  7. Going back to the most significant point in that piece, this is a list drawn up by children for children. And they were not guided by teachers to ‘say the right thing’. They sat and headbanged over it for a while before coming up with the points. We may or may not agree with the list but they speak from experience too, and I have to respect that. Like I said, I myself have not followed all these dos and don’ts in the time that I read to my children. What is somewhat disturbing for me is when we, as adults, decide that our child is ‘ready’ for a particular topic and rush to introduce it to them. I fear sometimes that it is we who are eager and not the child. I say this because I think I have been guilty of making some wrong decisions on that front too, not because I have a fantastic track record of getting everything right all the time.

  8. Agree, Revathi. And get into trouble for saying this. Not into censoring but if they’re reading and there are questions that come up, I want to be in the know of things.

    Would love this list you speak of. Could you mail it to me too? Thanks!

  9. Write me, ma…I’ll see if I can locate that exact same list. I only mailed the lady that one time and for the life of me I can’t seem to remember her name–that gray on my head is for real, you know 🙂 If it’s adventure a child of 12 or so seeks, there are some authors I have mentioned in the first para. You can get in touch with me at revathisuresh@gmail.com and I’ll cobble together a wider range for you. And there are other wonderful bloggers here who have responded to this piece. Maybe they have ideas too?

  10. Pingback: Jobless, Clueless, Reckless – A book review | Life and Times in Bangalore

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