I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;)
Trying to keep a level head, because I've spent years wondering over this question, with a range of emotional responses from casual agreement to slight discomfort to blood-curdling rage.
I'm also not sure what made me decide to write this post. Maybe it's that, as a reader since the age of 7, I realize looking back that not much has changed--my reading preferences have certainly, but why I read in the first place has stayed the same.
I've also noticed a pattern in the book reviewing/literary community, but I couldn't for years figure out what bothered me.
Namely, it's the question many adult readers ponder when reading novels meant for younger readers: is this fit for a child to read? Are the themes to dark? The language too sophisticated? The moral messages too different from what I would typically teach?
I don't think we should stop asking those questions, but I do think how we tend to answer them is a bit of a problem.
"The prose/language is too complex."
I must admit, this frequent and casually-thrown-around comment is one of the most baffling I've ever come across.
People only learn foreign languages when they're able to listen to them and practice speaking them. People only learn to ride bikes by riding a bike. People only learn to solve math problems by doing math problems.
Similarly, the only way to learn to read complex language is to fucking read complex language.
I seriously don't get what the basis is behind this assumption that, just because a child can't comprehend something RIGHT AWAY, also means that they somehow don't have the capacity to LEARN it.
Let's go back to the idea of foreign languages again, just because it's a comparison that's been sitting in my brain for a while. It's pretty common knowledge that the younger a child learns a foreign language, the more quickly they learn to grasp it. Queen Elizabeth I could translate entire texts into different languages before she was a teenager. Cleopatra VII knew how to speak nine languages. I have a cousin who knew how to speak English, Chinese and Spanish with nearly equal fluency by the time he was 10 years old.
Or hey, how about classical music? I know an 8th grader who can rattle off Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto without batting an eyelash. A friend of mine could play a Mozart sonata with the skill of an adult by the time she was 8 years old. I know both these people personally--they're not child prodigies, they just practice for like 4 hours a day.
So why do we accept that children can be smart in other places, but not with comprehending literature?
I mean, I guess a case could be made for the benefit of "training wheels"--but I still think that's pretty condescending, if people use it as an excuse to actively prevent children from reading texts like the Odyssey, the Iliad, Moby-dick, etc. And if people think it's ok to oversimplify literature and dumb-down language in the name of giving them "training wheels." In my own personal experience as a child, I've found this attitude from adults incredibly frustrating. Having grown up and seeing this in the reviewing world, where adult readers will read a YA book with above-average prose and announce, "well, I can't imagine a young child comprehending this," is equally frustrating.
If they can't comprehend it, SO WHAT. They will learn to do it SOMEDAY if they're actually EXPOSED to it. Because that's how the HUMAN PSYCHOLOGICAL LEARNING PROCESS WORKS.
"The themes are too dark."
I guess I could understand this in some cases, for books that fetishize sex, or display nonstop violence and gore over and over again--but that's not especially frightening or inappropriate, that's just really badly written literature no one should be subjected to.
Anyway, I wonder where society has gotten the idea that all children in the world somehow live in a magic fairyland bubble until they turn 18.
Does no one ever think of children of color, of children with divorced/single parents, children living in foster homes, children suffering bullying in school, children suffering abuse at home, children with disabilities, children who lost loved ones at a young age? And on and on and on and on.
In any case though, it doesn't matter whether any given kid belongs in any given category. The thing is that children, even financially secure/emotionally stable/etc. already have to deal with a confusing and scary world. They have to deal with school and parents and media feeding them mixed messages, of trying to figure out who they are, and when they hit puberty, of figuring out their sexualities (plus lots of other stuff I can't think of right now). If they don't have to deal with "dark" things from adults or the books they read, they're definitely going to get it from their peers, sometimes in the form of school bullying, sometimes in more subtle ways through the bigger culture that surrounds them. This essay explains quite well how kids can end up forming their own environments in school, environments that ultimately tear each other down because the adults watching over them aren't competent enough to understand.
But back to the topic of literature: what I'm saying is that the least we can do, when it comes to exposing dark realities to children, is to be honest. Because they already know the world can be dark. They want and need to be able to understand. They already have to put up with being lied to over and over again by overprotective adults, teachers, parents, and a culture that thinks they're too stupid, or too "innocent." And in the end, concealing stuff just ends up being even more damaging.
So why can't we use literature to fix that? As a child, the books that stayed with me the most were always the most morally complex ones. The books that didn't try to hide anything from me. The books that tried to help me understand the world better, not lie to me about it. Just like adults, kids enjoy seeing themselves reflected in the media they consume--so why can't we give them more?
Why is it that we judge children's lit and YA by a different standard from adult literature? Why is "this book is for kids" considered an ok dismissal of lower quality writing? Why do we have such a low opinion of children's capacity for learning and comprehension that any time a novel written for younger readers contains even the smallest exploration of sexuality or violence (Graceling comes to mind), it's considered somehow out of the norm?
(Another example is Percy Jackson, which I've seen criticized for its themes being too dark for 10-year-olds. Having read and loved PJ as a sixth grader, that makes me laugh sooooooo hard.)
Obviously I'm generalizing here, but it's a pattern I've noticed, and honestly, it makes me a little angry--because the more I think about it, the more I realize that this attitude in the literary community is actually representative of a much bigger pattern in our culture in our condescension towards kids, in instances like children being told "you need to read a book more at your level." Arrrrrrrrrgh.
I'll end with an anecdote:
When I was 15, I read Shakespeare's King Lear for fun--and one of my parents's friends asked me incredulously, "Wow! you could actually understand it?"
And all I could think to myself was "Fuck you."