Not too long ago, I stumbled upon a particularly heinous form of bookish torture, when a friend confessed to me that she wouldn’t let here 10-year-old daughter read beyond Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
‘They’re too dark,’ she said, ‘book two was already keeping her up at night.’
‘B-b-but! The Triwizard Tournament! Dumbledore’s Army! Ron and Hermione!’ I exclaimed.
My friend is going to give her daughter the Harry Potter series in increments – one a year, readying her for the darkness and death of the voluminous final installment.
When I was still scraping my jaw off the floor, my friend revealed that Harry Potter were not the only books her daughter was not allowed to read… yet. She has actually been buying lots of books (mainly of the young adult variety) that she isn’t comfortable with her daughter reading right now, so she’s saving them for when she’s older. Making the list was The Hunger Games trilogy, a few Melina Marchetta’s and John Marsden’s, and the Percy Jackson series.
This really struck me down and I didn’t know what to say. I admit: I am not a parent. But I still vividly remember forming my reading habits when I was the age that my friend’s daughter is now, and at least two of those authors mentioned were on my childhood reading list.
I had an older bookish cousin whose hand-me-down books I read. So when she was onto older YA like Maureen McCarthy and Scott Monk, I was too, because I wanted to keep pace. And my mum never restricted my reading, she encouraged it. She and my aunt read the books that my cousin and I were reading, but they didn’t read them to ‘veto’ them (mum’s just a big Marsden fan). I remember having a long discussion with my mum, aunt and cousin after we’d all read two particularly hard-hitting Margaret Clark books; Back on Track: Diary of a Street Kid and Care Factor Zero – both of which involved stories about the hard life of street kids and explored everything from drug use to sexual assault. My cousin and I would have been about 10 and 12 at the time.
At the Melbourne Writers Festival last year the question of ‘age-appropriate’ reading was broached in a session I attended with one of Australia’s most respected children’s authors. Morris Gleitzman writes notoriously weighty subjects in his middle-grade books. His latest Felix series is set during WWII and follows a young Polish Jewish boy as he searches for his parents.
In the past, Gleitzman has written about religious fanatics, brothers dying of cancer and mandatory detention – the reading age for his books starts at around 10 years old. Not surprisingly, Gleitzman has encountered some adults who are uncomfortable with the subjects he broaches. But in his session, The Art of Writing for Children and Young Adults, Gleitzman simply said that everything in the world has a place in young people’s stories; ‘If it’s in the world, it’s for them.’
I tell this to my friend, and while she’s moved by Gleitzman’s words, she’s not entirely convinced. ‘It’s a real grief for parents to burst your kids’ bubble and expose them to the dark things in life,’ my friend explains, ‘you want to keep that at bay for as long as possible, and hold off on revealing how awful people really are.’
Another book she has tucked away is The Diary of Anne Frank. Her daughter has very little knowledge of World War II and Hitler, and knows next to nothing of the Holocaust and my friend would like to keep it that way for a little longer. She imagines that when the time comes, Anne Frank’s story will be a part of that awful lesson. Likewise, Morris Gleitzman’s Felix series will be another to add to her list of future reading.
When she said that, I started thinking of her book-hording in a new light, something similar to an old-fashioned hope chest or glory box. The same way that linens and cooking utensils would go into the glory box of an unmarried young woman in anticipation of married life, I now see my friend tucking these books away for her daughter as her way of creating stepping-stones in a childhood. Maybe she has these books up on the highest shelf in the house (you must be able to reach this high to read!) I imagine her rolling the giving of the glory books into other pertinent discussions (‘the birds and the bees and the books’ with the gifting of any Sarah Dessen novel?)
It may not be the way that I was raised to read, but I understand wanting to keep the darkness of wizards and war at bay for a little while longer.
Danielle Binks is a Killings columnist and book reviewer on her blog Alpha Reader, with a particular interest in children’s and young adult literature. She is also Digital Editor at Spinifex Press, and is currently working on her first young adult manuscript.