I found myself in a mom/librarian connundrum this week: my 11-year-old son, Cody, brought home Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games as his personal reading choice, and I vetoed it. Now, being a librarian, I am not a fan of any type of censorship, and I struggled with telling him no. If he was interested, shouldn't I just let him read it? What exactly were my reasons for discouraging him? In fact, I ruefully remembered a situation a year or two ago, when a neighbor sought my advice about letting her own son read Hunger Games, and I'd reassured her that it was OK. Had he been any older than Cody at that time? Was I now being hypocritical in not letting my son read the same book?
But as a mom, I'm pretty sure I made the right choice for my own son. Contrary to what you might be thinking, I wasn't trying to protect Cody from Collins' book; rather, I wanted to save it for him. Granted, there is much in the book that might disturb the parents of a fifth grader: teens killing teens is not what most parents want their children to be reading. But my objection to his choice wasn't based on the violent content, or even on the relatively innocent teenage romance. I certainly do want Cody to read Hunger Games, as well as its sequels; but I don't want him to read them yet. Cody simply wouldn't get the books, and I want him to really get them when he reads them.
Cody is an advanced reader for his grade level, so if I were to let him read Hunger Games today, I know that he would comprehend the story: he would have all the reading skills in place to understand the vocabulary, the syntax, the plot structure. But he is only 11 years old, so developmentally, he does not have the abstract thinking skills or the world experience to understand the book on a larger scale. He would have trouble understanding the themes and political symbols without a teacher or adult to explain these to him. Although he could complete the books, he would miss so much of what is important about them by reading them at too early of an age.
When I was at the YALSA Young Adult Literature symposium in St. Louis in November, one of the presenters, a YA author who is also a clinical psychologist, did a beautiful job of explaining a primary difference between juvenile (written for ages 8-12) and young adult (written for ages 12-18) literature. Ilsa Bick noted that most juvenile literature consists of legacy-age narratives, in which the protagonist leaves home, often to go into the wild or a "wild" situation, forms peer relationships, but then returns to the family or the status quo. In these narratives, family and friends are a centering point, and the adventure outside of these familiar boundaries usually returns the hero back to center. For youth in this age group, these narratives are psychologically in line with their own emotional development.
By contrast, young adult literature features adolescent narratives, in which the characters leave home, jettison old relationships and lifestyles, and then form new peer and family ties, including love relationships. For the heroes of these stories, the task is to forge a new world in which the prevailing regime (family, parents, society) is overthrown in order for a new reality to take place. Although the hero may return to the original family or community, he does so changed, with his individuality now being the center of his personality. Like it or not, this is what healthy teenagers do as they move into adulthood.
I just finished reading a book that illustrates this reading distinction. Son is the long-awaited conclusion to Lois Lowry's Giver quartet, a series of four dystopian young adult novels that explore what happens when a seemingly perfect society allows for no imperfection or difficulties among its members. Lowry published The Giver in 1993, followed by Gathering Blue in 2000 and Messenger in 2004. In The Giver, Lowry presented a society where members' lives were carefully controlled to allow no pain, no sadness, no deviation from accepted standards. At the Ceremony of Twelve, young adults are assigned to a role of service within the community. Jonah, the main character, is assigned to apprentice to an old man known as the Giver; his role is to store all the memories of the society, so that the individual members do not have to face past pain or fears. Up until his apprenticeship, Jonah has accepted the rules of his community without question. However, as his awareness grows, Jonah realizes that his society does not always value human life. He takes a huge risk and rejects his community, all to save a baby boy named Gabe who has been temporarily living with Jonah's family.
Son picks up Gabe's story as a companion novel, telling the events from the point of view of Gabe's Birthmother, Claire. I'm sorry to say that I never read Gathering Blue or Messenger; I wish now that I had, because Lowry deftly weaves together the stories of Gabe, Jonah, Claire, and characters from these other two novels to create a satisfying conclusion to all of their journeys. For Jonah, Claire, and even Gabe, these are adolescent narratives, involving a rejection of their communities of origin in order to find something more.
Interestingly, The Giver is one of the most frequently challenged or banned books in the United States, and is often included in fifth- or sixth-grade reading classes. With the guidance of a talented teacher, students at this age can understand the deeper meaning of Lowry's story; on their own, many students of this age will lack the maturity to appreciate the elegant allegory she writes. For those students, then, The Giver becomes simply a story of a boy who leaves home; Son becomes the story of a boy who finally finds one. Lowry's understory, about tolerance and individuality, choice and sacrifice, would be lost on too young a reader.
Therefore, it is appropriate for us as both parents and librarians to tell our younger children to wait to read certain books. We do this not to censor them, but to find choices that fit with their developmental age. Certainly, there are many books in the YA area that are good choices for fifth and sixth graders. Many YA stories retain elements of legacy-age narration; likewise, many fifth and sixth graders are ready for the simpler adolescent narratives. My own compromise with Cody was The Ruins of Gorlan, the first of John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice series; it is an adolescent narrative, but with simpler character development and little metaphor. We librarians will always try to match readers with books that are appropriate for them, because we want reading to be a postive experience. Ultimately, however, as a librarian I feel the parent of a young reader knows best . . . unless, of course, that reader is my own son.