Let children read books for adults!

Essays by Shalon Sims on education, creative writing and literacy

Let children read books for adults!

Was I alone in my quest for adult reading materials? Around the age of nine or ten I discovered Stephen King, and I would never go back to the Sweet Valley of children’s books ever again. I recall sneaking my mother’s horror and thriller books from her bedroom bookshelf, one at a time, and reading them secretly, gorging on them like Halloween candy.

I spent hours at the library, reading adult books in the stacks because the librarians wouldn’t let me take them home. I didn’t bother with the school library anymore because I knew those books were all for kids. The school librarians made sure all the books were ‘safe.’ In other words, boring.

I did my own very modest survey on Twitter, and while there were only 10 responses, the final outcome was eye-opening. I didn’t expect 50% of people to have preferred adult books as kids, but they did. Just like me.

So now fast forward thirty years. I’m studying to become a teacher, with a strong interest in becoming one of those dreaded gate-keeping teacher librarians. I’m at this jumping off place: what kinds of books will I allow my students to read? And what kinds of books will be off limits, and why?

I can’t reasonably stock the school library full of Stephen King. Or can I?

To answer these questions, I need to consider what my view of childhood is, and what the historical view of childhood is, and how these views might influence my decision-making.

The historical Western view of childhood transitioned in the 19th century from a Victorian/Puritanical belief that children are born sinful and need to be guided away from sin, to an Enlightenment view of children as innocent and a source of divine inspiration (Reynolds, 2014).

These views of childhood influenced the type of reading materials created for children, as well as how children were depicted in stories. Prior to the Enlightenment era, books for children focused on moral instruction; thereafter, works that venerated children or idealized childhood became common, such as Oliver Twist, Alice in Wonderland and the Waterbabies (Grenby, 2014).

Over the past century, fantasy has predominated children’s literature and continues to do so today. In fact, even picture books today feature primarily cartoon-style illustrations rather than life-like illustrations. There is a distinct style to modern-day children’s literature that says ‘this is a book for children.’ Bright colours, cartoonish illustrations, simplistic vocabulary.

All of the above books capture what I call the ‘childish style.’

This childish style is not only found in book covers, but spans all forms of media, from TV to music to websites geared to kids.

What is the view of childhood that creates this trend? Why are children seen as separate from adults and requiring content specifically designed for them, designed to be, by most accounts, very immature?

According to Frijoff, a Dutch historian who wrote at length on the ‘discovery of childhood,’ it wasn’t until the early modern era that we truly developed a notion of childhood. Before that period, parents and society in general “were reluctant to attach themselves to children who, in those difficult times, passed away in huge numbers by sickness, plague, or accident before attaining adulthood.”

And what of today’s so-called helicopter moms? Are the protective impulses that drive the helicopter mom the same impulses responsible for the fierce censoring that goes on today in the school library? Or is there something more going on? For example, fears of litigation, parental backlash, religious convictions?

As a writer of young adult and middle grade fiction, I know first hand that school librarians in general are seen as gatekeepers to children’s literature. There is an entire industry built up in children’s publishing around satisfying the school librarian’s distinct tastes. No swearing or graphic violence are the mainstays of this taste, but beyond this, there has been, until relatively recently, an unspoken rule that children’s books be fairly vanilla.

That trend has seen some push-back, due, I think, primarily to the fact that adults are now reading YA and MG books, but in general, the Scholastic Market is very alive and healthy. One quick look at the Scholastic website will leave its mark on you.

And why is this the case?

I can only speculate that culturally our notion of childhood is a time of simplicity, intellectual incapacity, vulnerability and vivid imagination. What other views of childhood would drive such childish designs, and today’s focus on fantasy and immature literature and entertainment?

It’s clear that we feel that children need to escape the real world, or can’t handle the real world. That they need protection from the real world—all of these ideas might generate a need for children to be immersed in a protective fantasy bubble.

That children aren’t capable of grasping adult content, that they’re simple, unintelligent, needing to be coddled and hand-held—all of these ideas might generate a need for childish, simplistic content.

In my view, I think that children are strong, and a lot more capable than we give them credit for. They adapt to situations remarkably well, even abusive ones or what we as adults might find intolerable. I don’t mean to say that children don’t require our protection and care, but I do wonder if they can handle more than we give them credit for. Is reading an adult book that addresses suicide, murder, or rape really going to traumatize a child?

I believe that children are capable of handling gritty, real-world topics in gritty and real-world ways. Not sugar-coated. Not metaphorized. Not symbolically, but straight up. Furthermore, children don’t need to understand everything completely to enjoy a book, just like, as an adult, I don’t understand all of an Italian opera or a Shakespearian play, but I enjoy it.

And kids agree. Common Sense Media helps parents and teachers navigate how to teach children how to be critical thinkers when it comes to media consumption. The best part of this website is that kids themselves get to leave comments on all of the pages. This is a veritable goldmine of information and laughter.

Here are what a few kids had to say on the question: should kids be allowed to read adult books:

Reading outside their AGE level is OKAY. reading outside of their READING level is NOT as Okay. I have expirience with this stuff. KIDs ARE WISE AND KNOW WHAT THEY CAN HANDLE more than anyone else. I was reading a book and they had TRASHY role models, so i stopped reading the book and wasn’t scarred for life.

GladerA5’s kid sister, age 12 years old

The books at my reading level have these things in them that I’m just not mature enough to understand so those themes just go around me and I suspect I don’t even recognize them. So there is just no harm. The teen books and the children’s novels are just so simple, all day I get told simple things… I just want something interesting in my life.

Kid, 10 years old

If I was reading only books that were geared towards my age range at this point in my life, I would be bored out of my mind and completely uninterested in reading. As long as the book isn’t totally inappropriate, LET THE KID READ WHAT THE KID WANTS TO READ. How is this even a question? And if it’s too complex, then the kid will have learned that they need to read books geared towards younger age ranges. … The whole “promote their understanding of the material” is ridiculous in my opinion. It’s not a school, they can read their own books on their own time, learn by themselves, make their own connections, without parents constantly explaining everything to them.

Kid, 11 years old

GladerA5 is quite astute in differentiating between age level and reading level. Reading outside of age level is okay, but reading outside of the reading level is not okay.

Some might argue that kids need kids books because they can’t read at advanced levels. I disagree. Most adults only read at a grade 6-8 reading level. That’s 11, 12 or 13 year old reading level. Beach reading is basically grade four reading. Stephen King’s Carrie is classified as a 850L lexile level, which means someone with a grade four education should be able to read Carrie.

So where do we go from here? As a teacher, I think that helping my students develop a passion for reading is one of the most important parts of my job. I also think it’s important to see them as capable of achieving big things in their lives.

I would like to experiment with doing novel studies of adult books, and to have adult books on offer in the classroom library, along with kids books.

I believe that kids need to be engaged, first of all. If reading kids books is engaging them, great. If not, then why not sit them down with a Stephen King novel?

The argument against 

I would be negligent if I didn’t at least attempt to address the question I just posed above. Why not sit children down with a Stephen King novel? 

Well, first of all, one of the things I’ve learned in my Bachelor of Education program at UBC is that many children have the intellectual capacity and reading skills to read books well above their age range, but they do not have the emotional intelligence to process some aspects of the human experience they may be exposed to in their reading. 

Trauma from reading is a real thing. Students who read about the atrocities of the Holocaust or the detailed plight of the world’s animals due to climate change can truly be traumatized. 

Especially children with exceptionalities, such as mental health conditions or who are ‘gifted’ can be particularly at risk of trauma from reading. I’ve written an essay about the challenges that gifted children face in this regard

It is a well-known fact that Greta Thunberg, the climate change activist that took the world by storm in 2018-2019 was deeply traumatized by a video her teacher showed her about polar bears starving in the arctic. So much so that she refused to eat and became so thin and malnourished that she was hospitalized. The only thing that helped her out of her depression was taking personal action against climate change. 

Although Greta’s story is ultimately a happy ending, we must think about all of the children who do not have a happy ending. Who develop obsessive thoughts that are triggered by the media they consume. 

What I am trying to say here is that we should not be giving children license, willy-nilly, to read whatever they put their mitts on. I would argue that they will do so secretly, regardless of what their parents/guardians/teachers wish, if they truly want to read something. However, we must of course protect them from harm wherever possible. 

In loco parentis

As a teacher, I am bound by the oath of ‘in loco parentis,’ which means that when I teach, I am acting ‘in place of the parent’ and as such, I must not expose my students to anything that could be harmful. In fact, I must go above and beyond to protect my students from harm, beyond what a typical parent might do. 

For that reason, while I will certainly provide students with adult reading material in my classroom, I will ensure that that material is suitable emotionally, and that it does not contain potentially traumatizing content. 

As one of my favourite instructors has said in the past, as teachers we are “In the business of hope.” My role is not to expose students to the harsh realities of this world, but to expose them to their power as agents of change and forces of good in this world. 


2 Responses

  1. Zaida says:

    I started reading books for adults, or literally all I saw and was interesting for me, when I was around 4 and 5 years old. Till 9 I read a lot of books. Theater, phyllosophy, poetry, history. I have read Dante before that age, and Dostoyevsky and Tolstoi. Also Oscar Wilde or books more childfriendly like Andersen tales, a lot of Greek mythology, but too Cervantes and Quevedo. I remember going to the school with The client to read in the brake time. Recently (Im 41 right now) I have been thinking about that all that must be maybe very unusual. I have been looking information about kids reading books for adults, but I only have find this.

    I love books, and I really feel that a lot of writers are secondary parents. I have memories of streets, buildings, rivers and sceneries like real memories, but are from books.

    So I think but children should read what they want. They are in the world.

    But I would like to know more about kids reading adult books, because I only know another person that was reading from 3 years old like me.

    Sorry for my English, is not my language.

    • Shalon says:

      I too was reading books for adults at a young age (around 9). I think one of the biggest reasons they make children’s books so childish is because a lot of children don’t like to read and so publishers try to find ways to appeal to those children. I guess the reasoning is, if the book looks like a toy, children might treat it like a toy and play with it (read it). I think another possibility is that in today’s world everything needs to be politically correct and publishers believe that parents want their children to be protected from adult ideas. In my experience as a teacher, I always get permission from parents before I give any child a book that might have adult ideas, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised that most parents are on-board.

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