Children Know Which Books They're Old Enough For by Ann Giles

June 26, 2008 11:00 AM

There are lots of conflicting opinions about what children should and shouldn't read. In my experience, the kids themselves are the best judges
Adults are in the dark, not the children ... Photograph: Christopher ThomondWhen is a good time to introduce brothels in a children's book? Never would be too soon for many concerned British adults; whereas coming from "the country of sin", I think it's OK to mention it if it fits the plot. This may surprise Celia Rees, whom I seem to have inadvertently offended while discussing her new book Sovay, about a 17-year-old female highwayman in the 1790s.

As I love Celia Rees's books, the last thing I want to do is make her angry. I just questioned the likelihood of Sovay fetching up in a brothel - for the best of reasons - and understanding what sort of place it was, especially as the young girls there turned out to be boys. But, being pre-Victorian maybe this is what would have happened. Rees reckons that her teen readers will already know about brothels from older siblings or friends, though I always find it tricky to guess what someone is likely to be aware of, and it's easy to get it wrong.

Some people seem to be under the impression that Sovay is a 12+ book, whereas I haven't been able to establish who it's aimed at, except I feel it will suit any adventure loving reader from 10 and up. Unfortunately, many parents will react the wrong way when their child asks what a brothel is, and this is presumably what age-banding is supposed to deal with.

Who can be trusted to get the guidelines right? Not the publishers, I'd say. I recently put a book described by the publishers as 12 upwards into the hands of a group of 13 and 14-year-olds, and they all felt the book was too old for them. With hindsight, I agree.

The authors? Not necessarily. Eoin Colfer firmly believes the Artemis Fowl books lose their appeal once you're past 13 or 14, and it just isn't true. Some books have so much to offer, that even though they are "safe" from an early age, they have more adult layers, too. The censorship I have encountered on behalf of my children has mostly come from librarians; that group of people I thought were there to encourage reading. The borough librarian who told me that I couldn't supply my child with books by Terry Pratchett obviously had her own agenda, whatever it may have been.

School librarians live in fear of complaining parents, which is understandable, but I wish they'd stand up for books anyway. As a volunteer in the school library I attempted to rescue Michelle Magorian's lovely book A Spoonful of Jam from the young adult shelves, where it didn't belong. But it seems that as it contains child abuse, that's where it has to stay, even though it looks too young to appeal to older readers and the younger ones aren't allowed.

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff suffered similarly, presumably because reading about underage cousins having sex would immediately have set the reader off on the same path. Cat's Paw by Nick Green mentions abortion, and Costa-winning Set in Stone by Linda Newbery has incest and child abuse at the centre of its plot. Doing It by Melvin Burgess continues to gather dust in the office. Violence seems to be much more acceptable, and I've read many knife books recently. Knives probably kill more people than sex does, but I'd guess that being immoral is worse than being dead.

I'm aware here that I'm advocating making most books available to most readers and in doing so I'm being just as narrowminded as all other experts. My group of lower teen readers are surprisingly careful in their reading, and will very likely decide that a book about 16 or 17-year-olds is far too advanced for them. Even the ones who seem quite forward and daring often judge the average teen book as suitable for someone "old". And then you're surprised by the odd one who prefers adult books. So how can we "adult experts" possibly know?