"It’s too early for kids to read that book." What do we mean when we say this? Earlier, we got the opinions of experts on children’s literacy (you can find them in “It’s too early for the child to read that book!”). But what do teenagers think? It turns out their opinions are a lot more varied than those of our adult experts
Varvara Petrova, 13, “Reader with a Capital ‘R’” award
It’s much more common to hear it’s too early for me to read a particular book from age-restriction labels In 2012, Russia adopted amendments to its law “On Protecting Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development,” requiring publishers to mark books with the following age ratings: 0+, 6+, 12+, 16+, 18+. This rating system is similar to the MPAA film rating system in the United States (PG, PG-13, R)—it indicates that the book has content that may not be suitable for children under a certain age. Most of the restrictions concern descriptions of sexuality, violence, smoking, and the like. A bookstore cannot legally sell a child a book if he or she is younger than the age on the rating; similarly libraries will not allow him or her to check the book out. than actual people. My mom, who gives me free rein and believes “you can read anything, as long as you’re interested in it,” said this phrase (with slightly different wording) maybe just two times—ever. And, knowing the kind of books and movies she allows me to read and watch, I understood that it was a serious warning on her part. I doubt it was bad language, drugs, sex, or gay relationships, but likely something “more grown-up.” Something that I won’t be able to make sense of with my years of experience, or that could traumatize an “impressionable young soul.” Something like scenes of cruel psychological or physical violence, for example.
I have also heard the phrase from representatives of publishing houses at book fairs, but the issue was resolved with a simple, “Oh, but I already read Marie-Aude Murail’s Oh Boy! See, I didn’t die of shock. So I think I can manage Witch Child.”
I just said that I am often warned by the ratings on books, but it would be more accurate to say, I have seen them out there. I pay less and less attention to them because, for me, they just don’t apply. I’ve read many books rated “16+” or even “18+,” which, in terms of their content, didn’t correspond to their labels. Sometimes you see the opposite situation: just imagine—I saw a book, a series, actually, which was marked with an age that I thought was too low. It was George’s Secret Key to the Universe and its sequels by Lucy and Stephen Hawking. Maybe it wasn’t the age rating, but a list of popular books, but I remember the book was meant for kids ages 7-8. I don’t know. At twelve, it took me, personally, twenty minutes to figure out how the Turing machine worked in the last part [of the series].
Actually, it would be ideal (though probably unrealistic) if the people who set age brackets for books stated their reasons under the rating. Of course, there are books where you can see the justification right away—books like The Wave by Todd Strasser. The cover design, the blurb on the back, and the very first sentences all make it immediately clear that this book is not for elementary schoolers and the “12+” makes sense. But if the reasons for restrictions were explained, you could figure out if there was something in the book that you personally should watch out for. This way, the age ratings would be more objective, since the final decision, whether to read the book, would be yours, not the rater’s. On the other hand, they would be more subjective, too, since the potential reader would find everything depended on a specific rater.
When I hear the words, “It’s too early for you to read that book!,” I always expect an explanation and some specificity. If I don’t get it, I’m ready to draw my own conclusions, book in hand. It’s like something from Alice in Wonderland: “How do I know if I can read this book? I’ll read it, then I’ll find out.”
Polina Andreeva, 13, “Book Expert of the XXI Century” contest winner
There was one book I really wanted to read as a child. It was a big, fat book with an intriguing title and a tempting blurb on the back. When I asked my parents: “Can I?,” they said exactly the following: “It’s too early for you to read this book.” It was The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan. I waited patiently and reiterated my “Can I?” on occasion. And finally, sometime last year after yet another query, I heard my long-awaited answer. From the very start of the book, I realized I was right to follow their advice. It’s a book you have to grow toward. It’s like trying a green berry without waiting for it to ripen. The way I see it, the point of the phrase “It’s too early for you to read that book” is not in strictly forbidding it—it just may be that you aren’t ready for it. It could leave a bad impression on you, but in a few years it would be a real page-turner and you wouldn’t be able to tear yourself away. There have been times when I read the blurb and set aside the book for later. Generally, though, especially with literary classics, my parents’ advice helps me decide.
Yes, it can be hard to wait, though sometimes you find an alternative. For example, last year I wasn’t allowed to read The Master and Margarita yet, but my parents did suggest I try another of [Mikhail] Bulgakov’s works, A Young Doctor’s Notebook (I enjoyed both books.) Of course, there are many books open to us, and a curious reader always wants to peek into the one that’s closed. We can only wait. Or find an alternative…
Anna Klykova, 13, “Reader with a capital ‘R’” award
I have never heard anything like “it’s too early for you.” It simply hasn’t occurred either to my parents or my teachers. They’re rational people. They read a lot themselves. If someone suddenly told me that some book was not appropriate for my age, I would be really surprised. It’s more likely they would recommend something, help me figure something out if I ask for help. But forbid anything? No, that’s never happened.
Do I look at the age ratings on books? To be honest, I don’t. This once caused an unpleasant scene at a bookstore. I chose a book and they refused to sell it to me since it said “16+” or “18+” (I don’t remember exactly now). I was indignant. They asked me to present my passport. I don’t have a passport yet. The cashier said, “We don’t have the right to sell you this book.” It was really hurtful. Luckily, Mom was there and they sold her the book no problem. They took her at her word when she said she was over 18. So I left the store, book in hand.
Why don’t I pay attention to the age ratings? Simply because that’s not how I choose books for myself. The author, publisher, genre, the quality of the edition—that’s what I pay attention to. Even the blurb doesn’t always influence my choice. For example, Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Ricky Brunt has a really unfortunate blurb in my opinion, though the book is great. Yes, since we’re on the subject of age restrictions, I’ll be upfront—it’s “16+.”
Do I sometimes decide for myself that it’s not yet time to read a particular book? Yes, it happens. For me to decide that, I have to start reading it first. If the book hasn’t hooked me, is about a topic I don’t relate to, or is written in difficult language, I might set it aside. But I’ll set it aside myself, without pressure from someone else.
I’ve come up against people who don’t know me well and are surprised when they find out I’ve read some book or another. That is to say, adults definitely have these impressions about what children usually read at my age. Quite often, these impressions are very strange or far from reality. I think they base them on their own memories of what they used to read when they were teenagers. Maybe they go off of what they think is interesting or necessary for us and what we must be sheltered from. You know, I’ve never heard adults complain about books in the school reading list. Though, if we had age restrictions on classics, then [Aleksandr] Pushkin’s poem "Winter Evening" would definitely be “18+”:
Let’s drink, kind friend,
Of my poor youth,
Let’s drink from grief; now, where's my cup?
The heart will be the merrier.
And no condemnation of drinking or description of the dangers of alcohol consumption!
Anna Semerikova, 11, “Book Expert of the XXI Century” contest winner
Mom often tells me that I read books that are too advanced for my age. At the moment, it’s Jane Eyre. Mom thinks it’s an adult novel for young women but I really like it. Besides, the story begins with the heroine’s childhood and adolescence, so it’s not an adult book at all, but quite clearly for teenagers. People’s thoughts and feelings, how they grow up and become adults—teens find all this very interesting and enjoy reading about it. Maybe Mom thinks it’s not good for me to read all this so early and that there could be things that frighten me, for example.
When they tell me “it’s too early for you to read this,” I still check for myself if it’s too early or not. I’ll read a few pages and then decide. If I like the book, it doesn’t matter at all what age it’s intended for. That’s how it was in the third grade, with [Aleksandr Pushkin’s] Eugene Onegin, and with [Jack London’s] The Little Lady of the Big House this year. On the other hand, I Can Jump Puddles by Alan Marshall was not right for me at all, even though it was labeled “12+” and I’ll be twelve soon. The book is too boyish. My brother likes it, but I don’t. So I think in choosing a book, it’s not age that’s important but the match between the author, the main character, and the reader, such as in their thoughts and actions. A book becomes a sort of extension of your life, and that’s why it’s interesting.
On occasion I read books that are not “age appropriate,” but in the opposite way, like my younger brothers’ books. Not just when I read aloud to them but even just for myself. Sometimes it’s so nice to re-read Krivulya [by Frid Ingulstad, original title Det spøker på nissegården] which I got as a present when I was four, or the stories about Findus and Petson [by Sven Nordqvist], or about Mom, Dad, the eight children, and the truck [by Anne-Cath Vestly]. They’re all so warm, familiar, and cozy, and you can just relax from all the stress of the grown-up world.
Bogdan Ivanov, 15, “Book Expert of the XXI Century” contest winner
I’ve never heard the phrase “It’s too early for you to read this book” from anyone, ever, because I’ve never asked. Why should I? If I wanted to read something, I’d just find it and read it, without worrying if it was too early, too late, or just right.
In my opinion, you can only figure out if it’s the right time to read a book by opening it and starting to read. If you’re reading a book and you like it, that means it’s just the time to read it. And if you don’t, it’s not, and you should try again later. Maybe, after some time, you’ll get a different impression. Actually, the issue isn’t the time, but the circumstances. Your interests, thoughts, mood—all these things influence your impressions of the book. It’s changes in these factors that are tied to changes in your relationship to particular works. These changes can be short- or long-term.
It could be that it’s too early to read a particular book today; you’re just not in the right mood for it. But the next day, your thoughts and your mood could both be completely different—and the book becomes different too. And then reading it is no longer “too early” or “too late.” It’s just right.
Polina Zelenova, 16, “Book Expert of the XXI Century” contest winner
Mom used to tell me that when she was pregnant with me (oh, horror, this from a “child,” who’s not even 18 yet!), my father recited Eugene Onegin to me from memory. When I was born, I had trouble falling asleep and my family didn’t know what to do. My grandma’s solution was to read me [Sergei] Yesenin’s “Anna Snegina,” [Nikolai] Gumilev’s exquisite “Giraffe,” “Wild Honey,” and other wonderful poems. Hearing them, I would quickly fall into a deep, calm sleep. I don’t think today's age restrictions would impress my family much, but if certain agencies knew that my lullabies were Yesenin’s “The Black Man” and [Joseph] Brodsky’s “Don’t Leave the Room,” among many others, I suppose my parents could expect a visit from Child Protective Services.
Even so, my later upbringing fit the norm. I read all the usual children’s books at the age you’re supposed to: Agnia Barto and Korney Chukovsky, Sergei Mikhalkov and Sasha Cherny, and so on down the list of books recommended by literature teachers. Although there were some exceptions—as soon as I learned to read, I grabbed Mom’s books, her classics and contemporary literature.
What did all these books give me, whether I read them or they were read to me? They taught me how to value literature, choose good literature, and read not just the lines, but between the lines… And now, when I ask myself if I read certain books too early, I am absolutely positive they all came to me at the exact right time. My mom always answers any questions about whether I should be reading this book or that at my age by saying “It’s better for her to find out about everything from good books, than in some back alley. And if she doesn’t understand something, I’ll help. That’s what parents are for.” I just don’t get what all these outside people, experts, age limits, and other restrictions have to do with anything. If your parents cultivate a love of good literature, you won’t want to read bad literature yourself.
Daniel Bronsky, 14, “Book Expert XXI Century” contest winner
The way I see it, these days it’s hard to protect children from information that’s bad for them in general. Even if you completely ban books containing such information, they’ll still see it on TV, on the non-age-restricted news: a schoolchild getting run over by a car, or terrorists cutting off heads, or the police raiding a brothel. Turn off the TV and the kids will find all the same things online. Turn off the Internet and classmates will enlighten them. And so much the better. It’s not like you should sit in a bubble until you’re eighteen, thinking everything is fine and happy. I think by their teenage years most kids already have some notion about the darker side of life. They have the right to make independent decisions about what they can read and what they can put off for a bit, and no one has any right to limit that. Very young children, of course, read what their parents give them, and that is perfectly normal. But not letting a teenager read something is not worth it, in my opinion. It’s enough to advise and caution.
The meaning of the words “It’s too early for you to read that book” can vary. For example, when I was little I would say (usually jokingly) that I want to read [Leo Tolstoy’s] War and Peace or [Dante Alighieri’s] The Divine Comedy and my mom would always get very serious and say that those books were too grown-up. Evidently she meant that I won’t be able to appreciate all the depth of these works and maybe she was even right. Once, when my eleven-year-old brother mentioned he wanted to read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, I pointed out that he probably doesn’t fully understand the content of the books and what age they are intended for. I said that because I know the series features many cruel killings and sexually explicit scenes, and has a general gloomy feel, as well as an abundance of complicated and tangled plotlines. It’s not at all like the teenage fantasy novels my brother loves so much. Still, I didn’t even think about telling him not to read it—I just gave him a heads-up. I have no problem hearing out advice like that myself, as long as it’s substantiated.
Age ratings are a great way to orient potential readers, letting them know at first glance what they can expect from the book. If it’s marked “16+” or below, you can read it without reservations. An “18+” won’t scare me away from reading a book but will force me to stop and think. A higher age rating is not for nothing and it could be that this book has something I don’t really like—blood and guts, for example—so I should find out a little bit more before I take it on. Basically, it’s a convenient system. It’s a shame, to be honest, that these labels are actually “restrictions,” rather than recommendations. The conditions of sorting a book into one age group or another are sometimes far from reasonable. Jackal, a board game about pirates, comes to mind: it got a “16+” rating because the game board had an illustration of…a barrel of rum.
Maria Mikheeva, 11, “Book Expert of the XXI Century” contest winner
I have yet to hear anyone tell me that “it’s too early to read that book.” But personally I believe that every book should be read in its own time. There’s even an expression that says: “for everything there is a season.” If you read a book you’ve grown out of, it won’t be interesting. If the book is meant for older children, it might have an overall theme that is hard for me to understand without more life experience. I usually sort of “try books on for size,” and obviously it’s not so easy to try on, as an 11-year-old girl, the experiences of a 17-year-old young lady. So when you read the book, it’s more like gathering information—you tell yourself: “A-ha, so these sort of things happen.”
I imagine, for some children, hearing the words “it’s too early for you” only encourages them and they will still try to read it, thinking adults want to hide something from them. If I heard those words from an adult, I would understand. I know that those who might say them to me wish me well and I would listen close to their advice. After all, these words are not an outright restriction and I can still read the book if I want.
All new books are marked with their age designation and of course I automatically notice it, if only out of interest. Sometimes, having read a book, I don’t agree with its rating. At home I have plenty of books published in Soviet times and they don’t have any ratings, but then those kinds of books don’t need them. You can safely pick up any book and read it. It will be interesting and easy to understand.
Have I ever decided for myself that it’s too early to read a particular book? Yes, I have. For example, recently I read Marina Aromshtam’s Marina Aromshtam is the editor-in-chief of Papmambook. When Angels Rest and though it’s rated “12+”, I thought it would have been better to read the book later. Why? I don’t know...I read it quickly, the book is interesting, and it’s an easy read. I’m afraid I didn’t completely get its underlying meaning. Now I feel a sort of regret—if I had gotten the book later, it would be more clear to me. After all, there are so many interesting books for each age group that you have to get around to reading, so what’s the rush?
Evgeny Zherbin, 14, “Book Expert of the XXI Century” contest winner
Yes, it’s quite often that I’m told that it’s too early for me to read some book. Usually, it’s because the book contains “unthinkable cruelty and violence” in its descriptions of battle scenes. (As we all know, you can’t describe battle scenes, because they’re certain to turn kids into crazy serial killers.) It might have “pornography” in its superficial mention of a bedroom scene—which will, obviously, instantly turn the child into a pervert—and finally “strong language,” meaning several phrases uttered by one of the characters. Phrases you would, of course, never hear on the street or anywhere else.
I always notice the age restriction on books. Moreover, in choosing a book, that is my primary criteria, not the author, plot, or reader reviews. It’s the age rating that determines whether a book is worth reading or not. Yep, the rating, not the quality of the book. After all, if you read a bad book, the worst that could happen is that you won’t like it, but if you happen to open some reading material that has a number higher than your age on its cover, the psychological trauma that you will undoubtedly suffer as a result will torture you the rest of your life, and no therapist will be able to help you. I’m so glad I managed to read Someone to Run With by David Grossman before it was rated “18+”. Otherwise the drug propaganda in this book would have pulled me inexorably to the dark side. I’d like to thank the librarians that secretly let me check out Neal Schusterman’s Unwind with its “16+” on my mom’s account, though I am now seriously concerned for my mental health because the description of an organ-harvesting operation on a living person almost certainly damaged me psychically.
Sarcasm aside, I think age restrictions are a controversial idea. Keeping teenagers from good books because those books have all the same things the teenagers will find out anyway, whether from classmates or online, is quite stupid.
Maria Dorofeeva, 15, “Book Expert of the XXI Century” contest winner
I guess I got lucky—my parents never told me “it’s too early for you to read that.” Maybe it was because, when I was younger, my reading options were restricted to the home library and the ebooks that my dad would download for me, so I was surrounded only by books my parents considered “age-appropriate.” When I was about 12, I started reading books that were popular with teenagers. My parents didn’t like almost any of them, but more from a quality standpoint (it was mostly popular fiction), than from out of concern for age restrictions. My dad waited patiently for me to understand why he doesn’t like them. And I finally got it.
Now, as in childhood, I read what I want, I choose books myself. When I choose a book, I don’t pay attention to the age restrictions, though some recently published books post them right on the cover instead of inside the book, and so they inevitably catch your eye. The old books from my parents’ library also had age recommendations, but they were very different: “for elementary school-aged children,” “for high school-aged children.” I think that format was more of a suggestion, than a restriction. If you ended up with an unfamiliar book on your hands, that note was a good starting point.
While pondering this question, I noticed that all the board games on my shelf also have age ratings, like “10-99” or “12+.” For board games, those labels signify the level of difficulty. If the box says “14+,” then the game is quite complicated and not suitable for someone without much game-playing experience. In the case of books, on the other hand, the marker is an actual limitation: you can only read it when you turn 14.
Two years ago, I read books by John Green marked “16+.” I’m fifteen now. I’ve read many books of the “Not for children” series from Samokat Publishing House, as well as Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution. Those books are marked “16+” and “18+,” which I noticed on their covers. That never influenced my choice, since last year I also enjoyed reading Moni Nilsson’s books about Tsatsiki (“6+”) and How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell (“6+”).
I don’t think I’ve ever thought: oh, I can’t read this book because it depicts adult life. Actually, there’s something of an inner tuning fork, which allows you to sense how books written for adults sound false to children. That is to say, I didn’t take on certain “adult” books because I felt they were about something quite different from my life. Or I’d pick up a book, start reading it, and leave it after a few pages, because the characters’ feelings were too distant from my own, or the setting was foreign somehow.
It’s an interesting topic for discussion. Could we say the age ratings are rather arbitrary, since there are books initially written for adults that are now considered children’s literature? Is it enough for the protagonist to be a child for the book to be considered a children’s book? Or vice versa: can it be a children’s book if all the main characters are adults? Is the age of the protagonist a guide for determining the age of potential readers—that is to say, should the main characters’ age match the age of the readers—or should we take reading experience into account, and value that over age? Why is all classic literature marked “6+” and do we really have enough experience as readers to study Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace in tenth grade?
Alexandra Dvoretskaya, 14, “Book Expert of the XXI Century” contest winner
We all get reminded of our age at some point. Some are told they’re too young, citing an age restriction. Others are told, “Well, you’re old!” Basically, we all face different limitations. What I’m most curious to know is, what it is that books marked “18+” have that’s so bad? I can’t say I haven’t read them. But, sad to say, after studying them thoroughly, I can’t say I’ve learned anything particularly new.
A love story is a part of most books, regardless of the age restriction. If the main characters smitten with a great and pure love are seven, their feelings toward each other are expressed in walking together, holding hands. Now, if the protagonists are of age—well, let’s not judge. And, no, I don’t mean 50 Shades of Gray, I haven’t read it. Most books marked “18+” describe the bedroom scenes with quite a bit of distance. Even though reproduction is just a natural human process.
“Blood and guts” are perfectly familiar to any child. And why is it that in biology class, reading about the human body, including the paragraph about reproduction, is allowed? In eighth grade students are 13-14, but the information is considered “16+”! What are you going to surprise us with, dismemberment? As thought we hadn’t heard of how the human body was studied in the past! We covered that in history, where we learned some even wilder things.
Drugs and alcohol. Any Health and Safety teacher’s beloved subject. We write essays and make presentations on this topic. So...you can study it in-depth in school, but you can’t read about it independently? Where’s the logic? It’s a bit odd.
Profanity. In our world, sadly, too many people use strong language. I’m opposed to swearing. But to set the scene in a fictional work, I think we could allow simple cursing and “inappropriate” gestures.
I don’t pay any particular attention to age restrictions. If I like a book, I’ll read it. Not all topics will excite an enthusiastic response. For example, I only got through The Perks of Being a Wallflower [by Stephen Chbosky] on the second try. And all it has is psychology and descriptions of things that are quite common in this world. It’s like a reference hammering in examples of things you shouldn’t do. If kids don’t read books like that, don’t feel the horror of drugs or of alcohol addiction, I’m afraid it might not end well for them. Not a single monotonous lesson in a stuffy Health and Safety classroom will explain those issues like a good book. I honestly believe that it’s better to learn from a fictional character’s mistakes than make them yourself.
Each person decides for him or herself whether or not to read a book with a higher age restriction. But those who set the ratings would do well to remember that the forbidden fruit is always sweet.
Translated from the Russian by Alisa Cherkasova
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