Every once in a while you hear: “It’s too early for the child to read that book!”
What exactly does this statement mean? Is it always about the child’s or teenager’s age? And could we be investing this simple phrase with different meanings, depending on the situation?
To find out, we spoke to experts on children’s and adolescent literacy.
Ekaterina Asonova, Education Ph.D., director of the Laboratory of Sociocultural Educational Practices at the Institute of Systemic Projects, Moscow City Pedagogical University, author and project director of “Children's Literature Discussion Group for Adults”
The first thing that comes to mind when I hear these words is “age discrimination.” That, of course, is more of an emotional response, though these feelings embody what, for me, is most important: the right of all people to be free, the right to free reading.
Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin is obviously not age-appropriate for a three-year-old. It would be stupid, however, to insist that it is a bad idea to read the book aloud to a child that enjoys listening to it. In this case, we should be concerned, not with age recommendations, but rather with the fact that books cannot, in principle, be addressed to everyone at once. No book is literally written for everyone. That’s because reading and the response to what has been read are highly individual, and that space allows a person to be themselves. Age isn’t the issue.
While I can wave away the issue of age ratings 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. on literary works, I won’t dodge the question of what to recommend to someone or other. In this case, I take into account the reader’s age, interests, and temperament to choose a book that will (or rather, may) meet his or her needs as a reader.
It’s important here not to be deceived by age. Obviously, a small child cannot put letters together to form words, so he needs a picture book. But even the ability to read can be deceiving. It could turn out that someone who, given their age, should be a reader, needs a book with pictures instead, or a book with text organized in a particular way. That is to say, age isn’t the issue at the end of the day—individual needs are.
Mikhail Pavlovets, Philology Ph.D., docent, Deputy Head of School of Philology at National Research University Higher School of Economics
“It’s too early to read that,” can mean different things.
Sometimes, the book is simply not accessible age-wise, in the sense that the child doesn’t have the life experience or reading experience necessary to enjoy the book even minimally on an aesthetic level…. This is not to say that he won’t read it—quite the contrary. He could enjoy taking on such a book, to gasps of awe or praise from his parents or teachers. Sadly, “status reading” is a phenomenon that is not limited to the adult world. Children are willing to go to great lengths to get the approval of their mom or dad, who will go around telling everyone that their child read [Nikolai Gogol’s] Dead Souls in first grade, and [Leo Tolstoy’s] War and Peace in fifth. Personally, I don’t see the point in this sort of reading. After all, the best censorship is the censorship of interest: if reading something is fundamentally uninteresting, it’s better to put aside the book and come back to it later. Reading in order to pass yourself off as someone you have yet to become is, I would argue, not right.
If, however, “too early to read that” is said when a child is wildly curious to read what is considered to be “not age-appropriate,” then, to be quite honest, I don’t know how monstrous the content of the book should be to not allow a child to read it, especially when her mind is set on it. If we want to protect a child from “dangerous” information...well, it’s been a while since books were its primary source. Moreover, it’s not the information that is the issue, so much as its presentation: it’s both possible and necessary to speak to children about the most taboo topics—pedophilia, suicide, and cruelty. The stupid little “18+” rating on books and the restriction on selling them to those younger than that age will only kindle curiosity—and provoke distrust toward the adults, if they in turn decide to discuss the banned content after the fact.
As for me, I can’t recall any books that came to me too early in childhood. This is simply because I started reading them (the parents’ entire bookshelf was at my disposal) and put aside those that I found to be boring, incomprehensible, or seemingly interesting but inaccessible. At the same time, I absolutely loved to read books about raising children in the same way, I imagine, that horses would gladly read, if they could, resources on equestrian vaulting. I’ll allow that this reading material may have had something to do with my choice of profession later on.
Olga Drobot, Translator, Scandinavian literature specialist, Philology Ph.D., board of directors of Masters of Literary Translation Guild
I first skimmed over the question and understood it differently—what book would you not let kids get a hold of? I gave it some thought and realized that I would be willing to give any of the books in my house to a child to read. I personally would not buy two types of books for a child. The first would be the children’s equivalent to adult popular fiction, because kitsch, bad Russian, and primitive reasoning ruin the mind as well as taste in literature and are generally bad for you. Of course if you’re faced with the question of reading that or not reading at all, there are some options. The second type of book is historical untruth, which essentially serves as propaganda for ideas that don’t coincide with my own (for example, stories about Grandpa Lenin).
Having re-read the question and cleared up that the discussion is about books it’s “too early for kids to read,” I realized I would answer pretty much the same way: I would avoid popular fiction for as long as possible. As for books on difficult moral or socio-political themes—adults should be up to that task: that is, you (or the teacher, or the grandmother) should be ready to talk with kids about these subjects. I remember how I suffered when my child was assigned to read Sergei Aksakov’s The Family Chronicle in fifth grade. I would not have chosen to discuss with a ten-year-old the complexities of the relationship with Kurolesova, one person’s dependence on another and on money—simply because the subject matter is, for him, entirely speculative and not at all related to his own life.
I say “children,” in this case, to mean people under twelve. After that they are independent readers, and then it’s up to us as adults to simply leave good books around the apartment, and recommend something if they ask. And of course, to try to engage them in a conversation, if you see the child is dealing with untrue or misleading propaganda.
Anna Rapoport, Philology Ph.D., local historian, educator, author of educational museum programs for children and adolescents
First, I have a disclaimer. The question of “age-appropriate,” in my opinion, is relevant in only two cases: when I read aloud to children or when I choose books for a school or preschool library. If the child is an independent reader, there are no age restrictions; once he picks up the book, he can decide for himself what it’s too early to read, what’s too late, and what’s just right.
When I am about to read aloud—whether it’s to my own children or to someone else’s, in school or in preschool, I first evaluate the lexical quality of, and the use of imagery in, the text. Of course, there could be words the child doesn’t know or understand, but they should be in the field of her proximate development. That’s why, for example, I believe that both [Nikolai] Nosov’s Dunno on the Moon and Winnie the Pooh are too advanced for five-year-olds. Otherwise reading can easily transform from an exciting adventure that you don’t want to interrupt into a foreign language class, where every other word needs a translation and explanation. The child develops a habit of not absorbing the meaning of the words she hears, since she can’t understand them anyway. Children quickly get distracted and stop listening, and the story they’re listening to becomes monotonous background noise.
The second indication that I use to determine whether it’s too early to offer a particular book to a child, is the depth and breadth of experience that a particular child has by certain age. If a preschooler doesn’t have the personal experience of attending class or interacting with teachers; if he is unfamiliar with the concepts of “class,” “team” “geography,” “cheat sheet”, “copying,” then why should he read [Viktor Dragunskiy’s] The Adventures of Dennis or Harry Potter? Why not wait a few years until all this becomes a part of his personal experience, at which point the book will have a better chance at eliciting a deeper emotional response?
I am often asked to put together reading lists for libraries at schools and preschools. Recently I was helping choose books for fourth-grade readers—the parents and teacher were trying to get the kids into reading and were setting up an open bookshelf in the classroom. One of the most important factors in my choice was the way the book looked. I was absolutely certain that even good readers in the class were not prepared for the Soviet edition of Jules Verne (one of the grandfathers wanted to bring it into class). The tiny, dense print, complete lack of illustrations, and yellowed pages made it clear to me that no one would pick up the book. Meanwhile, a modern edition of In Search of the Castaways, with glossy pages that are pleasant to the touch, basically lures children in: the boys started leafing through it immediately.
In putting together the class library, I took into account that the children are very different, and their families, too, are different. My list didn’t include Pythagorean Pants, the educational math and physics book series, even though my own son, a second-grader, literally devoured many of them. It was clear that the overwhelming majority of kids in the class would not be up for the series and would find the books uninteresting, hard to understand, boring.
Reading something at the right time means to have it resonate with the child’s inner world, his intellectual abilities, and personal and emotional experience, all while reinforcing the idea that reading is interesting and is something he needs, first and foremost, for himself. Getting all this right, in turn, determines how quickly the child will transition to independent reading, which will mean determining for himself what it’s too early to read, and what is just right.
Matvey Bernshtein, “Book expert of the XXI century” contest winner, 17 years old
Age restrictions in the book industry are, I find, rather arbitrary, since it’s very difficult to evaluate the “maturity” level for a text. It often ends up being synonymous with how complex, dramatic, and explicit it is in describing physiology.
Adults don’t take many children’s books seriously, since the books either avoid a sense of tragedy even when they speak about terrible things, leaving hope for a positive outcome, or just amuse kids with stories that lack a deeper meaning; the moral, if there is one, is usually very straightforward. Such books are popular with kids but aren’t so interesting to adults. Teenagers who are sixteen easily read books rated “18+” and the laws that try to regulate this field often make things difficult for both the producer and the consumer. The classification is often rather individual and it’s hard to draw a clear dividing line by age. Bookstores have separate sections for children’s, young adult, and adult literature, but at home parents usually rely on other criteria and remove “forbidden” books from the shelf for a time.
When a child is told, “It’s too early for you to read that book,” it usually refers not to the age rating on the cover but to the book itself—it likely describes things that adults think are hard for kids to process, since they don’t have much experience. The book tells the reader about a “taboo” topic, associated exclusively with the adult world.
One traditionally adult topic is romantic relationships. Books describing deep or serious feelings are not recommended for children, who can’t relate to the main character, since they haven’t had similar experiences and don’t know much about them. At the same time, it’s usually these books that guide the child as he grows and help him understand through literature something that he may encounter in life. Historical works or books about suffering or trauma are considered to be too heavy for children because of the widespread stereotype about the supposed emotional underdevelopment of children (“he/she is still a child, he/she won’t understand this”). This is despite the fact that children often feel as deeply as adults, and read the books on their own level anyway. They are aware that they miss out on certain meanings and re-read the book later, once they have more experience and knowledge. But that doesn’t always happen.
There was one book that I definitely encountered too soon. When I was ten or eleven, I started reading A.Y. Brushtein’s trilogy The Road Leads off into the Distance… The events of the books take place 1894-1901 in the western part of the Russian Empire and are partly concerned with the underground opposition groups of the time. on my father’s recommendation and, of course, the historical context of the book eluded me. I still read the novel with great interest, though I did miss many important points. But then I never got back to the book later, which does not speak favorably of early reading. Each person establishes the boundaries of their literary world—a world where the person, as a reader, is comfortable and interested.
Just like children don’t always understand books written by adults who live in other circumstances, so adults aren’t always able to understand things that don’t have a direct connection to their adult lives.
Translated from the Russian by Alisa Cherkasova
Read how Papmambook’s teen writers responded to age restrictions and recommendations in “It’s too early for you to read that book!”
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