6th Jun 2012
Gina Goes Pop: Books Read Too Young
Anyone who grew up with a big passion for reading will have, at some point, come across a novel that was just too adult for them. Disregarding parental censoring (parents can hide whatever they want, kids are curious and they’re going to find stuff) should we consider this a bad thing?
I remember the first time I found Jane Eyre; it’s my mum’s favourite book which she talked about at length, so when I found a copy I was very eager to read it so I could join in conversations. The exact same applied to my dad’s favourite book Dracula so I naturally hunted that down at the same time.
My problem with Jane Eyre was that I didn’t understand what was going on and so dismissed it very quickly (I’ve gone on to read and love it). Dracula I understood a little better but as a bit of a wimp (which I still am) the front cover scared me and left me with a few sleepless nights.
Some children will have had very different experiences from me though. Even adult books that are classed as ‘easy reading’ for grown ups deal with heavy issues and adult themes that as an older reader you consider the norm, but that may be very confusing, challenging or even disturbing for a child.
Take, for example, sexuality. Scenes of a sexual nature, emotions surrounding sex, the portrayal of what is and is not attractive can help to make a novel funny, moving or horrific in equal measures. Think about Bridget Jones’ Diary. As mature readers we all know that Bridget is being ridiculous when she calls herself fat at nine stone, but a young girl may not pick up on this, thus giving her a twisted view of what is normal and healthy – as if the media doesn’t twist this enough already.
Much ‘chick-lit’ literature explores all elements of sexuality, from one night stands to sex in a committed relationship and everything in between. I remember reading a book, I think it may have been Ralph’s Party but I may be wrong, when the central female character has sex with someone she doesn’t actually like in order to get what she wants.
‘Chick-lit’ takes situations like this and presents them with humour to amuse the reader – an adult reader who can separate fact from fiction – but a young girl with little knowledge of sexual experience could read this and believe that to get anywhere in life she must use her body. Or maybe not…
Some kids are incredibly impressionable – most kids in fact – but is that a reason to stop them reading books meant for an audience ten years their senior? My parents were always happy for me to read whatever books I wanted to read, whether they be YA or classic.
I attribute an advanced reading age when I was in high school to the fact that I had read books that weren’t pandering to a younger audience, that used a broad range of our beautiful language, and that tackled serious issues that children’s book probably didn’t talk about so vividly.
I personally believe that a teenager is much better reading a book that deals with relationships, heartache and sex in a realistic and preferably humorous way than some of the most popular YA fiction does.
YA fiction has a tendency to amp up the romance and play down the nitty gritty leading girls into unrealistic expectation from the spotty, sweaty fumblings they’re much more likely to experience. There’s gonna be heartache and break ups and stomach churning awkwardness, and the sooner they learn that, the better.
YA novels, especially romance novels, take themselves very seriously. Teenagers take themselves very seriously – in their eyes, every day is just like an episode of Skins, when actually it’s much more like The Inbetweeners. Let them read an adult novel and see what the real world’s actually like outside of form rooms and playground bitching.
Of course there are some YA books that bridge the gap. The ever controversial Forever by Judy Blume depicts gritty realism aimed at teenagers which has lead to the novel being an ever lasting success. Parents and the sensitive may deem this style of writing unacceptable and shocking, but others will agree that it is better to have realistic expectations rather than the flowers and birdsong of other novels.
I am firmly in the belief that once a child is old enough to say ‘I want to read this no matter what’, they can read what they please. I may feel differently if I ever have kids, but I know reading adult novels as a young girl never did me (much) harm.
I wanted to know what other people thought, so who better to ask then our lovely Eds. Here’s what Jane has to say:
“I’ve already mentioned how I spent far too many teenage hours dirty dreaming about Zillah from Poppy Z. Brite‘s Lost Souls, which I read at secondary school. But long before I started obsessing over nymphomaniacal vampires with painted nails and pierced nipples, I read several raunchy Mills & Boon titles.
Although in retrospect they were probably totally tame, at the time I remember being shocked by how graphic some of the scenes were, and also at the realisation of how much sex sells; there were shelves and shelves of the series in my local library, and their almost universal popularity amongst seemingly asexual little old ladies meant I had to rethink previous preconceptions around women’s sexuality and its place in society.
The Mills & Boons books inadvertently introduced me to the idea of sex and sexuality being an unspoken secret among women; the books were bought and read by such a wide audience (they were even on sale in the post office), but no-one talked about them.
Soon afterwards, I got my grubby mitts on a copy of Nancy Friday‘s cult classic, Women on Top, which was a complete awakening in terms of women being frank and upfront about their sexual fantasies. It was an education to say the least, but a safe, celebratory and sex-positive one – which I’m very thankful for!”
And here’s Alex’s experiences with adult books read as a kid:
“I was 13 when I read J G Ballard’s Crash. At the time, I was at a strange ‘in-between’ period with books; I was no longer interested in re-reading the piles of Point Horror that I’d accumulated, wasn’t excited by the language or landscapes of Austen or the Brontes and had exhausted the local library’s non-fiction as far as my interests were concerned (witchcraft and dinosaurs, happy bedfellows for a slightly gothic tomboy!).
I had also found another love, an obsession which would be the only challenger to the throne so comfortably occupied by books since I was a child: cinema. Through hours of dedication, I cultivated a thoroughly undiscerning approach to films and fell in love with a number of actors, one of whom was James Spader. And so it was, through the pages of Empire, that I found out about a new film based on Ballard’s controversial novel.
I went to pick up a copy of the book after school, fascinated by the amount of hysteria surrounding the film. I read it and must admit (having read it again in my 20s), I didn’t really ‘get it’.
But I wasn’t shocked so much as interested in how the graphic scenes played out through language, how Ballard had created this dark underworld of characters and could somehow make the book feel like cold metal, vibrating with the thrum of traffic in my hands, just through his use of words. It really opened my eyes to contemporary novels and the way the darker side of society could be explored in adult fiction.
In hindsight, I’m not sure whether I think it’s a good thing or not that the person behind the counter never questioned why a school girl would want to buy a book known mainly for sex and car crash combos… However, I’m pleased to report that I wasn’t damaged by the book; I didn’t turn into a deviant (quiet at the back!), became much more confident in picking out books from the ‘grown up’ bit of the library and became a firm fan of Ballard’s writing.”
What do you think? Did you ever read a book too young? Was it a good or a bad thing? Let us known in the comments below!