or, How Young is too Young?
When I was twelve-years-old, my mom went with me to the library to fill out a ream of papers that meant a black dot—a small black sticker—would be placed on my library card. You would have thought my mother was taking me to get a tattoo.
"Now, you're sure you want to do this?" the librarian asked my mother, Rella, for about the fourth time.
"Yes," said my mother politely, despite having said "yes" three times already.
"It means she can check out anything," the librarian repeated, eyeing me speculatively. "Absolutely anything."
"Yes," my mother said, clearly losing patience.
"I mean, she can check out things with, you know . . ." and here the woman whispered, "S-E-X."
To this day I don't know why that librarian spelled out the word sex, considering her issue was with my reading adult material. Presumably, I was past three letter words by that point.
My mom replied with what had become her stock response. With a daughter who was a precocious reader, she was constantly stuck defending her decision to let me have at it, rather than censor my reading.
"If she can understand what's going on, she's old enough to be confronted with the issues," my mother told that librarian, her voice admittedly rather weary. And just as always happened, the librarian looked at my mother like she just might be smoking the rock. My mother ignored her. As a special education teacher, Rella's a champion at picking her battles.
That a librarian, of all people, would begrudge a child reading didn't surprise my mom, at that point. She was past surprise at other people's reactions to a child reading adult books. After all, my mother had been so proud of my ability to read well at such a young age that she'd gone out of her way to challenge me—buying me books like A Wrinkle in Time and A Swiftly Tilting Planet when I was in first grade. The trouble hit when I was in third grade, and reading things like Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear. My teacher nearly had a heart attack when it was the subject of my book report.
"The book you chose. It's very . . . adult," she said, holding my freshly submitted report by the corner like one would a soiled napkin.
I blinked up at her, confused. Wasn't I supposed to be reading stuff that I found difficult?
"You can't really understand it," she told me. "In fact, I think I need to call your mother…"
And she did call my mother. And we had another meeting, at which my mom asked me questions about the book, and then the teacher did. I babbled on about how Ayla was very brave, trying to be herself amongst people who didn't understand her and weren't like her. I talked about how it was very sad that she was a victim of prejudice by the same people who were dying out, because they were victims of prejudice.
Then my teacher brought up "the sex."
I remember turning a bright shade of tomato red, and I did what I usually did in those days when confronted with a subject I didn't want to discuss. I lied like a rug.
"Sex?" I said, large eyes even bigger. "There's sex in the book?"
My mother, undoubtedly smelling the load of hooey I'd just unloaded, gave me a long side-eye, but my teacher was pleased. "Good," she said. "Maybe you're right, Mrs. Peeler. She's obviously not seeing everything that's there, so that's fine."
At the time, I was just happy to be off the hook. Years later I would wonder at the wisdom of encouraging an absolute lack of curiosity about sex in young people. Granted, I was only in third grade. But my first friend to lose her virginity did so in seventh grade, only four years later.
Now I'm on the other side of the fence. I'm the adult, with people asking me "How young is too young?" Usually, they're asking about my own books, which are ostensibly for adults. But so was The Clan of the Cave Bear, and its sequel, The Valley of Horses, was definitely adult. And don't think I didn't immediately go home and read that, upon leaving my third grade teacher's office. I even think I wrote a book report on it, just to be ornery.
So I tell those readers who ask me if they should let their daughters read my books what my mom repeated, so many times in my youth. I say, "If you think you're ready to have any conversations that might come up; and you think that the book presents the issues in question in ways that you think are positive, healthy, or important, then by all means, pass it on."
We can't shield our children or our teenagers from sex, and we shouldn't try. Sex is a natural part of their life that they will be curious about, and that they are already confronted with daily—on television, in advertisements, in their music, and in their reading. Although I'm not a parent, I very much hope that my young niece is presented with positive images of healthy, happy sexuality to counteract all the negative, conflicted, and dangerous images that clutter up our culture.
Being well informed about the realities of sex—its dangers and its pleasures—means that girls will hopefully be more confident about sex and their own sexuality. And in a world where girls are constantly being undermined about their looks, their worth, and the value of their sexuality, confidence can give them the tools they need to build their own self-worth and self-understanding.
I think the value of these positive messages coming from books, specifically, is that there's so much of the girl's own imagination involved. Books allow a level of interactivity, self-study, and self-reflection that other forms of media do not.
Obviously, not all children or teens will be ready for adult material. Parents have to make those judgment calls for themselves, based on their own principles and their own knowledge of their child. But don't forget the educative potential in even the most entertaining of books, especially when it comes to those issues we are least comfortable discussing—either as the child or the parent.
I had a black dot, after all. And I turned out okay. ;-)
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this matter, in the meantime. How young is too young?
Nicole Peeler is a professor of English literature and creative writing at Seton Hill University, in Greensburg, PA. She also writes urban fantasy novels for Orbit Books. Her third novel, Tempest's Legacy, just hit shelves in January.
For those American readers interested in Nicole's fiction, Orbit Books is offering her first book, Tempest Rising, as this month's Orbital Drop, downloadable on multiple platforms for only $2.99. Click here for more details.