Last fall, my eight-year-old son came home from school with a ban placed on his favorite books—Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, which he had brought in for free reading time. His teacher, whom we love and trust, told him that the books are inappropriate for his age and that he couldn’t read them on school grounds. No note. No phone call. But it ended fine: My son finished the series at home, loving the last book best of all.
Still, I was unsettled. At first the books had been too much for him, and he set them aside for a few weeks. He was disturbed more by the themes of abandonment than violence in the series about a televised fight to the death among children, so we talked through it and he eventually devoured all three books in a row. But I was left wondering about the best way to handle mature themes with kids who are ready and eager to read beyond their grade level.
According to the American Library Association, the Hunger Games trilogy is currently the third-most “challenged” book in the country, meaning there are lots of attempts to ban or limit its availability. The ALA itself opposes restricting access to books based on age, stating that “librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents—and only parents—have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children—and only their children—to library resources.” But what’s a parent to do if a child’s reading skills outpace his or her emotional capacity for books?
“When books touch on mature themes, it’s possible that kids can misinterpret the information,” says Liz Hletko, Ph. D., a Skokie-based psychologist. Still, she says, while educators are primarily concerned with student comprehension, “I don’t think there is a right age at which to handle these books, so withholding them serves little point.”
Still, parents and teachers should work together, says Jill Newell, a former English teacher and the current director of outreach and membership for the Association of American Educators. “The fact is advanced reading level and advanced subject matter don’t necessarily go hand in hand,” she says. “There are plenty of selections designed for older students that don’t incorporate controversial themes.”
Andrew Medlar, Chicago Public Library’s collections specialist for children and young adults, says books are a safe, controlled way to handle mature themes with kids. “If kids bite off more than they can chew, they just spit it out. They skip over bits they don’t get or just completely drop it and move on .”
So how do parents begin to figure out if a book is right for their child? “Ask them what the book is about,” Medlar says. “If they tell you that The Hunger Games is about a girl who goes camping in the woods and has adventures with her friends, then it’s likely okay because they don’t get, and won’t be affected by, the deeper significance. If they tell you it’s a classic example of dystopian literature featuring a young woman who becomes a pawn in a political struggle between adults and kills against her will, then that’s okay because they have the maturity to recognize that. And, after all, that’s what happens in The Wizard of Oz, too.
“It’s good to stay engaged with them through their reading ,” adds Medlar. “Reading together is a great way to make sure you—and your child—are comfortable with themes you might be questioning.” (This is something my son’s teacher also suggested when finally we spoke about the issue.)
And if a book does turn out to be too scary or mature, Hletko says it’s not worth agonizing over. “While children may find certain images disturbing, they need to use their healthy coping skills to deal with them. And reading about painful feelings can make a child who is experiencing similar things feel less alone.”
If you decide to wait, that’s okay too, Medlar says. “It’s not really withholding a book to put it off until [you feel] the child is ready for it. That’s more like being a good consumer for and with your child.”