How much is too much for kids?
It's that time of year again where I start focusing my attention on my fall buy, and in categorizing the fiction selections into Middle Grade/Tween/YA. One rule of thumb that I've always used as a guide is the theory of reading up. If I work on the assumption that most kids like to read about characters who are at least a couple of years older, then the decision should be easy. Books with thirteen or fourteen-year-old characters are being read by kids who are ten through twelve and thus belong in my middle-grade section. By the same token, books with fifteen or sixteen-year-old characters belong in my young adult section.
When content becomes a factor (as it does for the schools I work with), then suddenly the age categorization and measure of appropriateness becomes more challenging. Recently, I finished reading the second book in a middle-grade fantasy series with thirteen or fourteen-year-old characters. I had already felt like the first book in the series was at the higher end of the middle-grade spectrum (definitely more appealing to ll-olds than 8-year-olds) which is fine, but in the second book, it felt like the author had completely lost track of how old these kids were, and their behaviour and conflicts felt more appropriate for teens than middle grade.
This leads me to the big question I wrestle with when I'm placing books. Does having child/teen characters automatically make a book appropriate for children/teens? At what point does content age-out the book, and it becomes too much for the intended audience?
Kids mature at different speeds, and in my time as a bookseller I've certainly met some extremely worldly and mature kids, but is there a such thing as too graphic? I'm all for fiction being a means of exploring and understanding difficult topics such as consent, mental illness, body image, etc... but where do we draw the line? In a literary YA horror, the descriptions of the abuse that the father inflicted on the boy's mother was so graphic I was disturbed by it. The author certainly did his job in making the reader understand how evil the father is, but I found it more frightening than the most frightening adult book that I've ever read. Do ten-year-olds get the concept of displacing a friend for a boy? Should date rape and consent be addressed in a book aimed at 7th and 8th graders where the characters are only fourteen? (Which is totally different than addressing this issue in true YA books)
Kids today know more than we did when we were there age. The Internet and Social Media have certainly made information more readily available and easier to access, but does knowing more mean that they are also more mature- or more importantly, mature enough to get the message?