Every now and then, somebody somewhere brings up the question of whether or not books should have age limits.
And you can kinda see their point. After all, we restrict so much of society – bars, pubs, clubs, painkillers, even films – that it seems the next logical step is to restrict books too. Not out of some dictatorial desire to control culture (although, given the abhorrent re-rise of fascism in the West, we’re possibly not too far from that reality), but out of concern for our dear, beloved children.
We stop our children from watching films about violence and sex, because we’re scared of corrupting them or traumatising them – so shouldn’t we also stop them from reading about violence and sex? We restrict films like Fifty Shades of Grey to the over-eighteens; so why don’t we stop children from innocently picking up a copy of the same book?
But the idea of putting age limits on books has always seemed strange to me. As a child, I had free access to my mother’s bookshelf. Whilst she often steered me away from some titles and towards some slightly more suitable ones, there was nothing that was strictly out of bounds.
It never even occurred to me that I could be denied access to a book until I was 11 years old.
I remember it vividly. I was in Year 7, and it was a Friday, just before English. I know this, because once a week we had an English lesson where we had to sit and read quietly. On this particular Friday, I had forgotten to bring my book to school, and so I had scuttled off to the library before the lesson to select something to read for 45 minutes.
I noticed the library had the first book in the Nought and Crosses series by Malorie Blackman (a series, I might add, that I had already read in its entirety). Not wanting to spend too long looking for a book to read, I selected my old faithful favourite and took it up to the desk to check it out. It was then that the librarian informed me that I had to be in Year 9 (aged 14+) to take out this book.
But I’ve already read it! I cried.
Sorry, but it’s not suitable for pupils below Year 9.
And why not?
Because it contains a… sex scene! blushed the librarian.
I was livid.
A sex scene?! Who CARED if it contained a sex scene? Did this old woman (okay, she was probably only about 30) really think I’d managed to get to the age of 11 without learning what sex was? And on the off chance that I had managed to live 11 years of my life in blissful, prudish ignorance, did she really think that one small sex scene – a sex scene that’s not eve particularly graphic – in a book was going to transform me from a sweet and innocent 11-year-old into some kind of raging nymphomaniac?
Besides, I didn’t even care about the sex scene. I was more interested in the heart-wrenching love story; the tale of racial prejudice; the dichotomy between rich and poor. As far as I was concerned, the sex scene was the least interesting part of the book.
I’m not saying we should run around giving 5-year-olds erotic literature – but in my opinion, a book is one of the safest places for a child to learn about more sensitive topics. Most of what I learned about boys and sex I learned from reading my mother’s chick-lit when I was young (and let me tell you, it saved me a lot embarrassing moments when I finally entered the world of boys and sex!)
Similarly, my first real understanding of racism (as a white, middle-class girl), came from Noughts and Crosses – the very book my librarian had deemed unsuitable.
My point is, if I’d waited until an adult had deemed me old enough to read about something, I would have been ignorant about much of the world until I was 14 or 15 or even older.
So please, let your children read books that contain sex and violence and goodness knows what else; and shout down anyone who thinks books should have age limits. Because reading opens doors for children, and reading about new experiences will help them grow into empathetic, knowledgeable adults. Adults who understand the true power of books.