The “rules” of reading: Neil Gaiman, Hagridden, and age appropriateness

My sister's photo of the books my niece took to school this week.
My sister’s photo of the books my niece took to school this week.

Yesterday, on my Facebook page, I revealed that my eight-year-old niece had taken my books to school because her class is discussing what and why authors write. She thought it would be cool to share with her classmates that her uncle is a published author, even though, as my sister put it, my fiction is “not quite suitable for children.”

Later that same evening, a good friend of mine texted me that her fourteen-year-old son was eager to read my novel; she wanted to know if I thought he could handle it.

This reminded me that when Hagridden came out last year and I went on tour, several friends and fans showed up to book signings with their early-teen children, and those twelve- and thirteen-year-olds insisted on getting their own copies of my novel, because they were eager to read it. Some of the parents seemed nervous about that, while others were openly unconcerned. I passed along the books either way, because I’m as unlikely to tell a reader she can’t read my book as I am to tell parents how to raise their children.

But all this has come to a head this week not just because of the confluence of parents mentioning my novel but also because of an interview Neil Gaiman gave The Guardian newspaper. Titled “Neil Gaiman: ‘my parents didn’t have any kind of rules about what I couldn’t read’,” it speaks in some interesting ways to age appropriateness and who ought to be reading what novels.

The title, in fact, comes from the opening response from Gaiman: “I was really lucky in that my parents definitely didn’t seem to have any kind of rules about what I couldn’t read. And that was wonderful, because it meant that whatever was on the shelves, if it was interesting, I could pick it up and I was allowed to read it.”

Peyton Place, by Grace Metalious (via Wikipedia)

My mother-in-law, Phyllis, tells a story about wanting to read Peyton Place as a high-school girl. At the time, the novel was highly controversial, and Phyllis, ever one to investigate things herself, went to the public library and asked for it. But the librarian refused, tersely explaining that the book was “restricted” and required parental permission.

So, sure enough, young Phyllis brought her mother down to the library, who (to use my wife’s words) “reamed out that librarian” and told her, “My daughter has my permission to read whatever she wants, and I do not want to have to come down here again!”

(“Little did she know,” my wife adds, “that she was inspiring a future librarian! Two generations, in fact!” For those new to the blog, both my wife and her mother are librarians!)

I remember when I was just on the verge of adolescence — I was eleven? or maybe twelve? — and first encountered this question of who could read what: it was in the YA novel The Girl With the Silver Eyes, by Willo Davis Roberts. The book is a sci-fi/paranormal novel about a girl with telekinetic powers, but of course that’s just the set-up for the thematic analogy of the outsider yearning to find people like her. In the novel, the main character, Katie, feels so marginalized by her gift that she perfers to hole up in her apartment and read books all day. There’s a scene where she encounters one of her mother’s books, something very adult (I might be misremembering, but I think the suggestion was that the book involved sex), and her mother was concerned about her reading it, but Katie read it anyway.

I remember realizing I’d never been told not to read something, and I browsed my own parents’ shelves looking for something “adult” and “sexy” that I might be forbidden to read, but I couldn’t really find anything I would have denied. I had open access — my parents didn’t deny me any books based on age.

Gaiman, in his interview, agrees with this approach to giving young people free rein to read what they please. “I seem to have done just fine,” he says in the interview. “Although there were definitely stories that I would bump into that I would find disturbing. I remember being disturbed by a Charles Birkin short story called the Harlem Horror, a weird little horror story that I probably ran into when I was seven or eight and I really wasn’t ready for it. But, mostly, I read whatever was around and learned whatever I could from whatever I could find.”

This is very much the way I read as a child and teenager. I picked up all sorts of books as a tween and teen that, to outside eyes, I might not have seemed “ready” for — my dad’s violent action-adventure novels, a whole array of horror books — but in my memory, the books I found hardest to read weren’t the scariest or the sexiest but the most literate and challenging. I remember not really understanding Heart of Darkness the first time I encountered it, nor even liking For Whom the Bell Tolls. (These are two of my favorites now.)

If anything, those “scary” novels did much to open my eyes to the realistic horrors of the world. My mother, while never refusing me any books, did often worry that I was becoming “desensitized” to horror and violence, and she might have had a point — my father stopped reading Stephen King in the middle of Misery because he couldn’t handle [SPOILER ALERT] the man who gets his head run over by a lawn mower; I love that novel and that scene in particular. And sure, I partly loved it because it was so gory and shocking. But I also recognized the horror of it, because actually, in the reading I was doing, I was learning a lot about how terrifying human beings can be — and how to engage with this trauma, psychologically and emotionally, through the healthy buffer of fiction, to share in human trauma without necessarily being traumatized.

“I definitely haven’t been traumatised for life,” Gaiman says in his interview, “and I’m not entirely sure if the subversive element made things enjoyable,” and I’d agree, but I confess that subversion was definitely a draw to me back then. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

Some of the things I came to, ready or not, I picked up precisely because they were spoken of in hushed tones and generally, if not directly, deemed inappropriate for me. I remember searching the school library’s catalogue for Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and was both shocked and thrilled that the library had a copy; I was sorely disappointed when I flipped through it and realized it wasn’t actually a book of evil spells. (Since then, I not only understand how important and beautiful that novel is, I’ve also met Rushdie.)

Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H. P. Lo...
Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H. P. Lovecraft: Commemorative Edition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a related search, after I saw the Evil Dead movies, I went looking for a real-life Necronomicon, which is how I first discovered the beautiful, terrifying fiction of HP Lovecraft.

I also remember reading American Psycho in high school: it was in the news at the time and there was a rumor that it had been “banned,” so of course, all my friends rushed out to get a copy. We spent many a school lunch grossing each other out with the depravity of serial killer Patrick Bateman, but I was aware, even then, that something deeper and more intelligent was going on in the novel, and it was the social human horrors, and not the blood and sexual violence, that kept me awake at night.

Reading some of these more “controversial” works opened me up to more classical, canonical literature. Stephen King and Clive Barker led me to Poe. I had read The Scarlet Letter in school but didn’t fall in love with Hawthorne until I read “Young Goodman Brown” in an anthology of horror short stories. I devoured my dad’s action novels, and while they did little to address what conflict and war does to the human heart, they did serve as my gateway to Dog Soldiers and Blood Meridian.

I learned from the violence and the horror because the best of it required me to think my way through it. Which is something else Gaiman mentions: “It’s hard to upset people with just prose these days because you actually have to read it and you have to think about it and you have to understand it.”

Finally, the interviewer asks Gaiman the question most pertinent to my past couple of days: what to do with age-appropriate labels?

“I’ve never been terribly impressed by the whole age thing on the back of books,” Gaiman says. “[A]s far as I can tell, mostly what it does is simply dissuade people who might like a book from reading it either because they think they’re too young or, more often, because they think they’re too old. [. . .] I used to like what they did in Sandman — the Vertigo comics — where they put ‘for mature readers’ on it. And they didn’t try to define mature readers by age, they’re just letting you know these are not kid’s comics.”

So, for future reference, friends and fans: Hagridden (and, in fact, most of my fiction) is definitely for “mature readers.” But I’m not here to define that maturity, and if you have a mature teenager (or are a mature teenager), then by all means, I hope you enjoy my novel! I’d love to hear what you thought of it. And if you don’t know if your teen is ready for a book like mine, well, talk to them and find out what they are ready for. And then, whatever your age or your maturity, READ — anything and everything you can understand, and maybe a few things you can’t.

Oh, and my niece’s elementary school class? If you’re a children’s or YA author and you’d be keen to tell her class, in person or even just via email or blog comment, about what you write and why you write, let me know! Leave a comment or send me an email. Those kids would love to hear from writers!

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4 thoughts on “The “rules” of reading: Neil Gaiman, Hagridden, and age appropriateness

  1. I’d never read a book for kids/teens until I was 27. The first full novel I ever read as a kid was Pet Sematary. It was terrifying and gave me nightmares, but it opened me up to the power of words. I had no idea that books could do that. I loved horror mostly. But then I read A Clockwork Orange and it was so different than anything else I’d read and I knew a lot of adults who had difficulty reading it, so when I finished and comprehended what I’d read despite the slang, my self-esteem went through the roof. That’s when I started reading Cormac McCarthy, Faulkner, and Hemingway. I read everything I could get my hands on, including my mom’s erotic novels. So, in the fifth grade, I decided to write my own, um, sexy story–even though I didn’t quite understand the mechanics of it–which ended up getting me banned from writing fiction at school. In the eighth grade I was voted most likely to become an author. I really don’t think I’d be a writer today had someone put limits on what I could read.

    1. I imagine a lot of us authors have that in common, yeah? The relatively unfettered exposure to book is a wonderful thing for any human mind, but it seems especially important to writers!

      Trivia: Per Sematary was the book that made Tom Franklin stop reading Stephen King for a while — scared the bejezus out of him!

    1. I would dispute number one, and I would be curious to know actual statistics, but come to think of it, a few months before I turned 14, I was in a summer military camp learning how to fire a rifle. For whatever that’s worth.

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