July 2016 /Essay / Reading time:10 minutes (2200 words)
Update: Dear reader, this old blogpost is getting a lot of hits these days due to the release of IT and due to parents (and other adults in caring roles) wondering if children should read that book. While this blogpost tells my specific story of reading Stephen King’s Carrie when I was ‘too young’, I hope it might also demonstrate why, for some children, it’s appropriate to read books that weren’t written with them as the target audience. I hope it’s useful to you and I think it’s great that you’re out there trying to support and assist your children in making postive reading choices. Good luck! Oran.
I am in a second hand bookshop in Dublin. The lurid cover of Stephen King’s first novel catches my eye. I’ve heard about it. It’s meant to be the most terrifying book ever written. I’ve got to have it. I pay the princely sum of 75 pence and it’s mine. I’m 11 years old.
Now I’m 42 years old and a parent to two children. I’m careful about what they watch. What X box games they play. I’m a modern, diligent parent, but I still have that original copy of Carrie on my bookshelf. It’s cover catches my eye. I take it down from the shelf and flick through it out of a vague curiosity. And I’m shocked.
But I keep reading, because I want to know, should I have been allowed to read this at 11 years old?
I read the whole book. It’s not a great book, far from King’s best, but there’s a raw power to it. And in reading it, I find four reasons I should never have read it. And the first reason isn’t anything to do with violence, no, disconcertingly, the first reason is because it’s about…
This is a book primarily about teenage girls and their sexuality. Plus there’s a lot of teenage sex in the book. I was 11 when I read this and perhaps less advanced than modern kids. How did I explain all of this to myself?
Well, I’m not sure I understood, but to be honest, those teenage girls, I’m sure they were one of the reasons I kept reading. At the age of 11,I was well aware of girls. It shouldn’t be a shock that at that age are starting to get interested in the opposite sex (or obviously in plenty case the same sex) and their bodies, particularly nowadays in this smartphone era where in UK research suggests about 53% of 11- to 16-year-olds have seen explicit material online, nearly all of whom (94%) had seen it by 14.
Somehow Middle Grade books in 2016 don’t generally take that into account. It’s accepted that in the British Isles and North America, Middle Grade books can be a crush or a first love, but there’s no sex according to the writers digest .This is, of course, entirely culturally defined. For example, in Sweden there are fewer taboos in children’s fiction. Typical Sweden really.
But it’s not just the girls which shock 42 year old me, it’s also, what they might call in Father Ted…
There’s lot of profanity in Carrie. I don’t remember the bad language being something that motivated me to read Stephen King. But let’s get real, I knew all those words, any Irish person did, and in fact I even used the n word at that age, but not because I was racist. I vividly remember the last time I used it in fact.
I was 13. I was with a group of other kids. We were playing chase and trying to choose who would be on first. I was picking and saying Eeenie Meenie. I said it the exact way we’d always said it as a child in rural Ireland – ‘Eenie meenie miney mo, catch a n—— by the toe’. I stopped. I heard what I was saying for the first time ever, because the boy from the one black family in our area was in our group. I apologised to him, someone else said the rhyme but with a tiger and we went on with our game.
So swearing is part of most childhoods, however in the middle grade book that I’m working on, I can’t have any swearing if I hope to get it published. As author Oisin McGann puts it in his blog post on profanity in kids books, ‘When your characters cannot be permitted to swear, you’re hobbled in the ways you can have your characters expressing themselves, and it means it’s harder to reflect how people speak in real life.If you work in children’s books, this is a restraint you accept. It comes with the job.’
Is this the lesson that I’m learning from writing this blog post? That as adults, parents and writers we whitewash our own childhood and forgot who we were, our sexuality, our obscenties? Back to author Oisin McGann
Sometimes, though, it feels like we’re applying just a bit too much restraint. […] children’s books are perpetually behind the development of children when it comes to any area where parents’ inhibitions create an awkwardness and result in prohibition. We’re embarrassed to talk about it, so we ban any discussion of it.
Still there’s plenty more to appall in Carrie, plenty, plenty more. It something that runs through all of the book, a deep seated streak of…
Humanity in Carrie is ugly and cruel. Ugh. I want to have a shower after reading it. I’m a grown-up. I know about Syria, about wars, about abuse. I know about cruelty. What could I as an 11-year-old in a happy, well-off family, have known of cruelty? Should I have been protected from learning about this as an 11 year old?
Well, I probably knew more about cruelty then than now. I’m well insulated from cruelty for so many reasons – privilege, middle class boundaries, etc… Most of the cruelty I know about is at a distance. A child’s life, even a good one, is filled with random cruelty.
I remember the attack by older boys on me, my brother and cousins in Bray when I was nine. I remember the teachers who knew they could shout at us with impunity and enjoyed it. And I still haven’t forgiven the teenage camp counselors when I was twelve. They drank beers as they made me and a friend stand on one foot for two hours as a punishment one night. They threw things on the ground for us to pick up, laughing when we fell over.
Still, girls, feck and cruelty. I can get with most of that, but there’s still that one moment in the book that has the power to shock and it is sheer total…
Like all of Stephen King’s books there is violence in Carrie, but some of its violence still has the power to shock. There’s no need to linger over it here, but just imagine Carrie turning her powers on you…
So should I have been allowed to read Carrie at the age of 11? Should I have been allowed to experience its grim, nasty, sexualised, expletive filled bloody horror?
And the answer is… that’s a stupid question. No one could have stopped me reading it. I was compelled. The week after buying Carrie, I went back to the same shop and bought King’s second book Firestarter. Over the following year, I read them all.
And I think I know why I needed these. I know the two reasons that make me sure that it was right for me to read Carrie at 11 years old. The first reason is…
Like so many other children, I lived much of life in terror, even though objectively I was never in genuine danger. My fears were of what others thought of me. Fears that I’d done something wrong. Fears that I’d failed. Even as an adult I still have a lot of those fears and reckon many other adults do too, but as an adult I’ve learnt to understand what’s happening and I’ve learnt and am learning to manage it.
That fear was much worse as a child. I didn’t understand it at all. I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain it. Experiencing terror in books helped me express and release a fear that would otherwise have remained stuck inside me. It was like playing with a dial and the radio and finding the exact song I needed to hear – it was the exact frequency for what was inside me. It was reassuring.
Now obviously I’m not arguing here that every child should read Carrie or it’s modern equivalent. Nor is it a free pass on watching Cannibal Holocaust as the Sunday family film. What I am arguing here is that while guidelines are useful, every child has different needs and not all those needs will be met by the books on their library shelves.
While it’s not about exactly the same thing, I connected with Kate Messner’s blog post . In it Messner recounts how a school librarian writes to Messner to say that Messner newest book won’t be on the shelves of her K-5 grade (i.e. Junior infants to 5th class primary school) library due to the book dealing with drug addiction because
I just don’t think that at 10 years old he needs to worry about that on top of all of the other things he already worries about… For now, I just need the 10 and 11-year-olds biggest worry to be about friendships, summer camps, and maybe their first pimple or two.
Kate forcefully replies:
This breaks my heart. As a writer. As an educator. As a parent. As someone who loves kids. It breaks my heart because I know this feeling so well. Those are all the things I want 10 and 11 year olds to worry about, too. But I don’t get to choose what those kids’ lives are like. None of us do.
I think the same argument can be made in support of children who don’t find what they need within the strict middle grade or YA guidelines; children that move onto books that are deemed as grown up books; children that instinctively want to read those books that they know aren’t meant to be for them and want to enter those secret, dangerous, grown up worlds.
Categories can help target books towards children, but we shouldn’t use these guidelines as a way to protect children from themselves. There may be a darkness already inside the child or inside their world that they need to see reflected in the books they read.
Also I think that what I didn’t understand in Carrie at 11 years old I just ignored or skipped over. This fits in with what the novelist Judy Blume says about children being able to “self-censor” aspects of a book that are too adult for them:
A lot of people worry much too much about what their children are reading, A lot of people will want to control everything in their children’s lives, or everything in other people’s children’s lives. If a child picks up a book and reads something she has a question about, if she can go to her parents, great. Or else they will read right over it. It won’t mean a thing. They are very good, I think, at monitoring what makes them feel uncomfortable. If something makes them feel uncomfortable they will put it down.
But it’s not just that, there’s a second reason. Reading Stephen King and books that were much more extreme than anyone around me could handle, well that made me feel a…
At 11 I was surrounded by kids who seemed confident and brave (even though I’m sure so many had the same feelings as me), but I could handle Stephen King. And that made me feel badass and it made me feel cool. And you know what? It still does at times. And for any kid reading or listening or doing something that is a little more advanced than others, well, it can make them feel like a badass too.
I hope when my children find the books that they need that I’ll let them follow their instinct even if it leads them in directions that discomfort me as a parent. I hope I can be there to support them if they read things that upset or scare them in the book.
I definitely wouldn’t force anyone else to read Carrie, but I’m glad I read Carrie at 11. I’m glad Carrie was there for me when I need it.
So, thanks Mr King!
PS: What about you? What was your forbidden book? What did you read as a child that you weren’t meant to read, and how did it change you? Did you regret reading it? Would you let your child read Carrie? I’d love to know.