“Mommy, what’s a hermaphrodite?” – The Question of Reader Age

As a kid, I loved reading, and even though I read plenty of books for kids, including any one I could find which starred talking dogs, I also prided myself on reading above my age expectation. In middle school, I tackled The Once and Future King, and loved (almost) every minute of its 600-plus pages.

I also tried reading Wicked, which was way over my head at the time. Its philosophical reflection of the nature of evil, corrupt politics and references to the main character being a hermaphrodite both turned me off from “liking” the book, and sort of confused me. (Yes, I did ask my mom what a hermaphrodite was, but I was old enough not to actually say “mommy”). It was not the fun Wizard of Oz story with a simple change of perspective that I imagined it being when I picked it out.

And Animal Farm wasn’t exactly the fun book about talking farm animals that I expected either.

So why did I read these books? And should I have been?

I read them because I wanted to be a book snob at a young age, I looked up to my sister who was eight years older than me and was a good reader, and I felt accomplished to be reading a book I could hardly lift off the table.

And I think the answer to the second question is yes, I should have been reading those books – because I should have been reading, period.

Young people should be reading the books they want to read, regardless of “how much they get out of it.” First of all, you don’t know how much they might get out of it, and neither do they yet. And secondly, reading is good for them, and tackling difficult material shouldn’t be discouraged, or you may end up discouraging them from reading at all.

“But what about books with moral deficiencies, trauma, or things that are too mature or disturbing for kids?” you may ask.

I think this is a fair question, depending on what age the reader is. It’s also interesting to note that besides the general categories of Children’s, Young Adult, and (for lack of a better term) regular fiction, there aren’t any ratings on books.

You can’t look at a book and know whether it will have a million swears or none – and in what context that language is used.

While part of the answer depends on what the parents allow, obviously, reading a book about debauchery won’t make kids go do terrible things. If Grand Theft Auto doesn’t make kids go chainsaw a prostitute, then reading a book about people doing drugs won’t make them go do any.

The books I read at a young age affected me a lot more than I realized, but not because they told me what to think – they let me do my own thinking without expecting me to answer them right away, the way teachers, parents and other kids might. They let my brain slow cook some big questions and ideas without me really needing to explain to anyone my process, which has made me a deeper, more thoughtful person now, I believe.

I’ve noticed whenever I start a post about reading, lately, I look back to when I was discovering my reading identity, and I think that’s why this is an interesting question to me – my reading identity has created my overall identity in large part.

Animal Farm didn’t really teach me about communism, because I didn’t know the reference, but it did teach me about hypocrisy and damn good endings to novels.

There were some Young Adult novels I read secretly at the library because I was embarrassed that my mom might know, just by looking at the cover, that they had swears in them or talked about sex, but these novels stuck with me.

They embarrassed me at the time but they showed me perspectives I didn’t even know I didn’t know about, like a book I read about a transgender teen. That novel both showed me that people like that exist in the world, something which our public school sex education classes didn’t ever mention, and gave me immense empathy for that character.

And now, as a 21 year old college student, I read YA books and I eat them up. I love being brought right back to high school, and remembering feeling embarrassed at my locker, or walking through the halls trying to catch the eye of someone you liked.

But even these novels aren’t only “fun” or easy reads, they also handle big issues, questions of identity, and making a place for yourself in the world, which are things that I don’t ever think you totally outgrow.

So, I suppose, long story very very long, reading ages don’t really make sense. You should read that book that interests you now – and then read it again in 10 years. Read the novel you bought when you were 15 and never got around to cracking open. Read for nostalgia and then read something different to challenge yourself.

And I don’t think we should discourage younger readers from doing the same.

What do you think of age groups for reading? Should kids have free reign when picking what to read? Do you regret reading things that were above your head when you were younger? Let me know what you think in the comments!


2 thoughts on ““Mommy, what’s a hermaphrodite?” – The Question of Reader Age”

  1. This is such a great point! I tried to pick up The Hobbit at age 10 because I loved the animated movie and knew it was a classic and wanted to be reading all the best books.

    It went completely over my head, and I couldn’t even finish it, it was so long.

    But I kept reading, and stuck with the idea that I should read all the best books, and any other book I could get my hands on. Some books I didn’t get, some books helped me get things I didn’t realize I was struggling with, and some books reaffirmed things I’d recently learned about myself.

    And I’d never have done any of it if I’d been told what books I could and couldn’t read yet.

    I think kids will read what they want to read, and put down what doesn’t hold anything for them. Letting children be a little self-policing is good for them, as long as they have some adult they can bring problems to.

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