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>Liz B. pointed me toward this PW essay on the thin line between reader’s advisory work and putting limitations on library access for kids. It gives me the willies.

Is it right for me to discourage a kid’s reading choice? No. But is it right for me to give a kid a book that I think is probably not appropriate? At the risk of sounding censorship alarms, or being seen as an “uncool” librarian, my answer is again, No. I just don’t feel comfortable giving a sixth-grader one of these books—all popular titles that, in my library, are shelved “over there” in the teen area, through the door and around the corner from the children’s room.

I don’t see how these positions (not discouraging a reading choice and not giving a kid an inappropriate book) are reconcilable. I recognize that the author recognizes that the question is a difficult one, and I agree that some books are too mature for some kids. But I think she errs on the side of caution where I would rather give the kid what she asks for (an eleven-year-old wanting Twilight is an example she cites), hold my breath, and hope for the best. What we don’t know from the essay is how easily kids are allowed to dodge the librarian’s best intentions entirely and simply go to the YA or adult books by themselves. That would have been my own strategy as a sixth-grader, particularly if I had had a previous encounter with a librarian that made me feel snooped upon or deflected. While I hate librarians who don’t move out from behind the desk, there’s a little too much leading patrons by the hand going on here.

What the essay does not take up–and what so few arguments for restricting access do–is what she thinks is going to happen if a child reads a book he or she “is not ready for.” Really, what? Sexual thoughts, anxiety, nightmares? Maybe, but by no means necessarily–and, while I hate to quote Dick Cheney, so what? Kids have sexual thoughts, anxieties and nightmares anyway. Normal, healthy kids. And as Liz points out, what’s more likely is that a kid simply will breeze past what she doesn’t understand: “Deenie had masturbation? As a kid, I had no idea.”

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Anonymous says:

    >When people worry about the dangers of giving a child a book beyond his or her maturity level, I always wonder what experiences they might have had with books as a young reader? Are they working anecdotally and responding to some bad experience they had reading FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC at age 10?

    Once I hit junior high (11 years old) everything was available on the school bus–from FOREVER to very explicit adult reading materials no doubt swiped from some poorly secured parental bureau. I read it all. And, I continued to prefer Lovelace’s BETSY-TACY series above all things. Due to my own anecdotal experiences, I am always suspicious that it takes a great deal more than a few “bad” books to corrupt a child.

    Or are these gatekeepers worried about themselves–that somebody’s mom or dad will complain? In which case, I wish they would come out from behind the cowardly curtain of child well-being and admit it is self-interest that drives (or demands) such behavior.

    Besides, if books are so dangerous, why not just send them all home to watch the great stuff on TV and the video console anyway?

  2. Roger Sutton says:

    >That’s my idea of a magic school bus!

  3. Anonymous says:

    >There’s a sort of straw man (woman?) librarian being built here, who seems afraid that kids are going to catch fire if they read sexually explicit material. Easy to take shots at that. But there _is_ material that isn’t appropriate for kids. Presuming you’re not shelving Hustler next to Cricket, we all agree on that. It’s just a matter of where you draw the line.

  4. Roger Sutton says:

    >I feel like the “but libraries don’t carry Hustler” argument is a bit too far down the slippery slope–because “we can all agree” Hustler is inappropriate we therefore must tacitly accept other restrictions on children’s reading. But what about the examples the essay cites–Twilight, Gossip Girl? Is it okay for a librarian to shield 10-year-olds from those books (which really are in libraries)? I say no.

  5. >I read ‘Wifey’ when I was eight (stolen from my parents, not checked out of the library), and I really wish I hadn’t. So I do think there are some books that are inappropriate for kids. But I also read ‘Coming Attractions’ by Fannie Flagg and ‘Job–a Comedy of Errors’ by Heinlein, and I’m so glad I did, even though a lot of adults would hesitate before giving them to a kid.
    I think we need to err on the side of letting kids read what they want; as bad as my experience with ‘Wifey’ was I wouldn’t in a million years trade having read ‘Coming Attractions.’

    That said, I have been known to carry a stack of ‘My Uncle Oswald’ to the customer service desk in the bookstore and explain that as wonderful as Roald Dahl’s books for kids are, he did not write this for kids and it should probably not be shelved with Charlie and Matilda.

  6. Anonymous says:

    >Do I want ten-year old girls reading about rich private school teenagers having sex and worrying over their status in the pecking order? Well, no, I don’t. I think the young ones are already getting all the urging to sexualize themselves that they need from the culture, frankly. Gossip Girls isn’t going to kill the kids but what intellectual and character traits is it feeding? But it’s considered close-minded or just poor form to get worked up over sexuality, I know, I know. How about other hot spots, then. Take George Fraser’s Flashman. Not written for kids, but there’s many a boy who would take to it. There’s gunplay aplenty, sword fights, daring escapes, a near castration, poisonous snakes, etc. It’s a quick-paced war story, a hell of a romp, a great black comedy, and to top it all off the setting of Afghanistan is all too relevant. Yet the lead character is a nasty a piece of work, unflinchingly racist and heedlessly, even violently sexist, among other failings (several other failings). Green light it for the interested ten-year old?

  7. Roger Sutton says:

    >Sarah–I’m curious about why you wish you hadn’t read Wifey (at eight). Care to share?

    Anon 3:12–I agree with your take on Gossip Girls, but I don’t think a librarian should be making that call. (And lots of reading, by adults and children alike, doesn’t feed character, in fact I don’t think reading does that often at all–people read to reinforce what they already feel to be true or right.) Hell, I think Junie B. Jones is bad for kids (I think it’s patronizing and stewy-pewy cutsie-wootsie besides) but I’m not going to stand in anyone’s way of reading it.

  8. >I remember being incensed, as only an eight-year-old can be, when I brought the latest SWEET VALLEY HIGH to the cashwrap at Waldenbooks, and the woman behind the counter said, “Are you sure you’re old enough to read this?” I was following in the footsteps (er, bookmarks) of my older sister, and while there were certainly things I read that went over my head (my friends and I were convinced that Katherine got peed on in that one scene from FOREVER), I don’t feel I came out of childhood damaged by my precocious reading choices.

    That said, now I have a hyper-literate daughter, and I’m starting to worry about what she’ll be reading in a few years. Right now we’re reading Ramona, Clementine, Ivy and Bean — and she’s four. When she’s eight, will we have exhausted the best middle-grade lit already? Could I read her ANASTASIA KRUPNIK next year and assume that she, like I did as a child, would accept “One-Ball Reilly” as a funny name, nothing more?

    So I think the article’s author has a valid point. But the difference for me is that I’m the precocious reader’s mother. It is, in fact, my job to keep an eye on what she’s reading and what she may or may not be ready for. When I’m reading manuscripts for acquisition or sitting behind the circ desk at the library, however, it’s not my job anymore.

  9. >The thing that really makes me nuts about all this is the idea that a librarian in an interaction with a child can make a judgment based on body languge or something.

    Some kids are ready for material, others are not. I just finished “Three Little Words” by Ashley Rhodes Courter where she describes being quite small and hearing and being around all kinds of inappropriate (by our standards) sex, drugs, and criminality. If that’s her life, she can surely read about it. Yet you can’t always tell from the clothes and style the kids displays what their home life is like.

    So why not stick solidly to the we do not act ‘in loco parentis” that our profession has always stated? Doesn’t it make sense that the parent is responsible for monitoring the reading choices of their child and only their child? If we start to take that on, where does it stop? That’s a very frightening idea to me.

  10. Anonymous says:


    thank you for the comment in the earlier post asking from whose ass the WSJ has been pulling their statistics. you have entirely made my day. i’m sorry i can’t agree with you so completely on this post. i think the librarian in the column you link to gives a protocol for doing just what you suggest–handing over the books kids ask for. she asks where they heard about it, and do they know what’s in it, and if they still want it, she puts it in their hot little hands. it seems reasonable to me to double check with the youngest readers to be sure they know what they are asking for, and then give it to them. and if, thereafter, they trot off to the YA section all by their onesies, good for them.

  11. swarmofbeasts says:

    >I think there’s more ambiguity than that here – I once had a girl of eight or nine ask me for Oedipus, and after a few minutes of questioning I wasn’t really sure exactly what she wanted so I opted to put in a request for a juvenile retelling. (It was a tiny branch, and we didn’t happen to have a version in for children or adults.)

    Other times I’ve had children or young teens ask me directly if such-and-such book is appropriate for them (often a sex-and-shopping book from the adult section with a cutesy cover.)

    I’m comfortable with the decisions I made in those cases, and yes, I do give Twilight to the preteens who ask for it.

    Well, I put them on the waiting list, anyway, which probably hasn’t gone below 70 since we bought the book.

  12. Roger Sutton says:

    >I agree that library patrons don’t always know what they are looking for–think of how much you need to refine, refine, refine in a reference interview–but this librarian’s questions seemed to start with her standards for what was appropriate rsther than with what the patron actually wanted to read. I also think that pointing out to a patron that a book might be kinda difficult is different from atempting to steer them away from something the librarian thinks is too “mature.”

  13. swarmofbeasts says:

    >And now, having actually read the article, I’m less comfortable with the idea of quizzing a child about where did they find out about it? And do they really know what it’s about?

    As a child with enough social anxiety that I wouldn’t have talked to the librarian if my arm was on fire, I think that kind of approach would’ve driven me away from ever asking for reader’s advisory.

  14. Anonymous says:

    >Today, I think I can manage capitals. The librarian IS starting from her own standards, but then, we all do. The Hustler argument is a poor one except in the sense that it shows that we all have a line, we just draw it in different places. And the problem with THAT argument is that it makes it sound as if this should be a one dimensional sliding scale and the only thing being weighed is sex. Which I happen to thing is unfortunate, but thank-you Puritans, that’s where we are in this country. Maybe the librarian isn’t thinking, “Hey, there’s sex in this book.” Maybe she’s thinking, “Hey, there’s reactionary anti-feminism in this book. Are you still young enough to imprint on Bella?”

  15. Anonymous says:

    >Don’t libraries have open shelves in kids’ rooms? Don’t kids know how to find a book if they really want to read it? What does the librarian do if a kid brings an “inappropriate” book up to the desk to be charged out?
    All these exchanges make me really depressed about the state (or function) of childrens rooms and their “monitors.”

  16. kittenfemme says:

    >I’ve found that if children aren’t allowed to read a certain type of book then they let the librarian know. I’ve had children tell me that their parents prefer they read realistic or historical fiction rather than fantasy. Or who say “Oh, that has witches in it. I’m not allowed to read about witches.”

    And really, even if they’re not allowed to read it, my job as a librarian is to help them find what they ask for. I’m not here to enforce parental dictums. Maybe I don’t like what they choose, but they’re reading something and given the books I got into as a child, if they’re not ready for the material, then it won’t hurt them because they won’t understand it and if they’re ready for it, it won’t hurt them because they can understand it.

    I would like to unread Prince of Tides, though.

  17. >Since I am a librarian (school) that sets up a YA section in our 4th-8th Middle School (which means children ages 8.5 to 14 for those of you who are unsure of what age groups these grades translate into) I feel compelled to write something here.

    Yes, I can see many of your points, Roger, and some contributors in this post. You believe that as long as a child wishes to read something he or she actually really wants to READ that particular book. Since that’s exactly what we all experienced as avid child readers who sought out books for themselves. What you have decided to overlook is how much of young children’s reading has a lot to do with peer- and older-sibling-influences. The “need” to read a particular book, for readers who tend not to love to read, sometimes has little or nothing to do with actually “wanting to read” that particular book. Sometimes, this matter is not really about freedom of pursuing intellectual content.

    If we believe that reader’s advisory is a valid function of a librarian — that librarians who know the young readers and their reading habits and their emotional and intellectual lives can help each child find the best and most rewarding books to read so that they can advance both their reading abilities, tastes, and thus “better” their lives — then, I think to fault such librarians and say that they should not steer any child away from certain titles that they are either not mature enough to handle or ready to truly appreciate the intricacies within certain books is disingenuous.

    “Steering toward” is but the other side of the coin: “steering away from.” They really do go together.

    Maybe we cannot “just say no” (I have been wondering about my YA circulating policy and might modify it according to the community’s needs than just a rigid cut-off age-limitation) but we sure should engage the child readers and discuss with them the titles at hand either before or after they read the books. And that discussion sometimes do result in gearing the children in finding other books that actually do speak to them than the initial query.

    That is more easily done in a School Library than in the Public Library, of course.

    Now you can all flog me to death! And I won’t be able to rebut because I won’t have internet access for two weeks! :p

  18. >thanks for the link

    fairrosa, I was about to comment something similar.

    Readers advisory is more than making sure the title and author are correct and finding the book asked for. Readers advisory can also be making sure the book is what the reader thinks it is. While I think the PW examples of titles aren't very good (Twilight & Uglies are 2 great books for younger readers reading up, IMHO) there are times when the reader is saying "i want twilight" when what they really want is a good vampire story, and so yes, that need and want is not only met by a book other than Twilight, it is ultimately a better fit for the reader.

    Peer influence of kids reading — I think adults do the same thing! Buy books they don't read, just as kids check out the popular books that will go unread.

  19. Roger Sutton says:

    >Hmmm, I think I’m happier with a librarian whose prudishness gets in the way than her politics!

    Kitten, here’s hoping those kids learn the art of subterfuge real soon. One of the great things about reading is the freedom to stray beyond your own family’s way of looking at things.

    Roxanne, I think you are inadvertently saying that that peer and older-sibling recommendations (even by example) count for less than the librarian’s. I say we let the kid have whatever it is the cool kids are reading but also give him or her something he or she might actually enjoy. As Liz says, we all buy or check out books because they’re the cool thing, and may or may not get around to reading them. When I was a kid I would sometimes check out hard books just to impress myself 😉

  20. Shannon Stevenson says:

    >I understand there has been some discussion here of my recent essay in PW’s Children’s Bookshelf, so I thought I would respond. (I have also posted my response in other online forums discussing the issue). I’m glad my column has generated some impassioned debate. I fear, however, that some of the posts are coming from a misinterpretation of what I wrote. I feel compelled to point out that I do not engage in censorship, nor does my library. I admit that I don’t feel comfortable giving younger kids some YA books, but I still do it all the time, as do my colleagues. (And I do mention in my PW piece that I give kids the books they want, though I also might offer other suggestions.)

    My opinion column describes how I personally try to apply reader’s advisory to the situation when younger readers ask me for books outside the children’s library. I have never denied a child access to a book or told them they could or should not read a book. I also have never told any child they could not browse the YA section. When it comes to younger kids who have not read YA books before, I choose not to initially send them to that section without any guidance because they are not familiar with the materials there. And when I ask questions to try and find out more about what a kid wants to read, I feel I’m being responsible in filling their request as best I can which also allows me to learn more about my patrons. For instance, if every kid in the sixth grade at the nearby school wants to read a certain book, that’s important for me to know.

    Lots of kids want to read a book because it’s popular. Nothing wrong with that. But I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with me telling a younger reader what a YA book is about if they want me to. And, if a young patron who has asked for my help chooses not to engage in any further conversation with me beyond their initial book request, that’s fine, too. I simply give them the book they’ve asked for, without judgment.

    Again, I wrote about a typical scenario in my work as a children’s librarian. In the end, I do hope readers here will appreciate that our library places no restrictions on which books kids (or anyone else) can browse or check out. Neither do our librarians-me included.

    Of course, we can all agree that everyone is entitled to their opinion. I just wanted to try and clarify mine.

    Shannon Stevenson

  21. Anonymous says:

    >The cumulative effect of these comments gives a strange view of he typical library children’s room! Are all the books kept behind the desk, to be requested by individual (vouched-for) child? And dispensed by licenced/diplomaed librarian? Sounds like dystopian brave new world.

  22. Anonymous says:

    >Dear Ms. Stevenson,

    I am very sorry for suggesting that you were withholding Twilight from impressionable ten-year-olds because you were afraid they would grow up to be whiny self absorbed drama-queens. Was joking.

    In truth, I think most posters here see your point, even without clarification. What we cavil at is your evil twin who is a creature of our own imaginations laying down restrictive laws in lemony snicket’s local library.

  23. >Shannon, thanks for commenting here and clarifying. Your article is about a “thin line” as Roger points out, and I think it’s worth scrutinizing where that line lies.

    You say in your comment that “I simply give them the book they’ve asked for, without judgment.” But I don’t think that’s what’s happening, at least how you describe it in your article. There you say:

    “But if the readers are on their own, I ask if they think their parents would mind them checking out a YA book. If the kid hesitates at any point along the way, I ask if they might want to try something else and I find a substitution in the children’s room.”

    This is you trying to influence the reader to an end. I understand that you will still give them the YA book if they insist…but consider how children react to adult authority figures. They are not yet adults (isn’t that the whole point?). Here you are, asking them if they think their parents would approve…and that is the breaking point for many children.

    I think that a school library (as in fairrosa’s case) is different than a public library. In the public library, the librarians are here to put books in the sections where readers most expect to find them. We create an environment of openess, in which we don’t question and we don’t judge. We also are here to provide access…and so if we need to ask questions in order to get the reader to the material, we have to make sure that those questions are non-judgmental…which often contradicts the “social contract” that brought many of us to this work–one of “helping.” We help on a day to day basis by selecting and classifying materials, and by directing patrons. And we help in a way bigger than ourselves when we can withhold our personal judgment, and get the patrons to what they want.

    The 11 year old who doesn’t get Twilight from the public library will most likely get it from a friend anyway. Has that really “helped,” if the child now feels the public library is a watchdog?

    I think there are other ways to walk the fine line that you describe without crossing over. If a child asks for a book in the YA section, find it for them, and ask if they’d like other suggestions–at which point you can offer them a variety of other choices. Then: let them choose. They will pick what they need. (And I find they’ll often self-censor once they find out the book is in the teen section…or when they see the cover.) Just do not judge the request that they walked in the door with.


  24. Anonymous says:

    >We’ve been hyper-aware of these issues at my library ever since the day I had a wonderful author of young adult books do a fabulous presentation on the writing process for a group of kids aged 5th grade and up. The next day, I had a flurry of VERY angry phone calls from parents who were FURIOUS that I had brought such “horrible” literature into the lives of their children. Ironically, the books are quite light and sweet and unobjectionable: no sex, minimal violence, and well-written to boot.

    Our solution was two-fold: we created a section in between the juvenile fiction and young adult fiction, which we call “Advanced Readers”; in the Advanced Reader section we place books that reviewers rate as grades 5 to 8 and 6 to 9. In addition, when parents in this very conservative town complain to us about content in books, we teach those parents how to access book reviews in the library’s online catalog.

    I never turn a child away from a book, but I am conscious of those parents in our town who have very strong ideas of what their child should be reading, and I give those parents the tools to learn more about the books that their children are reading. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t worry about such things, but our library is funded by tax dollars, and each year at budget time we live in fear that our budget will be substantially reduced or cut. What could be worse than a town with no library at all?

  25. >I think part of the problem here is when people (librarians or anyone) try to decide what a child should read without considering that the parent might be fine with the choice of the “controversial” book. We often assume the opposite.

    As for my own little adventures with librarian disapproval, I can recall two. The first was when I was ten. A librarian didn’t want to help me get Treasure Island off of a high shelf because I wouldn’t like a “boy’s book.” Because I am contrary, I then asked her for Kidnapped, too.

    Not long after that, I decided I wasn’t interested in the children’s section anymore and wanted to check out books from the adult section. It wasn’t allowed. My mother had to go to the library with me after she got off work to check out books for me from then on. She had to be there so that I could be in the adult section. Much to the librarian’s dismay, she let me check out anything I wanted. I read Madame Bovary when I was 11. I can assure you that I didn’t get it. I didn’t “get” Sherlock Holmes’ drug usage or some of the relationship dynamics in Agatha Christie novels, either. I still read them and enjoyed them.

    My point is that it is easy to assume that a child shouldn’t read something based on either one’s own ideas of what is proper or on one’s ideas of what that child’s parents would think is proper. That’s a whole lot of assumptions. I wouldn’t feel comfortable making them.

    While I can appreciate striking up a conversation with a child about why a particular book interests him or her (especially when thinking about future reading possibilities), I can’t see myself trying to dissuade him or her from reading the book.

  26. Christina says:

    >Is it quite horrible that I almost wish we had a problem like this in my library? Our kids all read board books, and I don’t know how to get them to read something different. Of course, they wanted summer reading prizes– but come on! You’re going into fifth grade!

  27. Roger Sutton says:

    >Yes, Christina–one summer my library was roped into a deal with McDonalds–seven books for one hamburger. Picture books had never been so popular!

  28. Anonymous says:

    >I’m a children’s librarian, too, and I’ve had several experiences similar to this article. My approach is based solely on how well I know the kid: if I’ve had several conversations about books with the kid and I know them pretty well, then I’m honest and upfront about the content of the book. If I haven’t read the book, then I let them know what I’ve read in reviews, or what other kids and parents have told me. This way, they are informed and can make the decision best for them. I always make sure that they know that it’s my opinion and that they are more than welcome to disagree with me. I used this tactic with an 11 year-old girl I knew very well. She was very immature emotionally, but also oversexualized by what she was seeing on TV and in movies– her parents let her watch “The Hills” and “The Real World” on MTV. She came to me wanting “Gossip Girl” and I gave it to her, letting her know that there might be some stuff she’s not ready for. Sure enough, when I asked her about the book later, she said that she started it and realized that I had been right, and she wasn’t ready for it.

    My particularly unique form of RA has worked very well for me and I’ve had several kids and parents come to me for my honest opinions about books! They know it’s an opinion and some of the kids especially love coming back and agreeing or diagreeing with me! I also take the same stance with parents, and I find that many of them often appreciate a candid, honest opinion. But I only offer it if I’m explicity asked. And if I don’t know or haven’t read the book, I try and find someone on my staff who can help.

    Now, if I don’t know the kid, I don’t say anything but, “Oh, I haven’t read that yet. Please come tell me what you think of it and if you like and would recommend it to other kids.” Then I check the book out and send them on their way. This begins a personal relationship, and allows for the child to have someone to talk to about what they’re reading. (It also lets me know what’s “hot” and “good”!) I’ve had several kids come back to me and honestly tell me about a book– it’s often funny what happens if the book is too mature for them. (ie I’ll get a whispered, “There was kissing in that book!”) As others have said, many kids are great at self-censoring and what is too mature for them will often go over their heads.

    I think each individual librarian needs to find his or her own way to handle this situation. If we’re doing our jobs and creating personal relationships with our patrons, then most kids will feel comfortable coming and talking to us, especially those kids who may need extra help finding age-appropriate books.

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