What We Talk About When We Talk About “Inappropriate” Books for Kids

The Book: Challenged in 2010 for giving an 11-year-old nightmares. The Movie: Comes out March 2012, when it will probably give some more 11-year-olds nightmares. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

I’ve been re-reading Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series in preparation for the first movie, which comes out at the end of March.  I’ve also been re-thinking about the challenge that put The Hunger Games on the ALA’s “Books Challenged and/or Banned in 2011” list: a complaint from a New Hampshire mother to the Goffstown School Board in 2010.

This particular mother’s problems with The Hunger Games were, according to the School Library Journal, that the book gave her eleven-year-old daughter nightmares and might numb other children to the effects of violence.  “There is no lesson in this book except if you are a teenager and kill twenty-three other teenagers, you win the game and your family wins.”  So says the school board’s minutes, anyway.

Whether or not one agrees that this is the only possible take-away point from The Hunger Games (spoiler: I don’t), there’s other interesting issues involved in challenging The Hunger Games in particular and books offered for school reading in general:

1.  When we say a certain book is “inappropriate” for children, what do we mean?  

2.  How does our definition of “inappropriate” affect our willingness to call for an outright ban of a book?

Book challenges revolve around the idea that a particular book or series is “inappropriate” in some way.  Without bothering to define “inappropriate,” the ALA notes that “sex, profanity, and racism remain the primary categories of objections,” though violence, drug use, war, and death are also high on the list.  One thing we obviously mean when we say a book is “inappropriate” is “it deals with topics deemed too heavy for children.”

According to one challenge, this book “glorifies drinking, cursing, and premarital sex.” Sure it does – if by “premarital sex” you mean “rape,” and if by “glorifies” you mean “exposes the horrors of.” Frankly, after what the protagonist goes through here, I think she’s entitled to curse. (Image via Wikipedia.)

For instance, consider Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, which made the 2011 banned-books list on the grounds that it was “soft pornography” that “glorifie[d] drinking, cursing, and premarital sex.”  Speak‘s plot actually focuses on the experiences of a teenage girl who was raped by a classmate at a party, and who must find it in herself to fight back against shame, victim-blaming, and further sexual exploitation.  Far from “glorifying” rape (the only “premarital sex” that actually takes place in the book is not consensual on the narrator’s part), drinking, and cursing, the book explores how rape is terrifying yet also survivable; how getting drunk is not, contrary to popular opinion, a free card to raping someone nor an excuse to blame a drunk victim; and how cursing is something we do in response to horrible situations – or how we degrade others further by calling them dehumanizing names.  Yet Speak was challenged, not because it exposed rape, drinking, and cursing for what they are, but because it talked about them at all.

Unsurprisingly, book challenges based on this definition of “inappropriate” are far more likely to be based not on how these topics are presented, but the fact that they are presented.  It assumes that some topics should be kept out of the reach of all children, regardless of their age, personal maturity, or resources for discussing said topic.   It assumes that some topics are simply so terrible, traumatizing, or taboo that no literary treatment could render them suitable for anyone under age 18 – not even if those same children have actually experienced said topic for themselves.

(In the case of Speak, it’s particularly saddening to consider that some of the book’s readers may be teens who were actually raped.  Because Speak deals with rape, however, at least one parent wanted to eliminate it from the library options for all teens, including rape survivors.  One wonders what, if anything, that parent is doing to eliminate actual teen rapes.  But I digress.)

Not surprisingly, defining “inappropriate” as “books that cover topics I find squicky” is prime ground for demands that a book be banned from a library or pulled from a classroom curriculum. It’s also the easiest way to get one’s dander up, because it doesn’t actually involve reading any books.  Speak talks about sex rape?  Get it out of here; I don’t want my kids knowing sex is a thing.  The Hunger Games explores the horrible effects of state-sponsored murder and objectification?  Not in my school’s library, it doesn’t!  And so on.

I prefer a different approach.

Rather than defining “inappropriate” as “books that deal with topics I find squicky,” I prefer to define “inappropriate” as “books that deal with their subject matter in a way that a particular reader can’t make sense of.”  When I talk about whether or not a book is “inappropriate,” what I talk about is whether or not the book handles its subject matter – from sex and drugs to puppies and rainbows – in a way that its actual or intended audience can engage with.

I believe any topic can be made age-appropriate.  I also believe any topic should be made age-appropriate.  If a child is old enough to ask how babies are made or what Mutual Assured Destruction is, that child is old enough to hear an answer zie can understand.  Kids aren’t stupid, and they do live in the same world as the rest of us.  They know sex, drugs, death, and swearing are things.  The question is how they will deal with those things in their own lives – and how we can best prepare them to make healthy and consensual choices when they encounter these things in the real world.

Under this definition, of course, picking the right book for the right kid takes more work than merely ranting at a school board meeting because you heard that Bridge to Terebithia contains the word “damn.”  It sometimes even means getting the book-kid match wrong – and helping your kid work through the consequences.

An example: when I was in tenth grade, our history teacher assigned us reading passages from John Hersey’s Hiroshima, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning article that was later released in book format.  Hiroshima, for the uninitiated, describes what happened in those fateful days on and after August 6, 1945, when the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on the eponymous city.

In detail.  Extensive, gruesome, heart-wrenching detail.  I’m-about-to-throw-up-in-class detail.

The “Hiroshima Maidens,” who were transported to Tokyo, the U.S. and other major world locales for treatment of their radiation burns and other injuries after the nuclear blast at Hiroshima, Japan. (Image via the city of Hiroshima; click to visit site.)

Hiroshima was the only reading assignment I never finished, and the reason I didn’t finish it is because, to my 14-year-old self, the descriptions in it of the survivors’ tormet were, frankly, horrifying.  I couldn’t handle them.  I took the book back up to the teacher’s desk, handed it to him, and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t read any more of this.”  (He let me off the hook; my shaking hands and decidedly green complexion might have had something to do with that.)

Was Hiroshima “inappropriate” for fifteen-year-old me?  Yes and no.  I could have gotten the same message – “atomic bombs do horrible, horrible things to real live humans and other animals” – from a less graphic book.  But the very fact that “atomic bombs do horrible, horrible things” was  my take-away from that tenth-grade history reading indicates that Hiroshima was an appropriate choice for me at the time.  After all, I learned exactly what the teacher was trying to convey.

Defining a book’s “inappropriateness” by its approach rather than its topic is far less likely to lead to a demand for a ban.  Different books approach topics differently, and what works for one kid may not work for another.  In this situation, it makes sense to have as many different approaches available as possible, so as to reach as many children as possible on any given subject.  It also makes sense to create an environment where your children feel safe speaking to you about any topic, secure in the knowledge that you will neither condemn them nor confiscate their personal libraries.  It’s all part of raising kids with enough inner tools to make their own good choices.

After all, children are people, and this Earth is the only rock they’ve got.  We may as well teach them what challenges they’re likely to face.  Maybe they can do a better job of solving these problems than we have.



  1. Hell, the Hunger Games books gave ME nightmares. But I think they are beautiful, wonderful books, and I plan to read them again sometime (and I hope my as yet hypothetical kids will read them too someday) because they are powerful books.

    When I was thirteen I read a book by Richard Peck called “Are You in the House Alone?” I don’t want to give away what happens in this book, but I will tell you that the protagonist was a teenage girl who was sexually active and gets raped by a boy in her school who is the star athlete that supposedly every girl loves. After this girl is raped, no one believes her because she wasn’t a virgin and she loses some of her friends and the rapist is never punished for his crimes. At the end of the book the girl is talking to her mother, and she says “We should have done something. We still should.” And her mother says “Like what?” and turns away. And the book ends.

    Thirteen year old me was PISSED OFF at this book, and I hated it for years. YEARS. Until one day when I was in college and talking to some of my classmates about this book (it was a young adult literature class) and they asked me why I hated it so much, and I told them what happened in the book, the description I just gave you, and they all pretty much agreed that it was horrible but “probably pretty accurate as to what actually happens often when rape is reported.” That hit me like a brick to the face, and I tracked down a copy of the book and read it again, and it was like I was reading a different book. What I once thought was horrible now seemed brilliant. But the thing is, the book hadn’t changed. I was the one who had changed. What I once saw as the author judging the lead character and saying she deserved what happened to her I now saw was the author being honest about how a woman who is sexually active in other situations is seen as “asking for it.” Richard Peck wasn’t saying that this girl deserved anything that happened to her. He was saying that other people were saying that, and it was wrong, and it should stop. It was a damn bold statement to make even in the 70s which were supposedly so liberal (old prejudices die hard).

    I guess I’m just ranting to agree with you that sometimes books are inappropriate for us at the times we read them, but that we can still learn from the experience, and I wouldn’t ever want to take that opportunity away from anyone else.


  2. FamilyJones says:

    Hey Dani,
    Thanks for the info, Tonight my five year old daughter (who is already plowing through Encyclopedia Brown books in her spare time) comes up to me with my copy of Charlaine Harris’s ‘Dead in the Family’ and says, “This book has Uncle Eric in it!” in her creepy-silly voice. Meaning she’s read some portion of it (horrors!) and is amused that Eric Northman has the same first name as my brother.

    Should I place these books under lock and key? What about my husband’s books on embalming, cannibalism, and murder? And then everything on my bookshelf from Lynda Barry’s ‘Cruddy’ to Charles Patterson’s ‘Eternal Treblinka’ would be near-traumatizing for a kid to read.

    Then again, I read ‘Tommyknockers’ when I was 7 and only had nightmares for…. a few years.

    What do you do when your child’s reading abilities exceed their emotional understanding for what they’ve read?

    Has anyone had any ‘Oh sh!t!” moments like this when they realized their kids could read (and comprehend relatively well) anything?


  3. Dani Alexis says:

    I’m sure my parents had one of those “oh shit!” moments. 😀 My father kept his Stephen King collection in a cupboard I couldn’t reach. (Not even when I got old enough to appreciate Stephen King, but I’m short like that.)

    Starting when I was in kindergarten (as best I recall), my parents teamed up with the elementary school librarian to expose me to a lot of classic children’s books that were up to my actual reading level, but didn’t deal with the more-appropriate-for-teenagers themes a lot of YA stuff does today. I blew through nearly all of Beverly Cleary’s books in kindergarten, along with The Secret Garden, the Narnia chronicles (which I thought then were just good adventures; I didn’t grasp the Christian allegory or the rampant Islamophobia until years later), and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. During elementary, I also read L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series and Emily of New Moon series, Margaret Sidney’s Five Little Peppers books, and the Betsy, Tacey & Tice books. (Also Little Women and its sequels and The Wind in the Willows, both of which I hated.)

    I read a lot of aimed-at-my-age-group stuff too, even though it was below my reading level, because emotionally and socially I was still a kid and because it was what all my friends were reading. I was pretty crazy over Judy Blume, the Baby-sitters Club, and the Saddle Club books when was 9 or 10. 🙂

    If you don’t mind pre-screening for possibly objectionable racial stereotypes, pretty much any of the children’s series published by Stratemeyer, Saalfield, and A.L. Burt from about 1890 to 1940 are safe picks for a young advanced reader. They released chapter book series for kids as young as first or second grade (the Bobbsey Twins, the Six Little Bunkers, and the Honey Bunch series, for instance, all from Stratemeyer – Grosset & Dunlap owns them now, IIRC) all the way up to 12 to 13 (Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Dana Girls, Ruth Fielding, Penny Parker, etc.).

    These days, the age recommendations have more to do with reading level than ability-to-understand-the-topics. Even the series aimed at “older” kids are generally devoid of violence, have no sex in them at all, and contain danger only so the resourceful main character(s) can resourcefully get out of it. Even as an adult, I appreciate how a lot of these books (I particularly love Edith Lavell’s Girl Scout series) manage to be non-stop adventures without being the least bit disturbing in the omg-danger-violence sense, and without resorting to obviously watered-down language.

    Also, a lot of these series are available for free on Google Books or Project Gutenberg, if your young reader (or you) doesn’t mind e-reading. 🙂 (The Nancy Drews are available from Applewood Press, if you can’t find or can’t afford originals. Starting in the 1960s, these books were heavily revised, and the new ones simply aren’t as good, IMO, than the originals – though they’re still not bad.)

    /novel about novels


  4. Dani Alexis says:

    Oh! and James Herriot. I think my father and I read every single book James Herriot ever published. 🙂 Especially good if your reader likes animals and/or wants to be a veterinarian.


  5. Dani Alexis says:

    I guess I’m just ranting to agree with you that sometimes books are inappropriate for us at the times we read them, but that we can still learn from the experience, and I wouldn’t ever want to take that opportunity away from anyone else.

    This is exactly what I was trying to get at when I said that sometimes we have to risk getting the reader-book match wrong, but you’ve said it with much more elegance and clarity than I did. As usual. 🙂

    Anecdotally, if I had read The Hunger Games at age 11 and had nightmares from it, my mother would not have stormed the local school board demanding that said book be removed from the curriculum/library. She would have read it too, and then talked to me about what scared me, and what valuable lessons I got from it, and what I might do in some analogous real-life situation. (For instance, I’m probably never going to be thrown in an arena with 23 other teenagers to fight to the death. But if I’m in a place where I can help someone, maybe I ought to do it, because they might help me later – see, e.g., when Katniss teams up with Rue and then Thresh spares her life for it.)

    (Incidentally, my mother read The Hunger Games right after I did, because I loaned her my copies that you sent me and was all “YOU MUST READ THESE.” So this parent-child-book-sharing-meaningful-discussion-having doesn’t have to stop when one’s kids turn 18.) 🙂

    Which is all *me* rambling to say that I think part of getting the match wrong is part of reading, and of growing up. And that I can’t imagine a time in my life when I would rather have faced a potentially dangerous or upsetting situation totally unaware instead of having been scared/saddened/etc. by reading about it in a book first. Books prepared me for the seamy underside of real-human life in a lot of way. They still do.


  6. I’d add the “Happy Hollister” series, if you can get your hands on the books. It’s about a family of kids who solve murders and my brother and I ate those up when we were seven and eight. I also loved the Boxcar Children series and pretty much anything by Wylly Folk St. John (especially “Uncle Robert’s Secret”) because they were mysteries with resourceful kids who figured things out and helped each other. Ooh, and anything by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, especially “Libby on Wednesday” which is about a gifted little girl who is home schooled for the first 11 years of her life and then has to learn to socialize with “normal” kids in a public school and she only survives because she’s part of a writing group with other kids who love to tell stories. It’s a GREAT book and I still love it some 15 years after I first read it.


  7. Dani Alexis says:

    Speaking of Zilpha Keatley Snyder, The Egypt Game was pretty fantastic too. There are some particularly tense/scary moments when one of the Egypt Game-ers almost gets kidnapped, but it all works out in the end, thanks to the resourcefulness of the youngest member of the club.

    Also, Rachel Field’s Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, Monica Furlong’s Wise Child and Juniper (though maybe not in kindergarten), and Sylvia Cassedy’s Behind the Attic Wall (lots of “family are people with whom you share a mutual bond of love” business, and also “disagreeable people may have had a really hard life, so it’s a decent thing to do to be kind to them if you can, instead of just returning their disagreeableness” business).


  8. This is a wonderfully expressed essay on the theme. I appreciate your clarity and reading the comments as well. I am lucky to be half way through my 13th year in my K-12 school library without an official challenge. (Although one parent wrote me a note expressly forbidding her children to borrow books on dragons or witchcraft, but we agreed to allow her to enforce that on her own.) I will borrow your definition of ‘inappropriate’ as “books that deal with their subject matter in a way that a particular reader can’t make sense of”, If you don’t mind and I am reblogging this so my readers can read it too.


  9. Reblogged this on Going Beyond Survival in a School Library and commented:
    “Rather than defining “inappropriate” as “books that deal with topics I find squicky,” I prefer to define “inappropriate” as “books that deal with their subject matter in a way that a particular reader can’t make sense of.” When I talk about whether or not a book is “inappropriate,” what I talk about is whether or not the book handles its subject matter – from sex and drugs to puppies and rainbows – in a way that its actual or intended audience can engage with.”


  10. Candice says:

    This is such a good argument for what’s inappropriate. My biggest irritant is when parents begin screaming that something is inappropriate for their child. Well, yes… The Hunger Games IS inappropriate for an 11 year old. It was pointed out somewhere in the discussion that all books and the way certain subject matter is presented isn’t suitable for everyone; that’s exactly right. I know it’s sort of a fine line when it comes to assigned reading; I imagine teachers are hard-pressed to find books that are both appropriate for all students as well as fitting whatever curriculum they are trying to teach. I guess that’s why so many stick with books that are deemed “classics” which is a shame because I think that sometimes ends up turning kids off to reading. I digress though… In today’s world there are so many things that kids (and by kids I mean anyone up to 18) are exposed to and to take away something that could better help them understand what is happening or exposing them to something that is very real (rape, drugs, etc.) because you find it “inappropriate” is plain wrong. Whew, great discussion! Glad I found it!


  11. Dani Alexis says:

    By all means. I love a good reblogging. 🙂


  12. euphqueen1 says:

    Yeah, The Hunger Games is probably going to be inappropriate for most 11-year-olds. It’s marketed as being for ages 12+, but I’d say it’s more for the older junior high/younger high school crowd. On the other hand, some 11-year-olds might be able to handle it. I think it would just depend on how mature they are and how sensitive to violence they are.

    Inappropriateness shouldn’t be used as a rigid term. I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to say “this book is inappropriate for children,” rather, “this book is inappropriate for my child at this stage of his/her development,” taking into account the child’s actual maturity. So often “inappropriate for children” is used to mean “I don’t want my kid reading books on this topic because I am not comfortable with the idea of my child growing up.” And just because one person’s kid had nightmares about The Hunger Games doesn’t mean someone else’s kid isn’t going to love the series and have social epiphanies from it.


  13. Dani Alexis says:

    And just because one person’s kid had nightmares about The Hunger Games doesn’t mean someone else’s kid isn’t going to love the series and have social epiphanies from it.


    And, to confuse the whole thing further, I think it’s even possible to read a book that gives one nightmares and leads to enjoyment and social epiphanies.

    I had all of the above from The Hunger Games, though I wasn’t a kid when I read the series. But I was about 11 when I read both Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl and Johanna Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Both became instant favorites; both taught me a great deal about the need to treat myself and others gently for the world is full of suffering and I don’t need to pile more on; and both left me with periodic nightmares.

    Reading, like being human, is a messy, complicated, experiencing-a-billion-things-at-once-and-maybe-turning-out-better-for-it sort of experience, methinks. Certainly neither reading nor being human are as easy as “FOUR LEGS GOOD TWO LEGS BAD” (to use a literary reference, lol).


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