[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]
A parent once e-mailed me, asking if my first novel was appropriate for a thirteen-year-old girl to read.
This kind of question is impossible to answer.
Parental opinions vary wildly as to what thirteen-year-old girls (or boys, or children of any other age you care to name) should and should not be reading. One doesn’t want their kid encountering anything rated worse than G. Another doesn’t mind fairly graphic violence, but won’t tolerate sexual content of any kind. A third figures, hey, they’ll find out about sex eventually — but God help you if your novel features two men so much as kissing.
What are you worried about? Sex? Swearing? Blood and gore? Bloodless suspense that will give your kid nightmares for a month? Drug use? Where exactly do you put the bar on all of these topics? And how the heck am I supposed to know?
And that’s just the question of what the parent is looking for. How about the one who will be reading the book? All thirteen-year-olds are not created identical. One girl may be ready for a story that would utterly traumatize her friend. One boy has the judgment to understand that the bad behavior of the characters isn’t something he should emulate; another doesn’t. It’s a function of their maturity, not their age, and those two things don’t map as perfectly as we’d like. Age is an easy thing to communicate, though, while maturity isn’t, and we therefore cling to those numbers as if they tell us something useful. “This book is suitable for readers 10 and up.” Maybe. On average. Assuming your priorities match those of whoever assigned the ratings. But their idea of how much blood a ten-year-old is ready for might not be the same as yours, and it’s possible that neither one matches what your ten-year-old is ready for.
But there’s no easy way around it, either. Kids have to decide what to read, and parents have to decide whether they think that’s a good idea or not. And authors (sometimes) have to answer questions about whether their books are “suitable.” The best I can do from my end is to answer with a description: it has X amount of violence and Y amount of sex and Z amount of swearing, and anything else I think a parent or reader might be worried about, and then let them make up their own minds.