Parents: should your younger children read YA books?

When I was a kid, I read lots of books written for children ranging from the very old to the contemporary. Classics of children's fiction as well as stories written when my parents were little were available at the library, as were the newer and more modern books. My parents didn't have to worry about these books; nobody would have dreamed of writing things in children's books that would be a problem for readers as young as eight or nine years old. Although young adult novels had been written as early as the late 1960s, the explosion of YA fiction hadn't begun yet when I was an avid child reader.

Today there are both Young Adult and New Adult books written; YA fiction is supposed to be for ages as young as 12, while NA are aimed at readers ages 18-24. What both of these books have in common, and what Middle Grade, or MG, fiction is not supposed to have, is sexual content, some of it very explicit.

Many parents of older middle-grade readers have no idea that a YA book their eleven-year-old is eager to read contains sexual passages that would have been considered pornographic by earlier generations. Even non-religious parents have complained that some of this content is too much, too soon for many readers up to children in their early teens; Christian parents who discover these books in their home may be appalled by what is in them.

Apart from explicit sexual content, many YA books contain adult themes that children as young as 8 or 9 simply aren't ready for. In addition to sex scenes, there are scenes featuring drinking and drug use; there is widespread use of profanity; there are scenes which push the envelope in terms of violence; there are occult elements including devil worship and other anti-Christian themes; and there is exploration of the hot topics of sexual orientation and gender identity.

When you discuss this with adults, some of them will shrug and point to elements in Chaucer and Shakespeare that were just as shocking to their audiences. But the point isn't that these edgy elements exist; the point is that even a precocious ten-year-old in Chaucer's or Shakespeare's day wouldn't have had much access to their works. But ten-year-olds today are often steered toward YA books when they have grown bored with the selections available on the middle grade shelves; the avid readers are especially pushed to challenge themselves with these books.

Worse, the growing popularity of YA books has led to a push for some MG fiction to expand into edgier content, though the argument that kids will read MG longer if MG contains elements formerly only found in YA is somewhat of an incoherent one.

In any case, I have always believed that parents are the best guides for their children as to the appropriateness of a particular book for a specific child. But many parents in these busy days simply don't know what the content of a popular novel their child may be begging for is really like. No matter how advanced a reader a child may be, I think many YA books are simply inappropriate for the youngest MG readers (8-10), with a few being possible for the older ones aged eleven and twelve, provided they are carefully chosen with the child in mind. 

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