When Precocious Readers Want Mature Books: It’s Your Call, Parents

by Laura Lambert

Photo credit: Philippe TURPIN, Photononstop/Getty Images

One steadfast policy I’ve had since my kids were old enough to ask is that I’d buy them any book they wanted. Typically, this works in my favor (though I have spent more money on manga than I probably care to admit!). The love of reading is my goal. The content? That’s on them.

But then my 15-year-old wanted to borrow my copy of Normal People, which I loved in a complicated, messy, adult kind of way. I paused. Did I want to explain consent? The power dynamics of sex and relationships? What abuse looks like? Or would I let her find her own way?

As with most big decisions, I gave it a day. And then I told her, “Hey, there’s some sexual stuff in there that might be a little intense. Just so you know.” She rolled her eyes and snatched the book from my bedside table. I’m pretty sure she read it in one sitting.

Later, she’d tell me that Normal People was nothing compared to a Colleen Hoover book she had just read. Well, OK!

I, for one, cannot judge. The book that turned me into a reader was Flowers in the Attic, full, as it was, of incest and other terrible, awful, unbelievable, gothic-y things. I tore through it, probably sometime in middle school. And it’s not like I was some lone weirdo. Flowers in the Attic was a viral sensation before #booktok was a thing — the old-fashioned way, by kids whispering, Oh my god, have you read that?! But my parents didn’t interrogate the books I read — something I always appreciated.

As it turns out, many tween and teen readers are turning to more mature books, like Colleen Hoover’s It Ends with Us. My not-easily-rattled (or impressed) 15-year-old didn’t enjoy the sex scenes and descriptions of abuse, and she made her own choice: This is not for me. She’s also talked to me about the difference in drug use in the streaming and book versions of Daisy Jones and the Six. I am not bothered by these conversations. In fact, I relish how we can chat about heavy topics in a tangential way — not some uber-intense family meeting-style discussion.

RELATED: What To Do If Your Child Is Interested in Books With Adult Themes

That’s the thing; when kids love reading, you don’t know where it will take them — or you. And maybe we have to be OK with that.

Because no two families are alike, I polled dozens of other book-minded moms about how they draw the line. And while book-banning headlines are evidence that some parents think reading about topics like sex, drugs, abuse, violence, gender identity, and the like is inherently dangerous for kids, plenty of parents believe otherwise. Some mothers of voracious young readers said they like to preview “adult” books beforehand by checking Common Sense Media. Another mom — an elementary school teacher — will hit pause until they and their child are ready to discuss any edgy subject matter.

“I’m a big believer that nothing is really ‘bad’ if she’s able to talk about it, contextualize it, and think critically about it,” says Ashely Austrew, a writer and mother in Omaha, Nebraska, of her 11-year-old daughter. “I’m more interested in her developing the tools to think and talk about and understand what she reads than I am about restricting access.”

Jamie Beth Cohen, an author and mother of a 10- and 13-year-old from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, also relishes the opportunity to talk about books. “My kids can read anything and everything they get their hands on. They often ask my husband or me to read a book after they’ve read it so we can talk about it. I love it when that happens.”

For Meg St-Esprit, a writer and mother of four from Pittsburgh, it’s not so much edgy content that she’s watching out for with her 11-year-old, an advanced reader. “He’s adopted, so I actually am more looking for those themes,” she says, adding that orphan tropes are very hard for him. Mostly, though, she echoes what many parents say, “I just want to know what he’s reading.”

Kids, however, aren’t always aware that parents are curious. Kim Jung, a therapist and mother of two in Los Angeles, says her 13-year-old daughter recently read It Ends with Us. When Jung asked about the iffy content, her daughter didn’t see any issue. “[She] just laughed at me and said, ‘Are you really paying attention to things like that?’”

Whether you’re the type of parent who is Googling every title on your child’s bedside table, one who feels that any book is a good book as long as they’re reading, or somewhere in between, the key, it seems, isn’t the book itself, but the ability to talk about the books we read, and to know other people — most especially our kids — as readers. And that’s one of the great pleasures of a reading life, regardless of age.