I recently had an interesting discussion with some friends about parental censorship. I’m not talking about the book-burning nightmare or library-banning nonsense you see all over the place, but about parents choosing which books to offer their kids and which to keep away until they’re older. Instinctively, I abhor censorship, for all the reasons most writers would – who’s to say what ideas should be banned? But as a parent, I see the other side of the coin. Children are different. As parents we do have both a right and a responsibility to monitor what our kids are exposed to. So censorship for children is a tricky issue – what is too much? What should children be protected from?

For my own part, I have always seen a difference between images and text. Images are powerful in a different way than words. We can’t mediate them easily by talking about them, and they have the strength to scar. So images – especially TV and movies – were most definitely censored for my young children. Some things you just shouldn’t see until you’re old enough. But books are in a different category. For those, I kept graphic horror and sex out of the house, but didn’t keep my kids from much else. My attitude was that in the realm of ideas, and the stories that carry them, they could pretty much read whatever they wanted to. At the same time, I tried to be aware of what they were reading, so we could talk about it.

Stories in which there is great evil, for example, were always in our personal library. This includes stories in which there’s a fair amount of emotional darkness – adults who are cruel, even abusive. These ideas might be disturbing, but I believe that kids have a lot of darkness to deal with – both from within and without – and literature is a way to process those kinds of feelings and realities. Best of all, if you know what your kids are reading, is to talk about it with them. Talking about ideas, and wrestling with hard things in books is, to my way of thinking, the best way to prepare kids for life.

I notice that in many reader reviews of Zebra Forest, this idea comes up. Some people call it too dark, or talk about it as an adult book that’s too old for middle schoolers because of its themes. While I respect any parent’s knowledge of his or her own child (which is what I think you always need to make these decisions, because it’s not universal), I think of my own 12-year-old self, as an example, or of my own kids. There are plenty of difficult and painful family situations out there, and books help people think about them, and how to deal with them. Most important, books build empathy. Even the happiest child can use some of that.

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