As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve read a wide range of genres lately. I’ve dabbled in a little of everything from memoir to fantasy and beyond. However, that’s not the only genre classification I’ve been blind to. Age groups are also used to classify literature, from children’s literature to young adult (YA) and adult. I, personally, ignore such genre restrictions when reading. From Dr. Seuss to Harry Potter all the way to Anna James Watson’s Blackmail, I really don’t care about age groups. If I want to read it, I’ll read it. If I like it, I like it.
Not everyone approaches reading with such abandon. Some people are real sticklers for age groups, with kids reading children’s books, adults reading adult books, and pre-teens and teens reading Middle Grade and YA. But are those realistic expectations?
No, no they’re not.
First of all, it’s almost impossible to define the genre of a book based on age groups. Yes, some age-based genres are more easily defined than others. Erotica like Blackmail clearly belongs in the adult group, and picture books like Dr. Seuss’s works can safely be defined as children’s books. What about Harry Potter? The books start off more as children’s books but, arguably, the dark tones and mature themes they later take on can be considered YA.
The Hunger Games? The Giver? Post-apocalyptic YA often teeters between YA with adult themes and adult books with YA-style writing. The Catcher in the Rye? Not everyone likes their YA with such vulgarity and others would claim that it’s a necessary part of the coming-of-age element which helps define the genre.
I’m sure that many will argue that these books more clearly fit into their age groups then I’m saying. That’s fine. I’d love for someone to spark an articulate debate about the matter. My point remains that books don’t often fit neatly into their age groups. This difficulty rings especially true for children’s book, as I learned in my undergraduate Children’s Literature course.
The second wrench in the “divide by age groups” campaign is a two-parter: people read at different levels and all the age groups bring their own special joy to readers.
I’ve always been an advanced reader. I was already reading in kindergarten and had to be set aside with tasks like writing down the alphabet so that I wouldn’t distract the other kids. I started reading Anne McCaffrey’s The Dragonriders of Pern and Jack London’s works when I was in the fifth grade. My mom was the same way and so was my oldest brother. We’re avid readers and that made us more advanced readers, too.
Many of my friends were also advanced readers as kids. We probably aren’t the best judges of age-based limitations because we’re not the average reader. We read at a higher level than the standard for ages, while other people read at a lower level than average. There’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just who we are. Still, the very fact that we must read outside of our age groups to feel properly stimulating demonstrates the difficulty of such classification.
Of course, our reading level doesn’t matter as much as our reading preference. While I can read at a high reading level, I often read Middle Grade and YA novels. In addition to being a Harry Potter fanatic, I love Percy Jackson, Artemis Fowl, and The Chronicles of Narnia.
Books intended for younger age groups offer a lot of entertainment value and make for a much more relaxing read. They can also make us think about the world around us without us realizing that’s what we are doing. Books for older age groups, on the other hand, more thoroughly explore themes established in younger books and address those situations which people find too “adult” for younger readers. The higher-level writing forces us to think more, and the novels stick with us for long after we’ve finished reading.
Some people are snobs about age groups, some secretly read younger books, and others–like myself–read whatever they want without caring who sees. The idea of what’s appropriate for which age groups is ever-changing and hard to define. No matter the age of their intended audiences, all books have their merits. So long as you want to read it, you should; it doesn’t matter if you read Dr. Seuss, Victor Hugo, or something in between. Go where your interests lie.
What are your thoughts? Should readers only read in their age group, or should we feel free to read whatever we want (at least once we’re 18)? Start a discussion, drop a line in the comments.