When Is a Daughter Old Enough to Read a Book About Rape?

I already know I'm uncomfortable with the idea of Diana reading scary,
adult books.
This situation is helped by the fact that  she, too, is
uncomfortable with the idea of reading scary, adult books. OK, fine.
But here's the thing: as we (both) get older, there looms ahead the
large and confusing specter of…YA.
I remember when I found the Young Adult section as a kid, and how
thrilled I was. Finally, books about teenagers! Who wore lipstick! And
complained! It was almost like getting to hang out with the cool kids
but you were invisible, which suited me just fine. It was all a
thrilling ride.
Oh, how I wish, though, that I could remember how old I
was when that happened. Because I picked up a book on the street the
other day (and thank you, book-reading residents of Brooklyn, for being
so generous with books you've read) called Speak.

Images-7

The cover (I know, I
know, we shouldn't judge a book by one, I know) looked fairly intense,
grown-up. I took it, along with Villette, and moseyed on down the
street with Diana, towards home.
It was as I was walking that I saw it was a YA novel. Given my
commitment to this blog, I thought, OK, I'll read it, we'll see. Maybe I'll write about it, and since Diana is an extremely gifted and precocious reader, and is already reading grown up books, then
I'll just pass it on to her. "Hey, Diana," I said, "I have a book
here you might want to read."
Then I read it.
It's
really gripping. And smart. And heartfelt. And it's [spoiler alert! do
not read further if you want to find out the story for yourself] about
a 9th grade girl who gets raped by a senior at a party over the summer
after eight grade.
See, I can watch myself writing that sentence and think, Well, who
needs to know about that more than a 10-year-old girl soon to enter
junior high? And at the same time think, she doesn't need to know about that until—when? 13? That's when it happens to the girl in the book. 12? 11?
But she's 10. Ten. Only ten.
I
know that no one is telling me to give these books to her to read, and
that she's not asking for them, and this is largely an invented
internal crisis (if one can call it a crisis at all). But it makes me
wonder. A friend whose child is autistic once told me that she'd heard
a sex offender being interviewed. He said that extremely innocent children
made the easiest victims. And for all I know Diana already knows that something called rape exists.
Speak is a powerful book about a girl finding her voice,
and casting off shame, and figuring out how to protect herself. I do
want her to read it. Someday. Except that somewhere I also don't. I don't ever want her to have to know about it. Even though I think it's great, and that girls everywhere should read it. I  just don't.

20 thoughts on “When Is a Daughter Old Enough to Read a Book About Rape?

  1. Your daughter is already reading about rape. I had already read tons of stories about rape in readers digests in my grandmothers living room (what is up with that magazine?!) when I was 8. I thought oral sex was like a book report about sex, but I knew people had been forced to do it in the back of cars.
    Your daughter has the internet, and you are fooling yourself if you think she’s an innocent little lamb who Has No Idea. Give her the book, if you approve of the message then you should want her to have it. If you pretend she’s too pure to be spoiled by such things, she’ll just get her messages elsewhere. Perhaps at her friends house, on a BDSM message board.

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  2. My daughter, who is currently 9, but in fourth grade with many 10-year-olds, is desperate to read Twilight. Which I told her she could do when she turned 10 (because I kind of thought there was no way she would still be interested in a year). I am not totally cool with her reading that…and I really am quite sure she isn’t reading about rape on the internet…
    The point being – I share your dilemma…how much to inform and when?

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  3. It’s interesting to read your post about rape right after seeing that you’ve got her reading about Will of the Empress. That book deals with rape as well, if in a fantasy setting, so she’s already reading about it! You’ve got built in jumping off point right there.
    Will of the Empress also deals with Daja coming discovering she has feeling for women and coming out to her friends, in case you aren’t familiar with that plot point.

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  4. I had the same dilemma with my now 16 year old daughter. She did not know what rape was when she was 10- but by the time she was 12 she did. It is likely your daughter will navigate towards the books with which she is more comfortable- probably not Speak at this age. We went with books that were more complex in vocabulary or plot but avoided the harder/YA like themes. Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books were a favorite as the violence was not personally threatening. I read Speak and loved it, but it is a book that my daughter would still not choose to read. Good luck with this dilemma- for us this stage was not too long and then we didn’t have to worry about books hurting our daughter.

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  5. The muddle of wanting her to be smart and knowledgeable and protect herself will always war with the wish that she never have to know the horrors of the world. I agree with those who have said to let her lead the way here.
    Glad that we’re still reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar and One Fish, Two Fish!

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  6. It’s true, no doubt, that she knows about rape, but there is (in my mind anyway) some distinction between knowing about it and reading about it happening to someone like you. It’s just–scary. But then again, she read the post (after I had surrounded it with lots of less intense fluff).

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  7. for my 10th birthday I remember getting a great stack of books, today they are my comfort books – To Kill A Mockingbird, The Caine Mutiny, and the Lord of the Ring series. My parents thought I was too young, but also trusted that I would stop reading a book if it made me uncomfortable. I knew what rape was from the news, but To Kill a Mockingbird was the first time I remember reading about it, I can’t recommend a better introduction at that age. It is not the same situation but it does start to deal with the reality of those stories.

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  8. I am constantly torn between (1) total intellectual freedom and trust in the child reader/thinker & (2) wanting to protect children from the ideas and truths that might hurt them/flip their world.
    I feel professionally obligated to err on the side of intellectual freedom and trust — but I do give students a heads-up about books that I think will work better for them at a slightly older age, and I tell them clearly why I have reservations.
    If they still want to borrow the book, I say it’s fine, of course, because I know that if they get freaked out, they know how to close the book. and then usually in a joking way I ask “right? …you DO know how to close the book if you need to, right?” and they usually laugh and say yes.
    (for me) it’s about letting the reader come to the book on her own–and then trusting her to know whether it fits…and knowing that books don’t wreck us.
    that said, I sympathize–a big worry for me is how attractive YA covers are–and how younger and younger students want to read them because they’re so commercially attractive compared to books for younger readers /and because “young adult” is so glamorized. I’m not convinced this isn’t insidious–and I’m not sure how to handle it.

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  9. This is a difficult decision. I’m not a parent myself, but I have read that book. It is a wonderful book, and I too want everyone to read it, but at the same time, it is a painful and difficult book. It doesn’t deal with rape in passing. It deals with it in depth, up close, and personal. I would let her come to that book on her own.
    That said, I don’t think she’s too young to read about rape. I myself was sexually abused at age 12, and many people are abused at all ages. It’s very important to have that knowledge, so if something like that starts happening to you, you understand what is happening and that you need to say something about it. Because unfortunately, many people do what Melinda did, and say nothing. So I don’t think anyone’s ever too young to be educated about rape.

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  10. I’m here from Finslippy and also a YA librarian. My touchstone for what kids might be ready to handle in a book is the fact that I read Forever when I was ten. I was in sixth grade, a year younger than my classmates. Thirty years later I still remember most of my math class laughing hysterically when the teacher read a word problem featuring a boy named Ralph.
    Anyhow, Speak is such a wonderful, powerful book (“You’ll laugh, you’ll cry,” as Broadway reviews always say). Anderson doesn’t go into clinical detail about the rape, but she delves deeply into Melinda’s psyche and her slow recovery. I also loved how art helped her heal. I probably wouldn’t recommend the book to a ten-year-old asking for suggestions, but I wouldn’t stop her from reading it.

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  11. I was raped when i was 15. I was a very young 15 (not that anyone is old enough to deal with it); my mom had barely told me that things like that had happened. don’t know what you should think – i have a son now who is 5 months old, i don’t know how things go with boys but i know the conversations will be different.

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  12. I love the suggestion of To Kill a Mockingbird – I think that I will file that one away for when my daughter is approaching YA age.
    I worry about these things too, but I think that the presentation of the rape in TKAM is couched in lots of other issues (race, class, etc) that will lead to good discussions. It’s a way to introduce the topic without handing her something that’s SOLELY about rape.

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  13. To Chef Christine (and others with similar comments and posts): thank you for sharing your painful perspective. It’s stories like yours that push me toward the idea of putting this book out there, of letting girls know that this happens, and it isn’t a girl’s or woman’s fault, and she can survive and protect herself. Letting girls—and boys—talk about this can only help, I think.

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  14. Book 1 of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants delves into the issues as well…. very veiled and unclear as to what exactly happened, but this book is marketed heavily to pre-teens

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  15. My mom was an elementary school teacher who collected kids books (including YA). We just always had them around, so we could come to them on our own. Sometimes she would recommend a title, more often we would explore for ourselves. I clearly remember reading books that were too ‘old’ for me, and if they were scary, I would put them down. Mostly though I read them anyway, and come out the other side having maybe understood someone else’s experience.
    I’m 30 and expecting my first child and *still* read YA books – familiar ones from my youth and ones I’ve never read. I think YA fiction, more than any other genre, deals with heavy, painful issues with real compassion for the characters (and the reader). I remember books about World War II, child abuse, conflict in the middle east, accidental pregnancy and a subsequent abortion (set in the 1930s), about friends dying, about Hiroshima… pretty much all kinds of trauma were addressed through the eyes of the child characters. I think I was much better off learning about these experiences this way than from TV or other ‘adult’ oriented media.
    Sorry for the long post! 🙂

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  16. For whatever it’s worth, I remember a girl being ostracized and teased in my 3rd grade class in 1975 (so we were all 8) for *not* knowing what rape was. My mom’s rule was you can read ANYTHING but you can’t watch TV: the difference being that books allow for a slight gap between what you read and what you see. We had plenty of reference books around, too, so I could cross-check fiction and fact, and I was allowed to ask any questions I wanted. I read Shogun at 9, knew the effects of heroin by the time I was 10, and entered 6th grade with a working knowledge of birth control. The upshot? I was a really savvy kid when it came to personal safety. I think the combination of the emotional intelligence reading gives you and the facts you can get from YA novels buttressed with other informational sources served me well.

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  17. I’m not here to tell anyone how to parent, certainly. But I want to suggest that this book might be a tool to establish an open line of communication.
    I had several friends growing up who could comfortably discuss and ask about anything they wanted with their mothers. That communication was established before we were ten. My mother didn’t operate that way. And it left me curious, feeling alone, and later, in a few precarious situations.
    There is no perfect answer for any issue in parenting. But, I just want to suggest that even though some issues may be so difficult for us to bring up or discuss with innocent munchkins, the alternative might be worse down the line. It’s a question of how we want our children to hear about what these things are – from us in a controlled environment, or in school/social circles/etc. It’s amazing what they already know…
    Good luck and God bless.

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  18. I also have a 10 yr old daughter who is emerging as a reader, and I have wondered what to let her read, or suggest to her very sensitive little mind. I can understand your questions. I read about rape (understanding it) as a 12 yr old, and it was traumatizing but useful to know. 10 just seems almost too young, however we are in a day and age when things are all around us, and i wonder if it isn’t better for our children to know firsthand from us things rather than encounter them on their own in some sort of situation where they might not understand or they themselves could be hurt…
    I loved the TKAM suggestion- such an excellent (and still relevant!) book!
    I just discovered your blog today and enjoy it much, thanks 🙂

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  19. In the 90s they had a series of books about children who were abused, sexually abused, sick with cancer, had alcoholic parents, etc. They were educational and taught kids how to ask for help–they were all geared towards kids like 6+
    It’s heavy material, but I think Speak is much less traumatic than those books I was told to read as a small child.

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