‘Are your books appropriate for kids?’

We get asked this question frequently during conventions, and I still struggle with it. My first response, after a thoughtful pause, is usually to ask how old their children are. I confess that I still don’t know how to answer even after they tell me. For such a simple question, there’s a lot wrapped up in it.

For starters, there’s the widespread assumption that books about superheroes are aimed at kids. I’m sure that this was once true, but I don’t think it’s been true for at least 20 years. If I were to guess the average age of comic book store customers, I would say the mid-to-late 20s.

There’s also the assumption that illustrated books are for kids. Neither of these are true. For a long time, Americans assumed that cartoons were for kids, but after nearly 30 years of risque shows like The Simpsons, South Park, Futurama, and Ren & Stimpy, not to mention the widespread appeal of Pixar movies, this assumption has diminished somewhat. But for whatever reason, having pictures in a book signals to many people that it’s at least a light read, if not kidlit. I remember one gentleman who excitedly grabbed one of our novels when he was told it was illustrated, only to balk at the prose density:
“There’s a lot of words in this!”
“Yes, it’s a novel.”
“I thought you said it was illustrated.”
“It is.”
“But there are a lot of words in it!”

To a certain extent, this prejudice is understandable. After all, when was the last time you saw a New York Times Bestselling Novel with an illustration somewhere other than the cover (and often not even then!)? In the 19th century, illustrations were common in literature, but alas, this time has passed.

(Part of what inspired Shell to add illustrations to our prose books is that it’s commonplace in Japan. Shell really enjoys books like Vampire Hunter D, Slayers, and Sword Art Online, and thinks having the illustrations adds to the atmosphere of the story and makes it more fun. I agree with her, especially for our books, but from our experiences, it seems Americans still aren’t used to it.)

Then there’s the question of just what is meant by “appropriate.” Quite understandably, parents don’t want to expose their younger children to sex, violence, drug abuse, vulgar language, or other sources of titillation that nonetheless saturate the TV, cinema, and the Internet, but even here standards vary widely. Shell often tells parents that if they were OK with their kids seeing Guardians of the Galaxy (“If I had a black light, this place would look like a Jackson Pollack painting.”), they should have no problem with our books.

Of course, “appropriate” can also mean, “Will my child understand this?” This is almost impossible to answer, especially if one doesn’t want to sound insulting. If there is any meaning to phrases like, “high school reading level” (and I doubt there is), I don’t know what it means. I have no doubt at all that there are clever 6th graders who could read After Dark cover to cover and even laugh at the obscure jokes, as well as 40-year-olds who would find House of Refuge a hard slog and boggle at both the political dimensions and the alternate history details.

The most honest answer I can really give to this deceptively complicated question is “I don’t know.” The truth is that, although our books are illustrated, although they feature superheroes, and although they are in many respects a celebration of the great youth adventure literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I don’t write for children. Our books in the Young Adult genre aren’t primarily aimed at teenagers even though their pages are thick with them. I write for a mature audience, but not where “mature” denotes the snobbish pretensions of the New York Review of Books or the “literary fiction” clique, nor the ESRB-style euphemism for the debauched torture porn churned out by HBO. To me, a mature reader is simply one who doesn’t search for things to take offense at, who can deal with serious subjects without losing his sense of humor, who can entertain an idea without necessarily believing it, and someone who can accept that heroes can have serious flaws and villains can have noble traits without losing sight of which is which.

And in large part, I write for myself, because if I didn’t, I’d never be able to publish anything.

So, how do you other authors answer this question? Parents, how do you judge which books are appropriate for your kids? Kids, how often do you ignore your parents when they tell you not to read something? Let me know.

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