This was our family discussion this morning–a good thing, since our family discussion is usually filled we these phrases:
“Where are my mitts?”
“Shoot, I forgot to make lunches.”
“Oh, I forgot! I need a scale-sized model of the central nervous system of a Swahili Ground Gnat due this morning.”
Today the discussion was about a book club at school. Nicolas had read most of the books on the list except Kit Pearson’s Handful of Time. But his grade 5 partners had all read the Pearson book. A 10-year-old dilemma.
A solution was found in The Maze Runner. It came out a few years ago, but the film last year has brought it back into our minds. I’ve seen the trailer, and had decided that if the movie was anything like the book, this was too violent for a 10 year old–even a relatively mature 10 year old who has grown up on books.
But…. I wondered if the film had used older actors and themes, as producers had done with the film adaptations of Ender’s Game and The Giver. Moreover, Kerry and I have not spent a lot of time censoring reading in our home. We have sort of followed C.S. Lewis’ experience. He grew up in a house full of books, and was allowed to read most anything he wanted. As a child he left adult themes aside. When he was a teenager, he relished in adult themes. And when he was an adult, he was old enough again for fairy tales, fantasies, adventures, and other “nursery” books.
Instead of censoring, we’ve tried to create a framework where Nicolas would make wise choices. That has meant that we stay on top of our reading of excellent, living, children’s literature. Typically, this isn’t a problem. We are both lovers of reading, and we both like children’s lit. We’ve tried to stay on top of things. When Harry Potter came out and the parents of the youth we were working with had concerns, we read the series, and have since reread them and watched the films. With the Hunger Games discussion over the last few years, we read the books and watched the films. We were able to talk to our Sunday School classes, or students, as well as our niece, nephew, and son about what the books are like.
But this is hard. Really, the kids read too quickly for me to keep up. My niece, Madison–you remember my letter to her about Pride & Prejudice–she gobbles up books like jujubes in a clown club. My nephew can sit and read and read, and also loves the video game adaptations. And Nicolas, he just loves everything! We can’t keep up.
Plus, the books are toying with dangerous ideas. Young teen books now have sexual content, violence, abuse, manipulation, bullying, identity struggles, the politics of school and home and failure and success and in and out and us and them. These are wonderful, beautiful, horrifying, and essential things to write about.
But he is 10.
And kids are reading these great themes younger and younger–partly because many of them are great books too.
So Nicolas comes to us, knowing that The Maze Runner may be an issue. I sit with it, while Kerry takes action. She checks parental reviews, and comes up with this phrase:
The Maze Runner is even more violent than The Hunger Games.
I don’t know if this is true, because I haven’t gotten to The Maze Runner or the Divergent books or a hundred other books on Nicolas’ “to read” list. There’s just too much. But the phrase caught my ear because I think that The Hunger Games trilogy is just too violent for younger kids.
Why do I say that? It’s actually the flavour of violence that I struggle with. I am reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy to Nicolas, and they are violent. But the kind of violence is good against evil, the great epic, and the reluctant war. The bad guys are literally dehumanized, and there are times when the orc’s head must be freed from its shoulders.
The Hunger Games, though, has a violence tinged with perversion: kids killing kids. While the third book is more like a typical war–and loses the adventure and interest for many–the first and second book include horrifying violence against little ones. The death of Rue is important in both the film and the book.
Now, the problem isn’t that the violence is gratuitous, or even that it is deceptive. The problem is that the violence tells too much truth.
Truth: There are people like this in the world.
Truth: You may sell out your friends.
Truth: Our culture may end up like this.
Truth: Tyranny is always tyranny against the most vulnerable.
Does a 10 year old need to know these truths yet?
I’m not so sure.
So when morning came, we had to choose. And we told Nicolas that he should find an alternative book to read.
Now, we didn’t forbid him. We asked him to make this choice. When we talked about why in the car, I asked him why he shouldn’t see violence in stories just yet, or why it was too violent. He didn’t really know, so I said:
“Once you learn something, you can’t unlearn it. Once you see the violence, it is always with you.”
In this way, I sort of agree with Jason Mraz:
What about taking this empty cup and filling it up
With a little bit more of innocence
I haven’t had enough, it’s probably because when you’re young
It’s okay to be easily ignored
I like to believe it was all about love for a child (Jason Mraz, “Love for a Child”).
Why are we intent on growing kids up, moving them quicker along that cultural assembly line. “I’m innocent,” Jewel sings, “and I’d like to stay that way.” What’s the hurry? Nicolas will discover all these great and terrible things–and worse, and better–before too long. Why not give him the space to grow his imagination to the point where it is ready to explore the great heights and depths humanity has to offer?
Even as we talked, I was worried that I might be over-protecting in this case. Sensing that, my wife suggested he talk to his teacher, who has read The Maze Runner. I love his response:
“Can I go talk to her now?”
I love that he is open enough to talking with her, and that she is the kind of teacher who is worth talking to. As we were considering that, Mrs. Mawhinney, the Jr. High teacher, pulled into the parking lot of the school. She is a lover of great books, and an intellectual confederate of mine. As she pulled into her parking spot, Nicolas asked:
“What about Mrs. Mawhinney. Can I go ask her?”
We may choose wrong here. He may talk to teachers and friends and make a decision to read this book. If he does, I know what I’ll be reading this weekend–trying to beat him to the bits which might bend his imagination in adult ways. But we have done a good thing, I think, surrounding him with good books, encouraging in him a good critical mind, and enlisting people we trust in the great task of growing a child. It presses upon me in this moment that these are not such bad things.