Twilight is the first book in the Twilight Saga by Stephanie Meyer. I shall be reviewing it in my next blog post. In this blog post I want to use it as a focus for a post about the issues books like these sometimes bring up for adults and educators who are trying to encourage children to read.
Twilight is probably more well known amongst children and young adults for the series of films of the same name which propelled the teenage heart throb, Robert Pattinson to superstardom.
It is a love story told from the perspective of 17 year old Isabella Swann, who falls in love with a vampire, Edward Cullen.
Its popularity as a book series has spawned an entire genre of supernatural romance books for the YA market (young adult) in its wake.
The media frenzy which erupted after the film of Twilight was released, and the books became ubiquitous on best seller lists, points to an interesting dilemma for a lot of teachers/educators/school librarians.
Books like these, which become a social and media phenomenon, are immensely popular with children, but not always for the right reasons. You would think their popularity would be welcome in an age where we are actively encouraging children to read, and sometimes it is, but there are difficulties with books like these.
Firstly, children often get confused between the book and the film. It is very often the case that they will see the film and assume that this is exactly the same as reading the book. This can, in some cases, cause conflict and upset which has to be resolved as diplomatically as possible. We are currently experiencing this to a minor degree with the release of the films of the Hobbit, and the ensuing popularity of the book in our older boys, some of whom sometimes carry the book around with them as a kind of status symbol, rather than because they are actively reading it.
Some of them will go on to read the books and fall in love with literacy because of the film, which is no bad thing, but in some children the film acts as an active barrier to getting the child to read. The book is merely a prop, and when they are asked about it they will repeat sections of the film verbatim, making it clear that they have no intention of reading the book. Once they are fixated on a particular film/book combination it can be hard to get them to ‘read’ anything else, because they have the ready made excuse that they are ‘reading’ The Hobbit (or whichever book is popular at that time). If the person who is guiding their reading hasn’t read the book in question, it can sometimes be hard to know whether the child is bluffing or not when asked about what they are reading and how they are getting on.
Secondly, children get carried away with enthusiasm for the book precisely because of the media hype and the fact that everyone else is excited about it. It may not be suitable, it may not be something that is appropriate for them either because of the content, the themes or the difficulty level, but they will cling to it possessively because it is popular and they want to look cool. We have had cases of children who carry the same book round with them for months, reading maybe a page a week because the subject or difficulty level is too much for them, but they refuse to give it up for anything else. It is not helpful.
Harry Potter is perennially popular in our school. The earlier books are appropriate throughout KS2, but after The Prisoner of Azkaban, the books get much darker in content, much more adult in terms of the emotional comprehension they ask from the children, and considerably longer. Children want to read them, but for a variety of reasons these later books can be beyond their abilities, and yet once they have decided it can be tricky to persuade them to switch to something else.
Thirdly, children will watch a film adaptation of a book at home because they have been allowed by their parents, or snuck in to watch it with older siblings or friends. They will then assume they can read the book. The book might have unsuitable content which has either been glossed over in the film or edited out in the film version, and its inclusion in the book can lead to complaints from parents, even though the child is desperate to read the book, and knows the story, and has been allowed to watch it at home.
We do, in the school I work in, try to vet all the books we allow children to take home and read, particularly ones at the older end of the year group spectrum, but it is not always easy to ensure everything is picked up.
It is interesting that there can sometimes be a double standard in what parents will allow children to watch on television, or listen to in conversation at home, or even play on a computer game, that they will not always tolerate in a book, which is why educators and guardians really need to keep an eye on what their child is reading at more than a cursory level if they are concerned about what is appropriate for the children in their care to read.
Regardless of whether it is a double standard or not, parental concerns and complaints about their children’s reading material need to be taken seriously and are not something a school or educational establishment can ignore. Dealing with these matters by knowing what is on library shelves, being up to date on reading material and trends, and talking to parents about what is acceptable for their child can all be ways of tackling these issues to make sure that parents are comfortable with the books their children have.
Twilight, for example, is clearly written for the older teen market. Bella is 17, Edward is 18. The content of the book contains violence and a strong supernatural element because it is about vampires, and vampires generally don’t go around hugging trees. It is also, predominantly concerned with Edward and Bella’s infatuation for each other. Interestingly it contains no explicit sexual content, but much of the prose is highly eroticised and it is clear that although Bella and Edward do not make love, they do think about it an awful lot.
Twilight is a book that we, as a primary school, would not keep on our library shelves, but it does not stop some of our older girls talking about it, or wanting to read it. I have had girls as young as 7 talk to me about it, and request that I get it for our library because they have seen the film and they love it.
As a parent myself, I have very liberal views on censorship and books. My children are allowed to read anything they want to a large degree. I have found that if children are given free rein with books from an early age, and are highly literate, they eventually censor their own reading. My nine year old daughter has recently been insistent that she wanted to read Twilight and I let her have the book. My fourteen year old read them all two years ago and loved them. I knew it would be too much for my nine year old, not because she couldn’t read them technically, but because she isn’t really ready for deep, ponderous teen romance with a large side portion of angst. I also knew that if I didn’t let her have the book, that she would begin to obsess over it, and we would never hear the end of it. I speculated she would miss out all the eroticism because she was too young to pick it up, and would just find the book boring, eventually choosing for herself not to continue with it. This is exactly what happened.
Not all children are able to do this, and some children are deeply affected by inappropriate book choices, either because their choice bores them so much it puts them off reading and there are problems with them ever picking up a book for pleasure again, or that the book traumatises them in some way.
It can be all too easy for us as parents/educators to jump on the bandwagon of what is popular, because we think if something is popular it will be appropriate, or because it is popular our children will eat the book up and become literary prodigies. It is however, in my experience, these incredibly sensationalist popular books that need vetting the most.
I would say, don’t let your child read a book just because they’ve seen the film or because all their friends have it. Don’t ban them from reading it for the same reasons.
Maybe books like these need to be borrowed from the library and vetted first, just to make sure your child/ren can manage them, and that they’re not going to harm them either through putting them off for life, or upsetting them, or upsetting you.