Just as two adults can take away from the same situation two very different experiences, so can children and teens come to the same book and take away from it a wide range of experiences.
I believe that children and teens absorb only what they can handle. Every day they are exposed to difficult subjects and sophisticated topics – on the news, in their schools, and in their neighborhoods. They navigate through the death of a loved one, the loss of a pet, the abrupt end of a friendship simply because they must, because that is the reality they face.
The beauty of literature is that it allows children to explore situations and themes that they may not yet have experienced for themselves, and from a safe distance. If it’s too much, they’ll set the book aside, or they’ll skim over a section, or their brains won’t quite take it in. As a teacher, I have seen this happen. The child won’t quite understand that Charlotte died after she gave birth to her spiders in Charlotte’s Web. They’ll remember it as “she went away, and left her babies with Wilbur to look after them.” On the other hand, if they have experienced a loss like Wilbur’s, they feel reassured by Wilbur’s ability to go on, to remember Charlotte and to know that, while no one will be her equal, she also leaves behind their shared memories and her prodigy. Sometimes just knowing that others have lived through a loss like theirs can help children cope. Similarly, seeing a teenage character experience intimacy too soon may help a young adult to rethink a decision, and to wait until they experience the kind of mental connection that Mia and Adam share in If I Stay, or that Katsa and Po forge in Graceling.
I believe we have to have faith in young people’s ability to process what they’re ready to process and to set aside the issues they are not yet ready to handle. I’m not advocating handing YA novels to 10-year-olds, but I think that kids are extremely observant, and that they often perceive far more than we give them credit for. So bring on the literature, and let’s allow them to explore situations and moral questions from a safe distance, trusting that they will find their own comfort zone.