Should books come with age classifications like films do?

Last week I asked my daughter what books she was planning on taking on our camping trip. Agonising over what to read next is one of our most recurrent conversation topics, matched only by our thoughts on books just finished. She mentioned a couple of titles of books she’s had in the wings for a while, then excitedly thrust into my hands a book a school friend had lent her saying that her friend had described it as the best book she’d ever read.

The cover of Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson looked compelling with it’s single staring eye, and initially looked like it could easily have been plucked from the shelves of teen fiction in Waterstones. However, as I looked it over, and flicked through the review quotes in the front, I paled a little. Casting my eye down the pages I caught the phrases ‘slowly terrifying’, deeply unsettling’, and ‘psychological thriller’ and realised that it wasn’t teen fiction as I had expected, but a crime thriller written for an adult audience.

adult books

I told my daughter that I was concerned that as it was an adult book it might be too scary, and asked if she minded me having a look through the novel first. After a quick flick through I’d found enough scenes of an explicit sexual nature and a scene of domestic violence to know that this was not appropriate for my daughter’s age. I checked some reviews on-line, and it does look like a well-written literary thriller with an interesting premise, so I told her I’d be more than happy for her to read it at some point, but just not right now. Thankfully, she took the news pretty well.

Having to come over all Mary Whitehouse doesn’t sit easily with me – aged fifteen, I was banned from reading Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunach, which made me all the more determined to read it, even when that meant stealing into my parents’ bedroom and dislodging it from my Mum’s bedside cabinet to read it, one ear tuned to the sound of footsteps and the shame of discovery. On the other hand, I could totally commiserate when a friend of mine recently had to put her foot down when her 13 year old daughter picked up a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey from the library on the way home from school. The girl was outraged at the ban, and I can understand that, but I’d have done the same thing.


Personally, while I’ve always encouraged my children to read widely, I do try to be vigilant about what they are being exposed to. I don’t always get it right, but I do think that challenging or controversial issues can sometimes be best explored in a fictional context, and talking about issues as they arise in novels can make for really interesting and enlightening discussions.

However, in the same way that you can’t unsee violent or terrifying cinematic or tv scenes, you can’t unread disturbing scenes in books. That’s why I wonder whether more could be done to identify whether a book has universal appeal or whether it contains content inappropriate for certain ages. Reading is powerful, and that can be damaging as well as enriching and mind-expanding.

What do you think?