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April 13, 2009

Should elementary school kids be allowed to read the Twilight books? My son's WC school library won't buy them.

“They banned Twilight at my school,” my outraged fifth-grade son announced last Thursday.

What did he mean that his Walnut Creek public elementary school had “banned” the Twilight books? This is the series of books by Stephanie Meyers, which chronicle the misadventures (Okay, that’s saying it mildly) of a bunch of eternally teen- and 20something-vampires.

Actually, “ban” would be overstating things. And, using the words “ban” and “books” in the same sentence can hit pretty deep nerves, especially among a First Amendment junkie like myself.

From what I can tell, there appears to have been no "ban" instituted at my son's school, but the school librarian decided not to purchase the series for the school bookshelves. Whatever. These are tight budgetary times for public schools, so if the librarian chose to not buy this particular series, I’m not going to raise a First Amendment foul. Also, from what I've read so far of this series, these books are not great literature (Sorry, Twilight fans, they're just not), though they tell a compelling story.

It’s still unclear, though, whether teachers or the principal sent out word that they didn’t want kids reading or bringing to school any of the Twilight books. I e-mailed the principal on Friday, but haven't heard back. I was also interested to hear from her or the librarian if there had been any parent complaints.

Meanwhile, here’s a notice the librarian sent out to parents, via the e-mail bulletin we parents receive weekly:



A Word from your Librarian about Twilight

With the release of the Twilight movie to DVD, I've noticed an increase of interest in this series among students, both girls and boys, grades 3 through 5.

These books are rated Young Adult, grades 9 and up, which means I will not purchase them for the … library. However, many students are bringing their own copies from home, and I'd like to urge parents to make an informed decision before allowing elementary age children to read them. If it is not possible for you to preview the books first, I've included some reviews of the four books that will give you a good idea of the mature content which escalates over the course of the series.

Alas, it’s too late for me to heed the librarian’s warning and to make a more informed and possibly different decision over whether to allow my son to read the Twilight books.

About a month ago, my son expressed interest in the books. Actually, he was pretty excited about reading them. Someone gave him a copy of the first book, Twilight. He finished it in about two days and immediately wanted to read the others. He’s a very eager reader, but I hadn’t heard him this excited about a series of books in a while.

Around that time, the DVD of the blockbuster Twilight movie came out, and my son very much wanted to see it, and he wanted me to see it with him. I thought it was a pretty decent teen movie—with a modern gothic vampire twist.

And, from what I remember, it contained no foul language, though it did have a violent, somewhat bloody scene near the end. But, I've found that's par for the course for PG-13 movies.


Notably, there was no sex. In fact, from what I remember, not even a kiss. Which is kind of the point, suspense-wise and plot-wise. The story builds around the anticipation over whether the heroine, Bella Swan, an outwardly ordinary human teen-age girl who settles in a small town in Washington's Olympic Peninsula, will or won’t get together with her great love—Edward Cullen, an extraordinarily handsome, smart, witty, but sensitive and noble vampire, who is eternally 17 years old.

At one point in the movie, Edward and Bella start to embrace, but Edward pulls back, afraid he’ll hurt his beloved if he, uh, loses control.

My son’s birthday was coming up, so as a present, I bought him the rest of books in the series, which he quickly devoured—like an extremely thirsty vampire. Meanwhile, I read and completed the first book, Twilight, which struck me as even more chaste than the movie. I’m halfway through book no. 2, New Moon.


After receiving the librarian's warning Thursday, I skimmed through the two other books, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn, specifically looking for the sections that contained "mature content."

Actually, before I go on, I want to say that one initial impression I had of the movie and of these books is that they could be classified, respectively, as a “chick flick” and “chick lit”—with a gothic horror twist. They are descendents, in a pop lit way, of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Thematically, there are similarities, and I’m sure there are graduate students of popular culture who are preparing dissertations over the Twilight series and where they fit in the classic horror genre.

In both a gothic and chic lit mode, they are tales told mostly from a female point of view, and they describe a heroine who is madly—even dangerously—in love with a mysterious, brooding man. Like Jane Eyre, Bella Swan seems like a rather awkward ordinary young woman, but beneath it all, she is smart, intuitive, determined, and even fearless—enough to want to risk everything to be with the man of her desire. Bella's beloved vampire also cuts a knight-in-shining-armor figure. He is described as incredibly beautiful and with a lean, muscular body. He loves her right back, with a fierce devotion, and is always eager to come to her rescue.

I haven’t told my son this, but I was amused, and touched, that he was so captivated by what are essentially romance novels. Like other boys his age, he generally favors fast-paced action movies, and books and computer games with lots of fighting. It amazed me that he would have the patience to read Meyer’s scenes of lengthy dialogue in which Bella and Edward trade slightly flirtatious barbs and later soul-bonding confidences, or passages in which Bella describes how painful it is to be away from Edward for even a few hours.

Maybe, I thought, my little boy is growing up. He’s curious to learn what girls think and wants to read a girl’s description of what it’s like to fall in love—even if the love is of a fatal attraction kind.
The librarian at my son’s school shared reviews of the three subsequent books in the Twilight series, which describe how the content becomes more "mature." Of course, sexual subtext simmers throughout any vampire saga. Go back to Bram Stoker or the 1930s Bela Lugosi films, or the more recent Anne Rice books.

According to the Library Journal excerpt the librarian quoted, in Eclipse, the third book, “it is Meyer's effective and intense portrayal of first love in all its urgency, passion, and confusion that drives the story along with the supernatural elements coming in a close second. … Upping the emotional ante is an injection of heightened sexual tension and sensuality that hasn't been present in the series before.

In the final book, Breaking Dawn, Edward and Bella marry. Says the School Library Journal: “On honeymoon and unshackled from any further concerns about premarital sex, Edward fulfills his promise to consummate their marriage before he changes Bella into a vampire. “
Booklist says “there’s now sex and plenty of it.”

Not exactly. The scene I read is not graphic, and it’s more about Bella’s anticipation of the wedding night and all that implies. In true cinematic fashion, there is a fade-out before the two young lovers get to it.

Bella becomes pregnant, and, reminiscent of another modern gothic tale, the film Rosemary’s Baby, the “product of conception” between Edward and Bella is possibly a “monster”—half vampire, half human. The book describes the baby growing her uterus as sucking all the blood and life out of her. (Hmm, I know a fair number of woman who would describe how carrying a baby—even one much wanted and adored—feels like an alien has taken over your body.)

Then there is a birth scene that is “quite unsettling, and may not be suitable for preteens,” Booklist says.

Yes, things get pretty bloody in this scene, and Bella nearly dies. Bella is also described as being naked.

That's childbirth for you—whether you’re delivering a half-vampire baby or a regular human baby. Bloody and painful (unless you get the epidural), and the birthing mom winds up naked, or nearly so, with her legs spread, pushing out a baby. No time for modesty in the birth process.

But, my adult reactions to these books are besides the point, right? My question has to do with whether it's okay for fifth-graders, not to mention third-graders, to go near these books.

Was I bad mother--negligent, permissive, indulgent--for letting my son read such content?

I showed him the librarian's note then asked him whether he was bothered by any of the scenes in the book, especially those containing the mature content. In his young-man-of-few-words way, he shrugged and even gave me a look that said, "What on earth are you (the librarian and the principal) talking about?" No, he said, he wasn't bothered, scared, or disturbed. He repeated that he “really” loved these books.

Meanwhile, sex education starts this year in fifth grade. He, his dad, and I have, at various times, had the conversation about the biology of conception. The topic of birth control also came up when he asked why his father and I didn’t have any more children (We didn't want more, and took measures to prevent more babies.)

We also gave my son a book, designed for pre-teen boys about their changing bodies and that, again, describes the biology of conception and childbirth. We told him,”If you have any questions, let us know. “ “This is so corrupted,” he said when we handed him the book. Then he went off into a corner and read it—with almost the same eagerness he showed for the Twilight books.

Actually, if anything, the Twilight books strike me as major cautionary tales about the dangers of sexual activity, especially if you’re young, but even if you’re young and married. Sure, Bella and Edward want to take things further in their relationship. They're madly in love. But Edward resists pouncing on his beloved—prior to their marriage—because he knows that intercourse could truly be dangerous. He fears he could lose control and devour her in a vampire way. He doesn’t want her to end up a “monster” like him.

Also, the final book, Breaking Dawn shatters that favorite myth of teen denial—that you can’t get pregnant the first time—because Bella does. And the consequences are an unintended pregnancy that nearly kills her.

Maybe some kids are not ready for this sort of sexual content, even if it is cautionary. And, maybe some parents are not ready for kids to read it, especially if you're talking third graders. So, I think the librarian was being responsible in sending out the warning.

But, now being more familiar with the books--as I should perhaps should have been earlier--I would still let my son read them. As he said, he loved them. He absolutely loved them, and I don't think that's because he was titilated by those scenes containing mature content.

My son wanted to talk about these books, really talk about them, and he wanted me to read them, so we could talk about them. I think there was something about the whole saga that excited his imagination, as it has with kids all over the world. The characters face tough life-and-death odds and must make difficult moral choices. Edward and his family of vampires struggle to overcome their monstrous desires and live in peace with humans. My son's favorite character is Carlisle, the nearly 400-year-old head of the vampire "family," who becomes a doctor to help humans and learns to suppress his hunger for human blood so that he can live peacefully in ordinary society.

The books certainly inspired my son to want to read more. This weekend, he turned to a classic in the horror fiction genre: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Published in 1897, Dracula is a more sophisticated book becaue it has, as my son said, "bigger" and more "old-fashioned" words. He says he hopes to be done with it in the next couple days.

So, he loved the books, he wants to talk about them. They make him want to read and learn more. The books may not be appropriate for all kids his age, or younger, or all families but they work for my son--so they work for me. And that sounds okay to me.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Where are kids truly more likely to come across teenage language and themes? Amongst themselves, and not in the library.

If your child reads above his/her grade level, appropriate reading material becomes more limited.

From the info in SM's post, I'd probably allow my kids to read it. I think that the librarian(s) have to deal with a multitude of parents who all have differing opinions about what their children should be exposed to.

Anonymous said...

Personally, no, I don't think the second two in the series are appropriate for anyone under 12, but that's just for my family. I've read all four (and loved them!), but my daughter (10) knows that the while she was able to read the first two, she was going to have to wait to read the second two. I don't think the subject matter is appropriate for her right now, but we each decide what our kids are ready for, right? As for the librarian, I wouldn't call it banning, I would call it asking the kids to wait until they have access to a middle school library and letting their parents make the decision as to whether their kids are ready to read the books or not. Are there some "young adult" books my daughter is ready for? Sure. These are just not them, yet. Personally, I appreciate the school letting me make that decision.

Anonymous said...

Soccer Mom,
Gosh you do go on but you bring up some good points. Sounds like there was no BAN, just the librarian saying, dear parents check this out.
These books sound a little questionable to me, but Anonymous 9:38 is right. Kids will come across these themes themselves, and I'd rather be somehow engaged in a discussion with my kids about them, than not.

Anonymous said...

Parents these days worry way too much. Give the kids some space. They hear bad words and all about sex on the playground and from their older brothers and sisters. Didn't read the books, but I'd rather have my kids reading than doing whatever else.

Anonymous said...

Kids under 14 should not be able to read these books. They are obscene. I wouldn't even let my 16 year old rad it.

Anonymous said...

I say no, not elementary. This really is a teenager book/middle school and up.

hapamama said...

I totally agree with the librarian choosing not to buy the book for an elementary school's library, just based on the "reading level" of the book alone.

For a school that serves K-5 students, buying books that have 7-9th grade reading levels are pretty low on the priority list. Add the fact that they may be objectionable, and it's an easy decision to not buy them.

Soccer Mom, ask your child's school librarian how much money she gets to buy new library books and periodicals every year. If your child's school gets funded the way my child's WCSD elementary school does, you might be surprised.

Soccer Mom said...

I hope I made it clear that I didn't object to the librarian NOT buying the books, especially given budget issues these days. At my son's school and in his district, parent fundraising helps pay for the librarian's position. So, I'm assuming she must budget wisely when purchasing books. I also think she was acting responsibly in raising her concerns with parents.

Anonymous said...

Good choice by the librarian.

My daughter is 11. We will buy her the books. However, we do have younger children that will not be permitted to read these until they get a bit older.

Good topic.