I See No Issue In Editing Adult Books To Make Age Appropriate Reading

shutterstock_152658362I love reading. My kids love reading. I imagine they like hearing stories that they can relate to, or alternatively that they like imagining a world or a life vastly different from their own.  At the ages of two and four I highly doubt they get wrapped up too deeply in plots, though I can’t really tell why they love certain books (especially when I hate them) or don’t care for others (especially when I want to read them over and over).

My kids have stacks and stacks of books, but on occasion I have read to them from my own current nightstand fodder.  It’s never on purpose, like “hey kids, I’m sure you’ll love this memoir about a woman hiking the Pacific Coast Trail!”  It’s usually because I’m already in bed and they wake up or maybe because it’s Sunday and I’m trying to sneak a little adult time.  In any event a little creature snuggles up beside me and whispers, “can you read to me?”  In these cases I begin aloud right where I am.  Mid-paragraph, mid-word, mid-sentence.  I read as I feel appropriate.  I never repeat profanity and I may skip over so many words on a page that what they hear is nothing more than a series of words.  I had never thought twice about this kind of editing, until now.

I read a piece entitled “Childproofing Harry Potter” on the NYT Motherlode.  If you haven’t read it, basically the author agrees to read Harry Potter to her five-year-old son and a few pages in realizes she’s going to have to do some heavy editing to make it age appropriate reading.  To tell you the truth, I didn’t think much of the post either way.  I read and kind of thought, “ok, sure.  Maybe not the best choice of book for a 5-year-old (which the author admits at the end), but I get it.”  I am alone in this response.  Very, very alone.

This post has spawned a LOT of rage over the internet.  First the comments.  People accusing her of being a helicopter mom, attacking her for “altering a work of literature” or for making the mistake of saying yes to her 5-year-old’s request to read a book beyond his comprehension.

Thew remarks:

and here is one more child shielded from both reality and good literature who will be ill prepared for the world as it is.

Um…he’s five.  Do we really think he’s ruined?

Carmenalexandra proclaims:

I’m not pinkwashing anything. [*ed note: this is the term the author uses for her off-the-cuff editing of Harry Potter] I don’t want to be a helicopter parent. If it needs ”pinkwashing’ then the kid is not ready for it anyway. I am not hiding anything from my daughter when it comes to the horrors. She’s going to face life prepared. She’s allowed to ask questions, she’s allowed to question everything and I’d rather underline critical thinking skills and rational thought than hide the truth. She will handle it, and if she doesn’t..she will learn to. It will be discussed. Pinkwashing..what a detestable concept.

I still don’t see this as hiding anything.  It is altering something to make it age-appropriate.  Whether she should have started the book or not, is a different question, but once she did she went with it. She told her son a story — one that resembles the journey of Harry Potter.  Why haven’t I seen this level of vitriol for the baby board book version of Anna Karenina?  Or the toddler version of Moby Dick (it’s not just about a whale in the water!)?  I just can’t make the jump that the literary integrity of Harry Potter is somehow ruined by what this mother read her son in his bedroom.

It’s not only the comments.  This piece has spawned dozens of posts from other bloggers raging and ranting against the author.  One woman pointed out the woman who submitted the Motherlode piece is an author herself and she can’t imagine how a woman who writes books for a living would ever do this to a book.  She asks the interwebs, “I wonder how she would feel if someone took such liberties with her book?”  I can’t speak for the author, but as an aspiring novelist, if someone bought my book and used it as kindling material, I’d be thrilled.

Other posts call what the author did “disrespectful” “dishonest” and “an act of dumbfuckery.”  I don’t know, I just don’t see it.  Personally, I just can’t condemn this woman for either making a judgment error or altering the story for her five-year-old.  I’ve done both many times.

(photo: catwalker / Shutterstock.com)

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  • Fabel

    Yeah, there is nothing wrong with this. What is wrong with people? It’s not like you’re printing & selling edited copies of the original, you’re reading out loud to your child. G’damnnnnnn

    • Fabel

      Okay wait, I’m reading the essay now, & I do think it’s a bit much what she’s doing— not everything needs to be a lesson. I can see skipping lines that are violent or sexy (for a very young child) but adding in lines about accepting consequences & totally eliminating the threat of death (when it’s central to the story) is kinda cray

    • alice

      hahah yes. it’s horrible.

      “Accepting the consequences of one’s actions is a theme in our house, so I hastily add a line in which McGonagall gives Harry a paper to write on the importance of following instructions. Then I underscore the
      responsibility of being on a team, so that getting to be seeker doesn’t
      seem entirely like a reward for bad behavior.”

      nope. nope. nope.

    • Carinn Jade

      So what you’re saying is it’s not so much the simple act of what she did, it’s the thought process behind the way she did it? Or just the way she did it?

    • alice

      if she only did this for one book, because she felt trapped by the content and unable to simply tell her son “oops, i’m not reading this to you” then that’s cool.

      but if she does this for every single book, then i think it’s abysmally wrong. if “reading time” in her house needs to also be about “underscoring our family values” then she should find books that do that, not re-write existing literature.

      what you do w/ your own kids is obv different: reading them a few pages from an adult book, and editing the content, is fine, because that’s not *their reading time* – it’s yours.

    • Carinn Jade

      well, that I am with 100%. Agreed. I got the sense this was a one-off mistake on her part.

    • Bethany Ramos

      I could be way off here, but this excerpt screams over-parenting. It reminds me of when I grew up in a Christian home (still am Christian but not crazy religious), and church groups would change pop song lyrics to Jesus lyrics. Come. On.

    • Carinn Jade

      I think you hit the nail on the head. I’m sensing it’s not so much what she did, but how she did it.

    • Carinn Jade

      So it’s not so much the simple act of what she did, it’s the thought process behind the way she did it? Or just the way she did it?

    • Fabel

      Yeah, I think rather than the act itself, it’s the thought process—which obviously I can only speculate about, since I’m not in her brain—that’s bothersome? Like, from what’s written, it seems she is sculpting her child’s world too much? Teaching lessons in the house, yes, good, but editing the text in the way that she is (to always reflect lessons taught in the house) comes off as overkill. Maybe just reading what’s written, & then talking to the child afterwards would be better (i.e. “Was it nice the way such-and-such character told the other to ‘shut up’?”)

      I’m not an expert or even a parent, but those are just my thoughts!

    • Fabel

      And yes, like another commenter said above, I don’t see anything weird about your example! (reading from your own books & editing out age-inappropriate stuff)

    • Carinn Jade

      I just thought it was interesting that your first comment was “no big deal” but then as you started to read her actual piece you changed to “whoa, she’s going too far!”

  • blh

    I don’t see anything wrong with this really but If I don’t want my kid reading something I just….won’t let them read it, never mind the editing. But really…Harry Potter?? I can’t for the life of me see what’s so bad about it that she has to leave stuff out. I love Harry Potter and I can’t wait til my son i old enough to read it and I’ll be thrilled if he likes it.

  • thisshortenough

    I dunno I think it’s better to just pick out age appropriate reading and let kids build up themselves from there. I read the first Harry Potter at a pretty young age and was only 12 when the 5th one came out, but it was never inappropriate for me. I just think letting kids see if they think it’s appropriate for them is a better situation. It’s not like there’s any swearing in harry potter until the seventh book and there’s no real violence in the first one either. Hell I read the Jacquline Wilson books all through my childhood and they were probably a lot darker than Harry Potter will ever be

  • keelhaulrose

    My five year old wanted to start reading Harry Potter, and my husband and I agreed to start and go book by book, stopping when we got to a point where the content seemed to be getting too intense for her. We’ve stopped before Goblet of Fire, I think there’s a shift in that book that goes from “Harry is heroic at the end of every school year” to “there are some truly dark, evil things in the world”. The “villains” to that point are more half-hearted or even comical. The three books so far have led to discussions about some intense subjects, like the justice system or personal freedom versus public safety, but only at my daughters prompting. I don’t think I would have been able to have those discussions if I edited some of the material.
    It’s every parent’s responsibility to decide what is appropriate for their children, and encourage their exploration in those boundaries. It’s okay to tell your children “that’s not for you right now, but let’s talk about it again in a few months”.

  • CMJ

    I can understand skipping lines or parts but editing it seems a little excessive.

  • Blueathena623

    Ok, lets not compare board books of Moby Dick with this. There is, like, zero chance that a toddler will read these and then become confused when she encounters the material in high school or college. Using the classic reference is for the parents, not the kid. There are some great condensed classics books — that’s how I read a variety of Dickens, Heidi, and Black Beauty as a 7-8 year old. But even though the language was simplified, the messages were still there. Miss Havisham was still crazy (and the illustration spooky), Oliver was still an orphan, Clara still couldn’t walk or whatever, and horses were still abused.
    If you have to do that much on-the-fly editing to make sure the messages support what is being taught in your house, choose another book or just make up a story. Books are supposed to introduce us to other worlds and other ideas, even sad ideas. If Black Beauty just has fun running around and playing with other horse friends, you miss the whole reason the book was written.

    • SarahJesness

      Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking. I don’t think this woman’s idea is horrible, but I do think it’s stupid. If she’s going to alter the books she reads to her kid because she doesn’t like the content or values, why not just make up her own stories?

      What I’m thinking right now is, if the kid remembers all this, and then reads the books on his own later, will he get mad at his mom for changing stuff?

    • Allen

      I agree. I think if my parents did that to me, and I found out the truth when I was older, I’d feel manipulated and lied to. Not in a major way, maybe, but it’d still be annoying.

      If you’re going to actually change the story, why bother?

  • Lena

    I’m with the “if you need to alter it, then don’t read it”. One thing I think is really cool about HP is that it grew with kids. As Harry (and the kids who read it) matures, the kids matures. I don’t think there is anything on it that a an 11-12-year old (Harry’s age in the first book) would have a lot of trouble dealing with. So maybe waiting a bit maybe a good idea. Also, I think that our perception changes with age so what you get at 10-12 is not the same you get at 16-18, etc. I read the whole Anne of Green Gables Series as a child and I re-read it every couple of years. Each time, I discover a new facet or element that I hadn’t seen before.

    On a funnier note, can you imagine the day that kid discovers what really happens in the book? IT’ll be like that Friends episode when Phoebe realizes her mom would cut movies short and watches Old Yeller to the end for the first time.

    • Lena

      Sorry for the typos!

    • Lena

      I meant to share this before: http://youtu.be/osRX86BYsVg

    • Aldonza

      I’m with you. I think if there’s stuff you feel like you have to censor, then you should just hold off until you think your child is ready to handle it.

  • Thomas Folliot


  • chickadee

    This lady can do whatever she wants in her own home, but if she wants heavy moral themes to show up in what she reads to her kids, she’s better off just writing her own material and sticking to that.

    Books have complex and adult themes for a reason — the Harry Potter books aren’t perhaps meant for kindergarten consumption, and I object to the bowdlerization of literature in order to make it conform to and individual set of morals.

  • pixie

    I don’t know. I can understand making simplified versions of literary classics that still contain the same messages as the originals and the characters still having the same things wrong with them, but written with easier language and if there are sexual scenes, skipping over those. But to go and add certain parts to teach lessons, I’m not sure I agree with. This isn’t to say I’m against creating activities and discussions around certain events in books to reinforce a lesson, just uneasy with inserting something completely new into the book while reading to your child to push a lesson. Kids are also pretty good at deciding what’s age-appropriate.
    Maybe I’m a little biased because I read Voltaire’s Candide when I was nine, read the entire Lord of the Rings when I was around 10, and grew up on The Hobbit. I’ve always been at a pretty high reading level and a high maturity level, so picking up an “adult book” was something my parents didn’t see as a problem (though I preferred, and still do, the young-adult literature). And maybe because I have a huge love of Harry Potter that I can’t understand changing it, because there are already pretty strong lessons in it.
    I guess a piece of advice for parents, something I’ve used with my younger cousin when I think whatever I’m reading is a little mature for her, would be saying: “How about you pick out your favourite book or something else for me to read to you? This book would be very boring for you”
    ETA: You leaving out things you deem inappropriate, I don’t see as a problem, just adding stuff in or altering events to fit certain moral lessons.

  • Kay_Sue

    I would agree with making it “age appropriate” to an extent. My six year old and I recently finished the Hobbit–there were times when the sentence structure and vocabulary had to be explained to him.

    But if you are completely rewriting parts of the story–the example she gave on the blog involved punishing Harry in a scene during which she felt he was rewarded for bad behavior–then you need to reevaluate reading it at that age. Especially in scenes like that, it seems like she’s teaching her kid that if he does the wrong thing for the right reasons, he’ll be punished, while the person that bulled him into the action gets off scott free. Does anyone see that as very defeatist? I can’t imagine how many other scenes had to be sanitized, because 99% of Harry Potter is him disobeying what he is told, and everything working out in the end…

    She should also consider the fact that, when they are absorbed in the story, kids aren’t necessarily picking up on things like that. They are wondering what comes next. Sanitizing every story into a retelling of family values seems like a great way to kill a natural interest in reading.

    • SarahJesness

      Agreed. Is the kid really going to notice or care? Destroying an interest in reading, that’s an interesting point. There’s an episode of Futurama where Bender says “If every character on TV was a good role model, it would be really boring”.

      I don’t have kids, but I’m curious, do you know what age they start picking up on gray areas and moral ambiguity?

    • Kay_Sue

      I couldn’t say for sure, and it is probably one of those things different kids will pick up on at different times. Usually, though, kids are good about asking questions that cue you in to their thought processes.

    • gothicgaelicgirl

      Well I was reading an article on LGBT IRELAND and the little one asked me what it was.
      I said some people don’t like when two boys or two girls go out like me and her daddy.
      Her eyes nearly popped out of her head and she got really p***ed-
      That’s SO STUPID!!! I wouldn’t care, two ladies and two boys can like each other!
      They’re silly!!!

      She asked did I have any friends who had a boyfriend if they were a boy. I told her about my very best friend since I was 10, how he was gay and had sometimes gotten bullied for it.
      She knows him very well, we’ve all gone on days out together, and she was horrified!
      But (BOO, my nickname for him) is nice, I love Boo!
      Who cares if he has a boyfriend!

      Good girl. =)
      She’s 8. Think she’s gonna be a lawyer, she’s very…intense about how people feel haha

  • ChillMama

    Wow, I can’t believe the interwebs is getting so worked up about this. I wouldn’t edit books to “underscore family moral values”, but at the same time I don’t really care that she does. Her son will not be 5 forever, and he will be able to read on his own as he chooses.

    • Carinn Jade

      I love this comment.

    • ChillMama

      Well, I thought it was a great article, so I guess that makes us even! :)

  • StealthGent

    I see this as no different from the “illustrated classics” versions of stories I had as a kid, which toned down some things, namely sex, gore, and racism. I still love the real versions, and I loved being able to read “Big” books on my own at that age.

  • NicknamesAreDull

    I think it’s distasteful. My mom has written a few books on chemistry. I remember how much work she put into them, and how proud of them she was when they were released. If someone took one of her books, and watered down the information for a high-school class, I know she’d be upset. Yeah, they’re getting mostly the same information but they’re also missing parts that are important.

    There’s a difference between blanking out some swear words that don’t add to the novel, and taking away parts that do.

  • Ashley

    I read an article a few months ago (unfortunately can’t find it now) where the author made some good points about this type of thing. He basically said he felt it was unfair of him to deny his kids books that they love and enjoy, in which there might be some behaviour that isn’t allowed in their house when he afterwards goes to watch shows like Breaking Bad. He made the point that all children’s literature doesn’t need to be behavioural propaganda. Obviously adults understand content differently than kids, but I think instilling a love of books and reading is so important, and maybe rather than moralize the content it would be better to discuss what actually happens. Kids will encounter different behaviours and morals than what they’ve been taught is correct, so reading things that have that in them can be a great way to teach empathy and to think about different viewpoints.

  • Rachel Sea

    I wonder if those parents are also outraged by Disney movies. Shouldn’t Ariel have felt like she was walking on knives when she had legs? Why didn’t she die and turn into sea foam after failing to stab her prince and his new bride in the heart?

  • CrazyFor Kate

    It’s…kind of dumb, to be honest. Adding moral lessons to every scene? Are you kidding? Kids LOVE to read about the child who dared to transgress and got away with it. Is this kid going to be banned from fun, too?

  • SarahJesness

    I don’t think it’s horrible, but I do think it’s stupid. If you’re going to alter every book you read to him, why not just make your own stories that do follow the values/content you want him exposed to?

  • Emily

    So the short abridged versions of classics that are made into hardback/like cardboard for kids are different how? they still get the gist of the story, but parents will be more comfortable reading it to their children, and letting them read it on their own. it encourages reading. I’m for it. Kids can discover dark under tones later.

    • SarahJesness

      I think people are more upset about the morality bit. Children’s versions of classic stories don’t usually take out every dark bit (only stuff that’s overly sexual or violent) and won’t insist that everything be totally moral. (like allowing protagonists to get away with bad behavior sometimes)

    • Emily

      Yeah, I hope she wouldn’t take out every little conflict, then there’s no story, and like others have said, that keeps her from having very important discussions with her child. Like with the Harry Potter example she could tone down some of the violence around GoF and later, and keep it age appropriate. For example, and POSSIBLE SPOILER HERE

      She could say “and Snape was always good and always loved Harry’s mom” and that would be fine, she doesn’t have to say anything in detail that wouldnt be age appropriate.

  • SarahJesness

    So, I’m curious, at what age do kids typically start picking up on things like gray areas and moral ambiguity? What concerns me is that censoring everything that doesn’t perfectly fit with the values you want to teach might prevent him from learning other worldviews until he’s older, or could potentially prevent critical thinking moments. Like, say Harry Potter disobeys the teacher, but he’s doing something good. Having him be punished might teach the kid that you should always listen to authority figures no matter what.

    If that’s what the mom wants, then by all means, go ahead.

    • Allen

      I’m not sure. That’s a good question. I know that kids generally don’t develop complex morality until they’re a bit older. But I think that exposing kids to various ideas can help foster critical thinking, sometimes. As a kid, I was allowed to watch and read stuff that was a bit dark, or that starred characters who weren’t lily white, and I think it helped me accept the idea of moral ambiguity. Actually, I found the moral black and whiteness of a lot of children’s movies off-putting. I often sympathized a bit with the villains. How much of that is nature, and how much was nurture is hard to tell. It probably depends somewhat on the kid.

  • Justme

    Well. My daughter and I are almost halfway through reading The Chamber of Secrets, having already read The Sorcerer’s Stone, of course. My daughter is almost three. I didn’t know there was anything wrong with exposing my child to one of the greatest series of all time. It get be over her head, but it’s better than Biscuit’s First Christmas or anything similar.

  • gothicgaelicgirl

    I do this sometimes… I also heavily edit the storyline if the kids ask what I’m reading.
    “What are you reading?”
    “The Secret History”
    “What’s it about”
    Me thinking- cannot tell them it’s about college students who go on a greek drug fuelled bender, kill a man then kill a friend and cover it up…. their mother might have an issue with that haha
    “It’s about greek students in college who accidentally kill someone and try not to get caught”
    “O…can I read it?”
    “When you’re 12″

    They’re 8 and 9 now, I’ve no problem with them reading books like that when they’re older to make that choice.
    Then again, my mam fed me on Stephen King from an early age lol!!

    I don’t overly sensitise it but they are still small, and they always want to read what I’m reading (Chuck Palahniuk is NOT bedtime material for kids- “Guts” anyone???), so I edit it and tell them they can read it when they’re older.

    Is that wrong of me? Maybe, but I don’t want to freak them out with Clive Barker or Joyce Carol Oates….
    They can be freaked out in their teens =P

  • Athena A

    I can understand using some simpler words, but to actually change half of the storyline so it doesn’t scare the kid or so he doesn’t think Harry is being praised for what she considers ‘bad behaviour’ is taking it rather far. If you have to make such changes on every single page, then maybe you shouldn’t read the story rather than wrecking it. There’s plenty of other books that are more understandable for a five year old. He can read it , or the mom can, when he’s ready for it and when she doesn’t feel like Harry’s actions need ‘moral’ improvement.

  • March

    Also, why the **** is it totally okay for Disney to have been doing it FOREVER (I give you Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan in particular), but not for parents, who do it in private, for themselves and their own kids, and without making tons of money off of it?

    If the Harry Potter series had been written thirty or more years ago, Disney would probably have gotten its hands on it, and we all know what would have happened. What the mother from the story has done surely pales in comparison.

  • Marian Dreaver

    Maybe it is because I am of the ‘harry potter generation’ but this does actually upset me. Reading Harry Potter for the first time should be an event (I’m talking read as a family hogwarts letter on your 11th birthday the whole shibang) and it should be done when the child is ready for it.
    I get why you would do it but surely you are much better off reading books that your child is actually ready for rather than mucking around doing of the cuff edits on great novels that are too old for them. It’s not like there is some hole in the market or anything.