5 Books That I Was Too Young To Read — And Why I'm Glad I Read Them Anyway
I am of the general opinion that we should not put age restrictions on books. Sure, the simplest "I Can Read!" books might not be scintillating to highly educated 40-somethings, and I doubt that many toddlers are going to get a lot out of Infinite Jest. But beyond these extremes of reading comprehension, we don't really need age-specific genres. Adults can still enjoy a well-written kids' book. You don't have to be a teen to identify with a teenage character in a young adult novel. And it's not going to ruin a kid's life to read a book that's "too old" for them. At least, I read a few books back in the day that I was definitely way too young for, and I turned out (relatively) fine.
Now, when I say that I was "too young" for these books, I mean one of two things. In some cases, I enjoyed the book on a surface level the first time I read it (or I was just very confused), only to return to the book years later and finally understand what was really going on. And in other cases... there was just a lot of sex and violence and I was terrified.
But, even though some of the material was a bit beyond me, I don't regret reading above my official "reading level":
'Wicked' by Gregory Maguire
I, like most preteen girls, loved the musical Wicked. My friends and I were prepared to screech out all the words to "Defying Gravity" at any given moment. The girls in my cabin at summer camp listened to the song "Popular" on repeat so many times that the counselors took the CD away. So when one of my babysitting clients offered to let me borrow her copy of Gregory Maguire's novel, I was certain that I would love it.
What I didn't know is that the musical adaptation takes more than a few liberties with the source material. The musical Wicked is heavy on the friendship and romance narrative, and the book Wicked is heavy on the orgy scenes between multiple species. I was shocked and a little horrified at the bestiality. I had trouble following the politics of Maguire's Oz. And the idea of Elphaba being too drugged out to even remember being pregnant or giving birth is still pretty icky (and confusing?) to me. Still, though, I made it to the end of the book — and I learned that stories can change quite a bit in adaptation. I can't say that Wicked became one of my favorite books after that, but it certainly forced me to consider that even cutesy fantasy worlds can have complex, real world politics.
'The Golden Compass' by Philip Pullman
I first read The Golden Compass in the fourth grade, and I was mostly in it for the talking animal angle. I thought it was a fun adventure story with polar bears and shape-shifting animal pals. I was thoroughly freaked by the thought of medical experiments on kids, and by the (spoiler alert) child death at the end of the book. But for the most part, I enjoyed it in much the same way that I enjoyed all the other animal-based fantasy stories I was reading at the time.
But then I reread the whole series in high school... and it turns out that there's a whole lot of commentary about organized religion and the nature of consciousness? And standing against authority? And sexual maturation? And (sort of) killing god? I'm glad I read the book twice before I reached adulthood myself, because it was a wildly different experience each time.
'A Game of Thrones' by George R.R. Martin
Oh man was I too young for this book. My dad bought it for me when I was about 10 years old, under the assumption that all fantasy books were more or less Harry Potter. But this book... this book was not Harry Potter. I couldn't understand any of the boring politics, I couldn't remember any of the characters' names, and I was terrified of all the graphic sex and death scenes. I hated the book. But I read the whole thing anyway, because I didn't want to hurt my dad's feelings. And then I hid it at the back of my bookshelf so it couldn't scare me anymore.
I didn't come back to A Song of Ice and Fire until 2016, when I finally gave the series a second try. That's when I discovered that I am, in fact, a big ol' nerd for Martin's intricately plotted high fantasy nonsense. Being able to return to something I had hated so thoroughly and get super into it was actually a lot of fun—it's not too often that you get the chance to intensely hate and then intensely love the very same book.
'The Island of Dr. Moreau' by H.G. Wells
Honestly... this mess still gives me the straight up creeps. Dogs being surgically altered into human people? No thank you?? I recall reading this one on my subway ride to school at 12 or 13 and feeling physically ill. I mean, sure, there's not necessarily is good age to read about vivisection, but reading The Island of Dr. Moreau and then dissecting a frog in biology was not the greatest pairing.
I'm still glad I gave myself an early education in body horror literature though—now I know what types of science fiction will haunt my nightmares forever.
'Dune' by Frank Herbert
I... should probably read Dune again. Because I definitely read Dune as a kid at summer camp. I was taken with the imagery, with the giant worms and the floating Baron and the anti-fear mantra. I liked that Jessica was a kickass mom. I liked the epic, space opera scope of the story. But I can't tell you even remotely what the plot is about.
I did not follow the sci-fi politics of Dune even a little bit. Paul is some kind of messiah guy, I guess? And there's a bad guy... and some worms... and everyone is really upset over the spice? I think? OK, so maybe I didn't get the full Dune experience as intended by Frank Herbert, but reading the book at a young age definitely made me use my imagination (since I had to imagine what was actually going on in the book).