There's been a lot of controversy over what YA is and what it isn't, and what age it *should* be for, and if edgy YA books are too dark or somehow negatively influential to teens (as if teens were stupid). And I've been thinking about it a lot lately.
As a parent of two teenagers, here are some simple thoughts about kids and reading, based on my experiences as a parent:
Both of my kids, when faced with something in a book that they were uncomfortable with, put the book down. Kids do this instinctively. They don't feel a need to keep reading something that is too mature, too graphic, to sexual, too anything. I don't understand why so many people think that kids have no built in monitors for themselves. Have you ever heard a kid say "I was really uncomfortable with the coarse language in that book, so I kept reading it." Of course not. Kids are smart, and their time is precious. They're not going to waste time plugging through something that makes them feel weird.
There comes a time in a parent's life where there is a moment of revelation--something changing in their kids. I remember when it happened for my son (now 17). It was the summer he was 13. And we were talking about something very grown up, and suddenly I looked at him and saw him with new eyes. The gradual changes he'd been making that year in his maturity level were suddenly so obvious. He had become a young adult, and I hadn't noticed until that moment.
A young adult is exactly that - an adult who is young. And we were conversing like adults, about topics adults and young adults talk about. I could feel it in him -- he was ready to read anything, to explore beyond his current repertoire of Paolini and Riordan. And that summer, he did. He read Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, and Ellen Hopkins' CRANK, and I let him read WAKE, by me, which was not quite published at that time, and so many more books that would help grow him up and make him think about choices and consequences. How exciting! We talked about things -- drugs and girls and substance abuse and welfare and sex, and I could almost see his brain growing. I could see him understanding the books and learning from these characters' mistakes, and from their successes. Today I see him making such amazing, great choices in his own life. Coincidence?
For my daughter (now 14), it happened when she was almost 12, in a very different way. One day she said, "Mom, all my friends have read WAKE. Why won't you let me read it?!" It was funny, but I also had to ask myself that same question - Why? I explained my concerns to her about some of the topics that are addressed in WAKE. And I said, how do you feel about reading stuff like that? She gave me the raised eyebrow. "I know what all of those things are, Mom. If I don't like it, I'll put it down."
And again I looked at a child of mine, who had matured so subtly that from day to day, it wasn't noticeable, but with fresh eyes it was so crazy obvious. She had become a young adult. I agreed (of course she would put it down! She'd done it countless times before with other books), and I handed it off, saying "Let's talk about it after." She was delighted. And after, we talked about it. And she got it. My new little adult learned great lessons from Janie. **spoiler alert** When she finished the trilogy, she said, "I'm really glad Janie decided not to drink anymore." I was surprised she'd picked up on that. It's very subtle in GONE, the moment that Janie makes that decision, and it's a moment that I never expected readers to ask me about or discuss, but I did hope they'd sort of absorb subconsciously. There's no big declaration, no epic "here's the moral - don't drink!" It's just a moment, a sentence, where we see Janie make the connection between her mom, the booze, and their life -- and make a different choice for her own life. It's one sentence, easily missed. And my kid -- my brand new young adult, picked up on it.
It's not rocket science for parents to know when their kid is ready to read edgy YA. And there is no exact age - it depends on the kid. Some kids are ready much younger than mine. Some aren't nearly ready yet at those ages. All it takes is a moment sitting at the kitchen bar, talking about grown up things, and noticing things. Letting kids grow up. And saying "hey...I have a book for you." Or listening when your child says in her own language, "I'm ready to learn how to be an adult now."