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The Popularity of #BookTok and the Downfall of Age Appropriate Books

If you haven’t heard there’s been a slew of TikToker's working in libraries and bookstores that are more-than-a-little fed up with pre-teen and teen girls reading books far outside their age group.


The controversy lies between letting kids read whatever they want to and reading what’s considered ‘age-appropriate.’


Girl with books.

One of the common arguments is that when we were young we read books–and fanfics–that were not appropriate at all. 


The Difference Between Then and Now

The distinctive difference, however, is that when we were reading those fanfics on AO3 they had tags, content and trigger warnings, and could be highly filtered to include and exclude what we wanted. Essentially, we knew what we were getting into. We had to search for it, we had to include it in the tags. Was it inappropriate, sure, but we were never going in blind.


That’s the difference I want to speak about. We were informed. Many of the young readers now (and their parents) are not.


Printing content warnings within a novel itself is a relatively new concept, and it’s thanks to the popularity of #BookTok and adult TikToker's sharing the adult books they are reading. 


The problem arises when young readers are watching these TikTok's and are going to the #BookTok table at their local bookstore and buying these books without fully knowing or understanding the content. 


We have to remember that TikTok is not an app for children. It is, first and foremost, a social media platform for adults. Facebook and Instagram started out the same way. I remember many of my elementary school classmates lying about their age to create a Facebook account. 


Yes, kids today are doing the same thing, but social media has grown exponentially since we were young. I’m not saying we never came across inappropriate content, but I think it is much easier to access now, especially accidentally.


Now, I’m going to dig into some popular #BookTok novels and the issues they bring to the table.


Example #1: A Court of Thorns and Roses

Of course, the one and only: ACOTAR. (Disclaimer: I have not read this series, but I know a decent amount given its popularity).


A Court of Thorns and Roses (A Court of Thorns and Roses #1), Book by Sarah J. Maas

Many readers hear the words: magic, fae, and romance, and think “Excellent, this is right up my alley.” But if you do even a little bit more digging…


These are the main genres listed on Goodreads:


  • Fantasy

  • Romance

  • Young Adult

  • Fiction

  • New Adult

  • Fae

  • Fantasy Romance


The important things to note here is that Young Adult and New Adult are both listed. Now, I don’t know about you, but these are two very different age groups and genres to list for the same book. It’s the difference between fade-to-black and explicit detail. 


After Goodreads I headed over to StoryGraph for the content warnings because it’s a built-in feature that is generated by readers.


The summary alone includes:


  • Graphic: Violence, Death, Sexual content

  • Moderate: Torture


But this is the full list:


Graphic

Violence (655) Death (518) Sexual content (451) Blood (441) Torture (433) Murder (416) Gore (296) Injury/Injury detail (277) Animal death (194) Confinement (174) Physical abuse (167) Kidnapping (152) Emotional abuse (125) Body horror (119) Sexual assault (113) Vomit (111) Grief (103) Toxic relationship (101) Slavery (99) War (95) Sexual harassment (89) Death of parent (84) Alcohol (82) Classism (50) Suicidal thoughts (41) Gaslighting (41) Sexual violence (40) Cursing (39) Drug use (37) Misogyny (34) Animal cruelty (25) Rape (25) Bullying (22) Genocide (22) Excrement (22) Medical trauma (21) Drug abuse (20) Sexism (20) Abandonment (20) Panic attacks/disorders (18) Xenophobia (18) Child death (16) Fire/Fire injury (16) Forced institutionalization (15) Domestic abuse (14) Mental illness (14) Colonisation (14) Adult/minor relationship (11) Alcoholism (11) Child abuse (11) Medical content (11) Toxic friendship (11) Hate crime (8) Racism (8) Stalking (7) Ableism (6) Body shaming (6) Chronic illness (6) Eating disorder (4) Infidelity (4) Addiction (3) Trafficking (3) Deadnaming (2) Self harm (2) Terminal illness (2) Suicide attempt (2) Cultural appropriation (2) Biphobia (1) Fatphobia (1) Gun violence (1) Homophobia (1) Infertility (1) Pedophilia (1) Racial slurs (1) Police brutality (1) Cannibalism (1) Religious bigotry (1) Pregnancy (1) Lesbophobia (1) Outing (1) Dysphoria (1) Deportation (1) Pandemic/Epidemic (1)


Moderate

Sexual content (361) Torture (180) Violence (177) Death (142) Blood (140) Murder (121) Sexual assault (113) Vomit (97) Sexual harassment (89) Animal death (88) Gore (85) Slavery (84) Injury/Injury detail (83) Confinement (79) Kidnapping (76) Death of parent (75) Emotional abuse (73) Alcohol (67) Physical abuse (66) War (62) Toxic relationship (48) Grief (45) Body horror (31) Sexual violence (31) Suicidal thoughts (30) Drug use (27) Classism (26) Abandonment (25) Rape (24) Cursing (23) Misogyny (19) Gaslighting (15) Sexism (14) Xenophobia (13) Bullying (11) Panic attacks/disorders (11) Domestic abuse (10) Genocide (9) Fire/Fire injury (9) Ableism (8) Excrement (8) Adult/minor relationship (7) Animal cruelty (7) Mental illness (7) Forced institutionalization (7) Toxic friendship (7) Drug abuse (6) Racism (6) Colonisation (6) Medical content (5) Alcoholism (4) Body shaming (3) Child abuse (3) Child death (3) Chronic illness (3) Hate crime (3) Self harm (3) Terminal illness (3) Religious bigotry (3) Trafficking (2) Medical trauma (2) Stalking (2) Addiction (1) Eating disorder (1) Racial slurs (1) Transphobia (1) Dysphoria (1)


Minor

Death of parent (119) Vomit (94) Slavery (80) Sexual assault (67) Sexual content (66) Torture (50) War (49) Animal death (48) Sexual harassment (47) Alcohol (40) Cursing (36) Death (34) Suicidal thoughts (34) Confinement (28) Sexual violence (28) Kidnapping (28) Gore (27) Violence (26) Blood (26) Toxic relationship (20) Murder (20) Rape (19) Classism (19) Grief (17) Drug use (16) Genocide (16) Child death (15) Emotional abuse (15) Excrement (14) Physical abuse (13) Fire/Fire injury (13) Injury/Injury detail (13) Domestic abuse (11) Abandonment (11) Sexism (10) Infidelity (8) Misogyny (8) Bullying (7) Body horror (6) Body shaming (5) Panic attacks/disorders (5) Xenophobia (5) Gaslighting (5) Ableism (4) Animal cruelty (4) Racism (4) Chronic illness (3) Drug abuse (3) Child abuse (2) Hate crime (2) Self harm (2) Suicide (2) Medical content (2) Religious bigotry (2) Toxic friendship (2) Colonisation (2) Adult/minor relationship (1) Mental illness (1) Racial slurs (1) Terminal illness (1) Forced institutionalization (1) Medical trauma (1) Stalking (1)


In the Graphic section alone we have:


  • Violence  

  • Sexual content 

  • Torture

  • Murder 

  • Abuse 

  • Kidnapping 

  • Sexual assault 

  • Self harm

  • Suicidal thoughts

  • Suicide attempt 

  • Adult/minor relationship 

  • Pedophilia

  • Stalking 

  • Trafficking 

  • Police brutality


Do the 10-13 year old children know about any of this when they pick up the series? If they do know, are they equipped to handle the content? The trauma the characters endure? 


Example #2 The Spanish Love Deception 


The Spanish Love Deception, Book by Elena Armas

A young teen I know picked up this book because all her friends had read it. I recognized it immediately and knew this girl had no knowledge of what this book actually included. 


From Goodreads again, the genres:


  • Contemporary

  • Adult

  • Chick Lit

  • New Adult

  • Adult Fiction

  • Young Adult

  • Contemporary Romance


What is with listing Young Adult and New Adult for the same book. They are two different genres for a reason. If they were the same thing and meant for the same age group there would only be one designation. 


Some Research

An HBR article titled, Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling, states that, “If the story is able to create tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters.”


Another article titled, How Stories Change the Brain, also states that, “We watch a flickering image that we know is fictional, but evolutionarily old parts of our brain simulate the emotions we intuit…and we begin to feel those emotions, too.”


From listening to Dear Hollywood, a podcast hosted by Alyson Stoner, I learned that children often can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction until the age of 6. In Tom Felton’s memoir Beyond the Wand, he speaks of a woman that told him to “be nicer to Harry Potter,” as if Tom was really Draco Malfoy. 


Taking all of this information together we can conclude that while young children can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction, older children to adults can also struggle with this when our empathy is involved as we often come to share the emotions of fictional characters. 


My question is that, while this connection allows up to grow our empathy, how does it affect us when the characters are experiencing trauma, intense fear, or brutality? Do we also take on those emotions as our own?


Reflecting on My Experiences


High School

While writing this, it reminded me of my Grade 11 English teacher. She was a young mother and saw us, her 16-17 year old students, in a similar way. We were kids in her eyes. She was astonished that any of us knew about Fifty Shades of Grey or had watched Game of Thrones. She also skipped the sexual assault scene when we were reading and watching A Streetcar Name Desire.


I still disagree with that decision. It’s something we very much should have talked about. We discussed the suicide that happens in the beginning, the grief and mourning, the physical abuse, alcoholism, etc. My teacher decided all of that was appropriate to discuss, but not the sexual assault. I still wonder why.


Adulthood

Back to content warnings, even as an adult now, I wished I paid more attention to the warnings for The Poppy War. I even think there should be a page in the beginning of the book or just before Chapter 21 with a list of warnings. 


I did read it, and it took some time to process, and I wished I’d known the content warnings beforehand so I didn’t have to go in blind. There is no foreshadowing that the book will include this level of detail and trauma. Every other chapter leading up to it and afterwards isn’t anywhere near as intense. 


And I know I'm not the only one to think this because after finishing the book and reading reviews we were all struck by Chapter 21.


Making Informed Decisions

My solution is a simple one, but it takes parents and children getting involved. 


I noted above that the key difference between reading fanfic and ‘spicy’ novels is that fanfic has content and trigger warnings attached in the summary. It’s also one of the reasons why I prefer StoryGraph over Goodreads. 


Until I started reading fanfic I never thought to look at content warnings. I didn’t even know they existed and that I should check them. I was a young teen, what did I know? 


Listing the content warnings does not take away from the book. It doesn’t give away the plot or the twists, or any character development, and it doesn’t determine if a reader will enjoy it or not. It determines, simply, if the reader is ok or not ok with reading the content.


For example, I cannot stand the pregnancy trope. I do not want to read a book where the main character (or any character really) ends up pregnant halfway through the novel. It makes me incredibly uncomfortable. Knowing this about myself and having access to content warnings via StoryGraph I can make informed decisions about the books I read or do not read. 


This is all I want young readers to know. 


For Children

I want them to be informed. I want their parents to be informed. I want it to become common to list content warnings in the book itself, the same way we would attach tags in the summary for a fic. 


If young readers want to read ACOTAR or other popular adult #BookTok books, that’s fine. I am not about to censor or stop anyone from reading what they want to read. However, I think readers of any age should be aware of the content of the books, because maybe if they knew, they wouldn’t want to read it. Or they still would. Either way, they would know, they wouldn’t be going in blind, they wouldn’t be happening upon something they weren’t prepared for. 


For Parents

As for parents, I think it’s important to open up a dialogue when it comes to reading.


I know of a mother on TikTok who is letting her four year old read Percy Jackson. Totally fine. Even better, she lets her son know that if he doesn’t know a word, doesn’t understand, or is concerned about something in the book, he can come and talk about it with her. 


Is Percy Jackson age appropriate for a four year old. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it depends more on the involvement of the parents who are willing to explain and help the child process the content that is above their understanding and experience. 

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