How Young is Too Young to Read Gone With The Wind?

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In a heartfelt introduction to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, author Pat Conroy mentions how his mother (a proud southerner) read this controversial novel to him when he was only five years old:

“For the most part, I was raised in a house without books, but the ones displayed and laid out flat for the inspection of visitors were the Bible and Gone With the Wind, in no particular order of importance.

[…]

[My mother] read the novel aloud to me when I was five years old, and it is from this introductory reading that I absorbed my first lessons in the authority of fiction.”

That happened between six and seven decades ago, a time when regional differences tied to the Civil War were more apparent than I believe they are today. It was also before the Civil Rights Movement and other events put a different perspective on the inequality at the heart of the novel.

I wonder how many parents would read Gone With the Wind to their five-year-old now. Would a five-year-old even understand it?

If they’re lucky, they wouldn’t.

As I wrote last week in Should We Change How We Talk & Write About the Civil War?,

“Full of racial slurs and stereotypes, the novel perpetuates myths about the South. In Margaret Mitchell’s fictional version of her homeland, the planters were charming aristocrats, the slaves were stupid and submissive laborers, and the ruthless “Yankee invaders” ruined everything[.]

[…]

Gone with the Wind espouses romantic notions of the Old South that hide the brutal truth about slavery and those who wanted to maintain it.”

I would never tell another parent how to raise their child — and I expect the same courtesy — but I will say that, when it comes to my children, Gone With the Wind won’t be on the TBR list anytime soon.

While the plot (which includes violence and sexual coercion) and overarching racist and sexist themes are too complicated for a small child to understand, the racist language is pretty easy to pick up. I would never want my children to use these words without knowing their meaning or impact, inadvertently causing harm to others who do.* The younger the child, the bigger the risk.

That said, I highly recommend the book for adults who are old enough to understand the context in which it was written. It’s a novel that certainly deserves its place as a classic for its compelling characters and engrossing portrayal of an Old South than only ever existed in fiction.

So, how about you? Did your parents read anything to you that, in retrospect, might not have been the best idea?

In my case, nothing comes to mind. There are certainly books I read before I was ready to understand them — I didn’t appreciate Pride & Prejudice when I was in elementary school — but none of the books I read at a very young age (or were read to me) were quite like Gone With the Wind.

__________________________________

*See More Thoughts on the Censorship Spectrum: Cleansing Racist Themes from Children’s Books.

**Image at the top: That’s actually a picture of one of my 7-year-olds reading A Wrinkle in Time (not Gone with the Wind!).

28 thoughts on “How Young is Too Young to Read Gone With The Wind?

  1. Pingback: Mr. AMB on Gone With the Wind (& Looking for the Past in the Future) | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  2. GWTW was one of my favorite books I ever read as a teenager. I grew up from age 12-24 in Alabama so I was thick in the south as they say when reading this wonderful novel. I have lived the last 23 years in Seattle so I am out of the south although the south never leaves you. : ) In regards to best age to read this–hands down-I would say as a teenager. If it was read to me-I would say that would be fine,, but censored at certain parts especially if I was a little one. Having said that I grew up with a mom who was born in Berlin and she thought she could not read English good so that would never happen in our household anyway! She did sing me crazy songs she learned from her WWII experiences. I would say that could be a blog post all within it self… (think little children singing about bombs going off in air raids). This was not your normal lullaby song…

    1. Thea Martin

      I read Gone With the Wind and Of Mice and Men at age 12 and understood it perfectly fine. No offence, but I think any age above 10 (depending on their comprehension level and maturity) would be fine to read at least Gone With the Wind.

  3. Pingback: I’ll Parent My Children & You’ll Parent Yours—Not Vice Versa | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  4. I hope the way we write about the civil war has changed thru the years. I had resisted reading GWTW my whole life, but a few years ago, someone chose it for our bookclub classic read. I forced myself to read it—and I didn’t hate it. Didn’t love it either like so many do. But never would I read it to a child. Having said that… when I was 12 I ‘snuck’ read The Godfather, Valley of the Dolls and the Exorcist (yes, it was 1971). To this day I LOVE all of those books. My parents didn’t know I was reading them. They would have never read them to me, but I wonder if they would have banned them if they knew—they certainly were not age appropriate, and I trace my love of reading back to them. (an many more before that, but…..) ? I’m not answering your question. I don’t believe in censorship, but direction to age appropriate literature is fine.

    1. Reading behind parents’ backs is an important part of growing up! To the extent I have any control over what my children read, I try to direct them toward age appropriate books. I don’t mind if they read GWTW at some point–I rather liked the book (though it’s hard to ignore the racism)–but I’d prefer it happen when they have a better understanding of its context. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. I always had books around, and my family encouraged my love of reading. I remember my grandmother reading to me for as long as I would let her. She bought me soooo many books – it really shaped me into the person I am today. In all of that, I never remember anyone telling me that I couldn’t read a specific book. They trusted me to choose appropriate books, and I trusted myself to choose books that “fit” me. I don’t have kids of my own, but it’s definitely something I’ve thought about for the possible future. As a librarian, I’m inherently against censorship, and in favor of information being readily available, especially because some kids need to read harder material that reflects their lives. It’s an interesting juxtaposition – where’s the line with one’s own children?

    As for GWTW, I was probably 9-11 when I read it. Hated it, but I did get through it and felt so accomplished!

    1. “As a librarian, I’m inherently against censorship, and in favor of information being readily available, especially because some kids need to read harder material that reflects their lives. It’s an interesting juxtaposition – where’s the line with one’s own children?”

      Well said! I would never tell a library to stop carrying GWTW just because I don’t want my own children to read it just yet. I also don’t think it’s the end of the world if they do read it. I merely think it isn’t the best choice for them right now.

  6. When I was 11 I took it out from the library and read it. I knew it was about slavery and how badly people were treated. I read such a variety of books and my parents weren’t racist so I was able to process it appropriately. I have mixed feelings about “censoring” books from kids, but it’s not one I would choose for a child. And def not a 5 year old!

    1. “I have mixed feelings about “censoring” books from kids, but it’s not one I would choose for a child. And def not a 5 year old!”

      Agreed. There are no books my children aren’t allowed to read–only books that I prefer they read when they’re a little older. Certainly, many people have read GWTW at young ages without any lasting negative effects, but they might have appreciated the novel more and better understood its context if they’d waited until they were older.

      Thanks for the comment!

  7. GWTW is an excellent book, but definitely has themes that a 5 year old would not understand and does not yet need to be exposed to. I first read it as 15 year old, which I think was an ideal age to comprehend what I was reading while still being able to recognize aspects of the book and the characters that I did not want to replicate in my own life. Although “Fiddle-Dee-Dee!” is now a regular part of my vocabulary ;).

  8. I never read the book, so I don’t know. But the truth is, my parents let me read a LOT of books I probably shouldn’t, and it was a great benefit to me and my sisters. Before I’d start any book, my father would sit me down and explain certain things for me so I could better understand them; my school did the same. For example, when I was in 3rd grade, my teacher spent a week explaining the Holocaust to us (it was an overarching theme in my grade-school and middle-school), then she assigned “The Diary of Anne Frank”. When I was in 8th grade, it was the first time I read Mein Kampf.* There are a lot of books out there that people think children can’t handle, but the truth is, a child can handle any book that they read or that is read to them – as long as they understand what it’s all about. Instead of arguing whether or not this book should be read to kids of a certain age, the conversation should be about what a parent/teacher’s responsibilities are to the children to ensure they truly understand what a book means. Without any guidance like that, a child will have no way of truly understanding, or learning from any book they read.

    *For clarification: I am not a Nazi, or a Nazi sympathizer. I was raised to understand that particular part of history, and to this day I have an extreme interest in it.

    1. Thanks for your perspective. In my household, there are no books my children aren’t allowed to read, only books that I would prefer that they read at a later time. So far, I’ve discussed two on this blog: Julie of the Wolves and Gone With the Wind. Both are wonderful books, but I believe my children will be better prepared to understand the concepts/themes in them when they are a little older. Very few young children are going to understand the plot and themes of GWTW, no matter how many ways a parent tries to explain it.

      1. The way my father did it (and this is not so say that my father is the most brilliant person on Earth, just a perspective I’ve garnered from having learned the way I did), was he would explain the book to us to the best of his ability. He could not answer ALL of our questions in the pre-reading “seminar” (my mom called it that lol); but if there was anything in particular we didn’t understand when reading it, he would explain that specific part of it. There were occasions where some themes in what I was reading was just too advanced for my age, and in those, he would tell me to write it down (as if in a bibliography and page number) and then try reading it again the next year until I could understand it. There were very few times I required this, but it did help, because years later, I would look at that piece of paper, and I would have something to reread to see if I understood everything in it. It worked.

    1. Reading behind parents’ backs is an important part of growing up! However, to the extent I have any influence on my children’s reading choices, I’d prefer they shelve GWTW until they’re a bit older. Mid-to-late teens sounds like a good time for it.

  9. Neither parent read to me at all. I learned early and did my own reading. I can’t remember how old I was when I read GWTW the first time; I’m guessing mid-to-late teens. At that age, I was fully aware of the stereotypes and racism in the story, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying Scarlet’s willfulness and single-minded determination to get what she wanted at any cost. She’s one of the most vivid characters in fiction, male or female, and I still get a kick out of her when I re-read this story. She was a feminist before the word existed. My ex-husband gave me a first edition of this novel, and that’s the one I read. It has a confederate gray cover and is in excellent shape. Whoever had it first, took care of it, and so do I. 🙂

    1. How nice to have a first edition of GWTW (in such great condition!). Mid-to-late teens sounds like a good age to read this novel–old enough to understand the context and appreciate Scarlett’s attributes without wanting to emulate her flaws.

  10. I just read GWTW over the summer, and I fully agree with you that it is a book worth reading. However, I would also discourage my kids from reading this book, or reading it to them, until they are in their teens. I would want them to know going into the book that there are passages that are uncomfortable to read about and language that is inappropriate to use considering where US society is today. (Plus, I suspect that my oldest–who loves to be the center of attention–as a 5-year-old would have loved Scarlett as she was early in the book, without any notion of how troublesome some of the behavior is.)

    1. I hope my children read GWTW eventually, but only after they’re old enough to understand its context. That might happen sooner than I expect–lots of people read it at 9-14 without any negative effects–but we’ll see. I would want my girls to have a better grasp of Civil War and civil rights history before they pick it up.

      Thanks for the comment!

  11. I read Gone with the Wind at a young age too, probably about 9-10 when I first saw the movie. If my daughter is interested to read the book, I would let her. And explain to her about some of the themes in the book, and what was not correct.
    In spite of its issues, its still a better book than some of the meaningless fantasy novels that kids read these days. Plus, we live in India, so it’s quite unlikely she would inadvertently hurt someone using language from the book.

    1. While 9-10 is young, a child of that age is probably better able to understand the harm the language in GWTW could cause than a 5-year-old would. In my case, living in the United States, I would want my children to read GWTW only after they’ve had an opportunity to learn about the Civil War from reputable history books and primary sources before they get exposed to Mitchell’s version of it.

      I do think it’s a wonderful book, though. I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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