Should an 11 year old read Kafka?
May 10, 2012 4:05 AM   Subscribe

Is Franz Kafka to intense to give to an 11 year boy?

Do you guys think Kafka, not his whole body of work but some of the shorts, is to intense for an 11 year old? I read to my kids each night (aged 5 & 11) but I'm having a hard time getting the 11 year old to want to read on his own. He doesn't have much enthusiasm for the childrens "classics" that I've read to him lately: Phantom Toolbooth, Road Dahl's the Witches, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, Charlie & the Great Glass Elevator (which was a terrible book, so I understand his cool reaction). He has little to no interest in fantasy so I can't get him into Harry Potter or LOTR or CS Lewis.

Anyway, I thought maybe if I showed him that there is more out there then what they usually aim at kids his ages he might show more enthusiasm. But, I'm also not always the best judge of how appropriate something is for a kid. Obviously, I can be on the look out for violence, cruelty, political & social themes he can't possible understand at this point, but I'm concerned that maybe The Metamorphosis (which I planned to test the waters with) might be a bit to intense. Any thoughts?
posted by senseofsurreal to Education (32 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Aside from Enid Blyton's "Five" series, I skipped the kiddie literature when I was young. Something just drew me towards adult contemporary fiction, and some of the classics. I didn't really understand much of what I read, mind you, but I appreciated the writing and the stories were more interesting. Children's and young adults' lit just lulled my brain to sleep. I remember reading John Irving at around 11, and Kafka a few years later. I didn't find it too intense, but then again that's just what I naturally gravitated to.
posted by Unhyper at 4:18 AM on May 10, 2012

I think I read some Kafka at that age- since at that point I was just randomly pulling books off the shelves to read- but I just didn't get it. Have you considered other adult literature such as Hemingway or Steinbeck? The red pony, could be a good one. Also things like my side of the mountain and Where the Red Fern Grows could be good choices.
posted by rockindata at 4:27 AM on May 10, 2012

Kafka is an awesome read, and if the 11 year old is interested, Metamorphosis is a great read.
posted by handbanana at 4:28 AM on May 10, 2012

I would be concerned that The Metamorphosis is lame, and worry about what effect that would have on his future reading interest. (Sorry--I just read it for the first time last week, and was really disappointed.)

Whether or not a book is too "intense" for a kid really depends on the individual kid. What does he watch on TV? What kind of movies does he like? Has he ever shown that he can't emotionally deal with any of the themes in those? What is he interested in?

When Jurassic Park came out, I was obsessed with the movie. So my dad bought me the book to read. I was seven. I was just fine. Before I was ten, my dad had fed me a pile of Crichton, Animal Farm, and Brave New World, all of which are full of "intense" and adult themes. Again, I was fine, and getting to read grown up books only fueled my love of reading more. Whether or not other kids my age would have had the same reaction is another thing entirely.

So, long story short, give your kid The Metamorphosis to read if you think he'll like it. Just make yourself available to talk it over with him and answer any questions he has. And if he's not into it, for whatever reason, ask him why and then try to find something else he may like better.

Thanks for being a pro-reading parent, by the way. It always makes me sad when people try to shield their kids from books.

Good luck!
posted by phunniemee at 4:30 AM on May 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think this is a good age to teach them how to find and buy/checkout their own books. It's fun, he can feel more independent, and it's a good life skill (especially the library, you can write down due dates on the calendar together and stuff like that).

At that point my dad took me to the library weekly, and then let me have my freedom for hours while he read the paper, and it really was amazing. He let me check out anything that wasn't horror, and never judged me or asked if something was too old or too young.

I ended up with a lot of non-fiction about history, Garfield, and Steinbeck...most importantly I felt like reading was something I could do independently, for me, not for an adult or a class.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:51 AM on May 10, 2012 [15 favorites]

Our English teacher read the opening section of The Metamorphosis to us, a class of twelve-&-thirteen year-olds, to illustrate the precept that one shouldn’t begin a story with ‘I woke up; I got out of bed’ unless there were some striking or unusual aspect to it—and I thought it sounded vaguely interesting and had no problem with it.

On the other hand, I eventually read the whole thing when I was about twenty-three and it touched a raw & bloody nerve—I’ve seldom been so freaked out by a story…

I think eleven/twelve is when I first started to read some ostensibly adult literature. Like others above, I absorbed what I could understand and discarded the rest. In your position I probably just wouldn’t choose The Metamorphosis specifically, if only because of my experience of it as an adult.
posted by misteraitch at 4:53 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I got excited and forgot to address your specific question--!

If he's the type to have anxiety, no. If he's relatively mellow, go for it.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:53 AM on May 10, 2012

I think the content of The Metamorphosis is pretty accessible to someone that age, but on a psychological level I don't think he'll connect very much because at it's core it's about a very adult sort of alienation. Back when I was that age the "real literature" I liked the most were Edgar Allen Poe stories like The Pit and the Pendulum.

There is actually an unusual young adult book based on The Metamorphosis, it's called Shoebag. It's only loosely related, and instead of an adult man transforming into a cockroach it's about a cockroach transforming into a human child. It deals with alienation from that perspective which may be more accessible, and the author was just out of high school when she wrote it which gives it a more realistic feeling than a lot of other young adult fiction.
posted by burnmp3s at 5:23 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is it possible that he's just bored with being read to?
posted by empath at 5:32 AM on May 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

I got into Kafka a few years after that. At 11, it probably would have been too artsy for me, and I certainly would've missed all the humor in The Metamorphosis. All I wanted to read at 11 was Stephen King.
posted by Beardman at 5:44 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had Metamorphosis read to me at about the same age, give or take. It blew me away - I thought it was amazing, and I still do. I'd say go for it. Your son will thank you later.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 5:54 AM on May 10, 2012

I was reading grown up books well before 11. It didn't damage me. If you had told me I could only read Roald Dahl, I would have hated reading.

Maybe your kid just doesn't like to read, but it can't hurt to try. And if he doesn't like Kafka, try something else -- there are lots of types of books and stories out there, and a sixth grader is easily old enough not to be censored from reading them.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:01 AM on May 10, 2012

Good for you for reading to your kids! It definitely gets harder as they get older. I think it's important, especially with boys, to meet them where they are in regard to reading. That is, feed him books about things he's interested in. If you really think he'd be interested in the subject matter of Kafka, go for it. But if what he's really interested in is baseball, or robots, or electric guitars, get him books -- fiction or nonfiction -- about that. The important thing isn't what he's reading, but that he learns to enjoy it.
posted by Shoggoth at 6:01 AM on May 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, and one more thing: If you haven't already, check out the fabulous Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease.
posted by Shoggoth at 6:02 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I read some Kafka when I was around that age (I don't remember what, anymore) and it didn't seem to traumatize me. All kids are different, though.

What happens when you take him to the library or a bookstore? What does he gravitate to?
posted by rtha at 6:06 AM on May 10, 2012

There is a terrific graphic novel of The Metamorphosis illustrated by Peter Kuper that might go down well with an 11 year old boy. For reasons I don't quite get, I can't create a link to the Amazon page for it. Sorry.
posted by space_cookie at 6:10 AM on May 10, 2012

This one, space_cookie?
posted by rtha at 6:14 AM on May 10, 2012

I have yet to meet an 11-year-old boy who didn't like Ender's Game. (It's less science fictiony than military/political, despite the cover and shelving category, in my opinion.) I think technically it was also written as an adult book, not a kids' book.

If kids' books aren't doing it for him, I think it's fine for him to skip straight to adult books. What IS he interested in? Would scary stuff be more up his alley? I read Stephen King around that age for the first time; also there's Edgar Allan Poe, and some of Neil Gaiman's adult stuff. Or what about funny stuff, like The Hitchhiker's Guide? Classics like Charles Dickens or Mary Shelley? What about graphic novels? What about nonfiction - biographies of people in fields that interest him or histories of major cities or events? Or even serious fiction - A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was one of my very favorite books at that age.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:16 AM on May 10, 2012

Frankly, it seems like a bit of a leap to skip from children's classics like Roald Dahl to adult classics like Kafka without testing the waters of middle school/teen contemporary and classic fiction first.

I don't think the content of Kafka, on a psychological level, is too "out there" for an 11-year-old, but I wonder if he is really going to connect with the surface layer of a setting like The Metamorphosis, which--you know, stripped of the "woke up as a bug" part--may be too grown up and mundane.

So an alternative strategy would be to see if he's interested in any of the teen classics that combine food-for-thought with a more engaging storyline: Animal Farm, Call of the Wild, The Yearling, that kind of stuff. If he's reading well above grade level (and if he's not, then that's another level at which Kafka is probably not appropriate), check out the summer reading lists aimed at kids a few grade levels ahead. Also, you say he doesn't like fantasy and that you kind of struck out with a series of children's fantasy classics, so perhaps offer up some books rooted in realism rather than Yet Another Kind of Fantasy.

Or maybe he just doesn't like "classics" period and wants to read books dealing with completely contemporary settings and written in contemporary language. If that's the case, books by authors like Gary Paulson or Carl Hiaasen might be more appealing.
posted by drlith at 7:29 AM on May 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I came in to suggest Ender's Game, but somebody beat me to it so +1.
posted by Strass at 8:15 AM on May 10, 2012

I first read Kafka at about that age and it did not seem too disturbing.

My son was bored with all the literature that you have tried at that age. For some reason "The Outsiders" appealed to him. You might have thought he couldn't read until he discovered that book. Anyway, I think he identified with the independence and struggles of the kids in that book and also with their raw presentation. I would keep looking and eventually you are likely to find something that catches your son's interest.
posted by caddis at 8:44 AM on May 10, 2012

I also think Kafka might come across as boring. Kafka does a lot of "adult angst" which, frankly, can be quite dull. Although, man turns into bug could leave an impression. I'd keep it in as an option. I also recently re-read "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and it's a pretty good read. Targeted for young adult readers but has some really interesting themes and is all about a certain era -- tenement life in turn-of-the-century New York -- which is captured really engagingly.

I also just today came across this video of a mom finding some books that her reluctant reader was interested in; her son seems around age 11. Spoiler alert -- comedy books! Heh. I do consider it my life's goal as a parent to give my kid a good foundation in comedy and timing. Might be an avenue for you to explore.
posted by amanda at 8:55 AM on May 10, 2012

Check out the lists at the Guys Read web site, maybe?

My precocious 9-y.o. son just gave m back "The Hobbit," unfinished. No worries, I will have him try it again in a few years. He's seen the trailer, so he knows there is cool stuff in there, but it was just not paced right for him. he's done al the Harry Potter books several times through, so I know he can handle the diction and weight. :7)

Does anyone still read the Jim Kjelgaard books about boys and their dogs? I loved those books about boys in the outdoors with their own trap lines and dogs. I re-read a few of them last year and they are good, solid prose with a lot of action.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:07 AM on May 10, 2012

I was about 11 when I first encountered Kafka (via the altogether wonderful Dictionary of Imaginary Places, which might be a good gift for your 11-year-old). However, I can remember being fascinated but utterly freaked out by 'In the Penal Colony', so perhaps I should have waited till I was older.
posted by verstegan at 10:26 AM on May 10, 2012

Just an anecdote. I read lots of Kafka at 12 (and Camus, etc.). My mother was proud. I should have been reading porn or something instead. It would have been better for my mental health. It completely depressed me and I have been searching for the meaning of life in a meaningless world for a long time since. If he reads this, make sure he understands it in the context of other things in the world. Going into your teen years thinking life is meaningless is not a good combination.

I was too young not to absorb it into my core. I was forming, and it formed me. I'm all for reading, but, good lord, I wish I had read something else...
posted by Vaike at 10:45 AM on May 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

> He doesn't have much enthusiasm for the childrens "classics" that I've read to him lately

My son doesn't like classics much, either; he wants books that look "modern" (the covers) and feel contemporary. Many classics haven't aged well, and if you don't have nostalgic feelings towards them they're boring.

Have you tried reading more recently published books with him? Your friendly local children's librarian should have a bazillion suggestions, based on what your son's interest are. His school librarian should also know what the cool kids are reading these days, and I bet you could schedule time with him or her to come in for suggestions.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:51 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

A reader finds in the material what is appropriate for them to find, I think... Many of Roald Dahl's books are pretty "intense" if you take them seriously, but as a kid they just seem funny. At 11, Metamorphosis may be more a weird / funny story about a body changing than a representation of psychological alienation, but it could still be a good read.

My mom tried to start me on Doestoyevski around that age (6th or 7th grade), but it didn't take; instead I found Kurt Vonnegut. Maybe just provide opportunities for him to choose his own material?
posted by mdn at 10:55 AM on May 10, 2012

The "In the Penal Colony" story is a bit er, harrowing. If you give him a collection of Kafka stories, it will probably be in there.
posted by bad grammar at 2:05 PM on May 10, 2012

I read a lot, and as a child, would read pretty much anything. That said, I didn't love fantasy or sci-fi. Hated Roald Dahl, didn't get the appeal of Tolkien, didn't like CS Lewis one bit.

Seconding rockindata's recommendation of The Red Pony - I loved it when I was 11 or so. I enjoyed Travels with Charley as well.

Maybe he'd like James Herriot? All Creatures Great and Small was the first book I ever checked out from the "grown-up" side of the library, and I still reread it at least yearly.

There's a lot of good young adult literature, too. Robert Cormier, Jean Craighead George, Lois Lowry, and Jerry Spinelli might go over well.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 2:16 PM on May 10, 2012

At that age I was reading Young Adult classics like The Cay and A Separate Peace. Those are two GREAT books to spark an interest in reading in an older kid.

After those, I hit Animal Farm and Of Mice and Men. By 12 or 13 I was devouring Kafka too. To answer your question, I don't think Kafka is really a big deal one way or the other. It's probably not the most engaging writing ever though, especially for that age, so I'd be checking into some more YA material.

Bonus points to the young rope-rider, this is definitely the time for some exploration in the library and bookstore.
posted by snsranch at 4:51 PM on May 10, 2012

I read The Metamorphosis, The Trial, Amerika, and a couple other stories all when I was about 10 and it was the weirdest most amazing and philosophically challenging stuff I had ever read. Totally expanded my view of the world.

I also read Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Elliot's Wasteland that summer and though I suspected I didn't get it in either case I enjoyed the language and absurdity of both.

I loved Kafka at his age, you should totally do it.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 7:38 PM on May 10, 2012

The Metamorphosis, The Trial, and Amerika would all be good. I would worry about The Penal Colony if they are the kind of kid you would worry about being freaked out.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:43 PM on May 10, 2012

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