It’s a problem that’s been brewing for a while now. I’ve ignored it, glossed it over, made excuses. I’ve done my best to pretend that I was in control of the situation, that I was driving, leading and in charge. I am not; I can admit that now.
Here’s my issue:
My kid reads too much.
Actually, no, that’s not the problem. My kid reading too much is clearly a point of pride – hell, I’m a writer for god’s sake. I whispered stories to her when she was in the womb, stories as she slid into the world, stories as I wrapped her and sang to her. That child was suckled on stories, so it’s really no surprise that she would read a lot.
But her reading – because of its sheer volume, because of its insistence on continuing itself – it pulls her away from the sphere of my protection. It pulls her away from me. And this is a good thing. Except when it’s not.
When she was in third grade, it became clear to me that the child read faster than I did. (As many of you already know, I was a delayed reader as a child, and remain a relatively slow reader. Or not slow. I saunter through books. I’m a saunterer.) Prior to that, I read everything she read just before she read it. I scanned for hints of inappropriateness or violence or hatred. She lived then in the world I built for her, and I wasn’t going to hand her over to the world at large. Not yet. Not without a fight.
I stayed up late reading. I read while I cooked. I read while I put her siblings to bed. I read for her. (Incidentally, all that reading likely built me into a Middle Grade Author. Prior to that I wrote a couple of crappy grownuppy novels that won me some praise from editors and agents but no actual sales. This experience taught me who I was as a writer, and I’m grateful for it.)
I wanted to protect my child – protect her from pain, protect her from fear, protect her from grief. And mostly (and this is a big MOSTLY) I wanted to protect her innocence. Her innocence, I felt, mattered. I pre-read most of her books, and scoured reviews and discussions online when she was chomping at the bit for a new book.
But even in third grade I was losing ground. She was reading hungrily, greedily. She was desperate for more.
By fourth grade, it was a lost cause. Because she was good in math, and quick, her teachers (in their infinite wisdom) (are you noting my frustration with the public school system? Yup. It’s there) sent her to the library during math class to read, since they knew that she was already ahead of everyone else, and would still boost up their math average by blowing the test out of the water, so why not just let the child read if she likes it so much?
(I am noticing that I still have some unresolved feelings about this. Must blog about it later)
In any case, she started reading books that I had no access to. That I had no knowledge of. Her reading life had gone beyond me, beyond the structures that I had placed around her life to keep her safe, to keep her from pain, to keep her pure.
I had already lost. Her reading life no longer belonged to me. It belonged to the world.
By fifth grade, she was reading a book a day. And she read everything – grownup books, kid books, teen books. When we went to the library together, I’d go with her in the teen section. I wouldn’t forbid books out of hand – instead I would offer the books that I had read, or the books that I had heard were good. I’d say things like, “You can read that if you want, but you should know that it has a TON of violence in it, and it might be upsetting.” Or sex. Or drug use. I explained, I cautioned, I analyzed. I did not overrule. I did not ban. I was no longer in a limiting role. My role was purely advisory.
At Christmas time, her grandmother gave her a Nook. Now, she can download books from the library – though she still prefers paper books. In any case, the library trips plus the electronic gadget keeps the kid in books which keeps her happy. But I am entirely outside now. She reads the book descriptions, reads the user comments, makes her lists, downloads, reads, repeats. She reads all the time, all the time, all the time.
And not just kid books.
This summer, as she has geared up for seventh grade, she read a bunch of Jane Austen, and Charlotte Brontë, and Douglas Adams. She read Terry Pratchett, Charles Dickens and Alexander McCall Smith. She read a couple vampire romance novels that were very fun and light and chick-litty – and with a couple very …. um…. detailed sex scenes. I learned about this later. Here was my conversation about it:
ME: So, I guess there was some sex in this book you read.
HER: Oh. Yeah. I don’t know why writers insist on putting that stuff in.
ME: You’ll probably understand why someday, but it’s okay not to now. Was that upsetting to you?
HER: What? No. Why would it be upsetting? If it was a movie, I’d just fast forward it. Since it’s a book, I just skip ahead. It seems to me that writers just put scenes in like that because they don’t know what’s going to happen next in the story and they’re wasting time. But I’m only interested in the story, so I flip the pages until the story gets good again.
ME: Good strategy.
HER: It’s like when there’s swear words. I don’t like hearing swear words at school, and I really don’t like reading them in a book. So I just make a BEEP sound in my head when I read it and everybody’s happy.
Have I mentioned lately how desperately I love that child?
And I’ve been thinking about this in the wake of this awesome article at The Millions and this crappy article at the NYT. Both deal with this notion of separating books – whether by gender or by age. When we balkanize books, when we divide them, sort them, put labels on them – we are implicitly telling readers:
This book is not for you.
This book is not appropriate for you.
Go away and come back when you are older. Or when you have turned into a girl. Or transformed into a boy.
Bollocks, I say.
When I was in seventh grade, I read The Grapes of Wrath. It politicized me, galvanized me. It was the first time that I understood that money was power and that power corrupts. There is also sex in it. And desperation. And despair. Was it inappropriate for a twelve year old?
I defy anyone to tell me that it was.
When I was a little bit younger than that, I read Call it Courage. Is it a “boy” book? I certainly see it now on lists of “boy” books. Was I channelling my inner boy when I read it (or, for that matter, my inner Polynesian)? Was I less of a girl because I read it and loved it?
Right now, as we speak, Ella is reading Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen. I’m pretty sure there’s some sex in it. I’m pretty sure there’s some violence. I’m pretty sure there’s some bad words. But I’m absolutely sure that what she will carry away from that book will have nothing to do with sex, violence or cursing. What she will carry away from that book will be something larger, richer, and ultimately more pure. When she reads, she inhabits the world that the writer designs and that she herself builds. When she reads, she makes the world new again.
This is why I do not limit. This is why I do not worry about appropriateness. This is why I trust my child. And this is why we talk about the books we read. The conversation matters, the connection matters, and the re-hash matters. It all matters.
Here’s a thing I know for sure: the reason why we read, the reason why we engage in stories, is to remind ourselves that we are more than ourselves. That we are part of a larger human family. That we, indeed, have souls. When we read we connect ourselves to other cultures, other times, other genders. We remind ourselves that human experience is fluid and changeable and wild. We remind ourselves that every man, woman and child on this earth – no matter how wicked in their actions – is worthy of compassion, worthy of empathy, worthy of redemption, worthy of love.
The reading and telling and listening of stories is the one uniquely human thing about us. It is our birthright. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to put any limits on it. Screw appropriateness. Now, where did I leave that book…..