In third grade, I’d exhausted the books in ‘my’ section of the school library. I’d plowed through all the Little House books, the Chronicles of Narnia, and their ilk. I was bored and wanted something more.
When the reading van came to school (remember the reading van?) I was one of the first in line. I bopped in, passed the third grade section, and started browsing in the back, where the older kids were. One book caught my eye — “Light A Single Candle” by Beverly Butler. I was intrigued and took it to the check out, only to be stymied by the Sister who was running the cash register. She ordered me to put it back.
When I told my mother that night, she promptly wrote a note requesting I be given free rein not only of the book van, but of the library as well. I clutched that note like a magical talisman when I approached the check out the next day, same book in hand.
“Well,” said Sister A, scratching her head and looking at the back cover. “I suppose there’s no sex in it, right?”
I wasn’t exactly sure what sex was, but I know it couldn’t be good. I vigorously shook my head, and the prize was mine.
I remember that moment so clearly, because it was such a pivotal point in my life. Light A Single Candle didn’t have the sex scenes Sister A was worried about, but it did have a lot of teenage angst and maybe a little kissing. It was my first foray into ‘adult reading’ and it opened a whole new world. (The nuns — who were fabulous English teachers — eventually came round. By fifth grade I was loaning my copy of The Thornbirds to them.)
Of all the gifts my parents gave me, the encouragement to read and the freedom to read what I wanted are two of the greatest. Aside from one embarrassing incident when my mother called me out to show a friend what I was reading (unfortunately, I think I was eleven and it happened to be Forever by Judy Blume) she never questioned my judgement or took a book away from me.
And now, of course, history has repeated itself. It started a few months ago when my daughter picked up a book from a bargain bin. I recognized the author’s name, but hadn’t read any of her work, and the cover looked innocuous enough — slightly paranormal, in a pretty fairy type of way. She asked if she could get it, and I reminded her of our deal — I get to read anything she does first.
I kept meaning to read the book, but things kept coming up, and then it wasn’t where I’d put it. I dug it out from my daughter’s room, took it to mine, and read a chapter. The next day, it was gone. I took it back, read another, and realized the story made me uncomfortable when I thought about my daughter reading it. I put it in the pile for donations. The next day it disappeared, only to mysteriously crop up by the family room couch.
We went on like this for a few days — me subtly taking the book away, her just as subtly reclaiming it. I hated to come right out and forbid it, but I wasn’t all that thrilled with her reading it, either. And then she picked up another book of mine — an autobiography I’d gotten from the library — and asked if she could read that. I said yes, relieved. An autobiography! On an educational topic! Score!
But looking over her shoulder that night, I saw a swear — the swear, actually — on the page. I asked her if she thought the book was really appropriate for her after all, and she pointed out that she’s heard that same word at school, seen it scratched into bathroom stalls.
“Have you ever heard me say it?” she asked. And I had to admit, I hadn’t. So we struck a new deal, one that she likes much better and that gives my mother payback for the angst I must have caused her. Em can read what she wants.
I’m strict about what my kids watch for movies and TV. To me, the violent visual images, the sitcoms with the rude preteens, are rigid, in the sense that there’s no involvement from the watcher’s end. What you see is exactly what’s there.
But books are different. When you read, you bring yourself, your experiences, your curiosity about a subject, to the page. Or, as Madeleine L’Engle has been quoted as saying, readers must be creators. “The author and the reader “know” each other; they meet on the bridge of words.”
I’ve certainly read books where passages have gone over my head, nuances have been missed, because I didn’t have the life experience to comprehend them. Reading The Sun Also Rises at fifteen is a much different experience than at twenty-five, than again at forty-three. But not understanding the nature of Jake’s injury as a teenager didn’t stop me from loving the story.
Over the years, books have brought me pleasure and knowledge. I brought to each story what I could understand and took from it what I could handle. My hope is that my daughter will do the same. For the both of us, it’s the start of a wild ride.
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