I read newspaper articles, or blog posts, or facebook shares of stories about parents who are trying to ban books from their children’s school libraries. Books like Captain Underpants, and Paper Towns, by John Green, and Harry Potter, and To Kill A Mockingbird. Books written before 1900, after 1999, and every where in between. And I am simply bemused by all of it.
I grew up in a ranch-style home in Boise, Idaho, in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. My parents were voracious readers, and YA literature as a genre was extremely limited. I graduated to reading adult books the same year I graduated from elementary school – leaving behind the books of my childhood, Trixie Belden, The Chronicles of Narnia, Edward Eager and Nancy Drew at approximately the same time I put on my first training bra and got braces. I had loved reading children’s books as a child, but they no longer challenged me. I began “shopping” for books in the general fiction section of our library, and in used bookstores.
Beyond the age of 12, I read the same books that my parents read.
In our house, we had a study, and my father built a wall of bookshelves. I was lucky. My dad was a doctor, and we were relatively affluent for the 1970’s. We owned books. A lot of books. Anatomy books, because, as I said, my dad was a doctor. Neither parent ever even considered, apparently, telling me that, no, I was not permitted to look up the plates of the male reproductive system in the anatomy books. Because I totally did this. My first sight of adult male genitals was in one of those medical illustrations that showed me where all of the veins and the urethra were located and how it all worked. I found this hilarious. So did some of my friends.
In the fifth, or maybe sixth, grade, one of my friends brought Judy Blume’s first adult novel, Wifey, to school. Some of you will have read Wifey - it is the story of a married woman who has an affair. I didn’t “read” this book, exactly. Rather, we passed it around so everyone could read the scene with the blow job in it. All I really remember about this passage was my eleven-year-old mind silently screaming “ewwwww” as I passed it, giggling hysterically, to the next girl so she could read it, too. Also, the male character with whom she had the affair was described as hairy. This was revelatory to me.
Neither of these experiences made me decide to lose my virginity at the age of eleven. In fact, truth be told, I was a rather late bloomer, and didn’t rid myself of my by-that-time-unwanted virgin status until after I had entered my freshman year of college.
And these were not my only experiences with adult books. I read everything. I read The Clan of the Cave Bear, which I like to refer to as “Prehistoric Porn” when it was all the rage. I read Kathleen Woodiwiss, and Harlequin romances (these were actually pretty much squeaky clean), and Harold Fucking Robbins, so named because, to my recollection, pretty much every character in his books was getting in on with someone. I read spy thrillers – Helen MacInnes, Len Deighten, Ken Follet. I read 1970’s romantic suspense: Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney, and regency romance written by Georgette Heyer and Clare Darcy.
And I read the 1970’s and 1980’s sweeping epics: The Far Pavilions, Sho-Gun, Trinity, The Winds of War, North and South, Chesapeake Bay. M.M. Kaye, James Clavell, Leon Uris, Herman Wouk, John Jakes, James Michener. I read all of these authors, in original hardback, when I was 12, and 13, and 14, and 15. And let me tell you, as in life, in those books, there was sex. Married sex, unmarried sex, rapey sex, consensual sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex. You see, sex is part of life, and life is the stuff of books. There was violence, too, but no one ever seems to object to their children reading books because they show realistic depictions of war and other forms of violence.
I took D.H. Lawrence’s supposedly naughty classic, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, off of the bookshelves and was mightily disappointed with it after I struggled through.
So when I see parents who are freaking about Paper Towns by John Green, I just can’t wrap my mind around this. I’ve read Paper Towns. It’s funny, and charming, and the narrator is endearing, and it speaks to universal themes of being a teenager. It is sparkling, and literate, and at times laugh out loud funny. It deals honestly with sexuality, and let’s face it, teenagers are sexual creatures, as much as we rather wish that they weren’t. The fact that a book acknowledges that they are sexual creatures doesn’t mean that it is promoting teen sex, but being honest with the fact that high school seniors are sexually aware even if they are not sexually active is hardly a piece of groundbreaking news.
These same parents will often suggest that they expect their teens to be reading “classics” that don’t have “that kind of filth” in them. Like Of Mice and Men, or 1984, or The Lord of the Flies. And, even more, I can’t wrap my mind around this, except to conclude that these parents have not, themselves, read the books that they are promoting. Of Mice and Men is a bleak, and deeply dismaying, tale in which a (spoiler alert) developmentally-delayed man is essentially put down like an unwanted dog, by his only friend, with a bullet to the back of his head, as a kindness. It is crazy devastating to read. 1984 is a book that discusses the evil and incredible utility of propaganda, so trying to ban books in order to force teens to read Orwell is a prospect fraught with so much cognitive dissonance that it almost makes my head explode. And The Lord of the Flies. Jesus Fucking H. Christ, that is a book about teenagers who kill each other.
You won’t let them read about teenagers who are finding their own way in age appropriate romantic relationships with each other, but flat-out murder is fine?
Don’t get me wrong – smart teens should be reading hard books, with serious themes. Their minds are so agile, so ready, so demanding and desirous of being filled with good stuff that it is a waste of talent if we don’t encourage them to read great books. To stretch their intellects. Serving them pablum is a terrible, utterly awful, idea. It is insulting to suggest that they are incapable of processing hard themes and reading deeply and seriously.
I was so lucky. My parents never tried to prevent me from diving into their open bookshelves. I read from pulp to classics, and everything in between. I read Anna Karenina – a book chock full of adultery and suicide. I read The Gulag Archipelago – a mind-blowing indictment of Soviet oppression (another culture that enjoyed banning books).
My bookshelves were always open, too. So, for all of those parents out there who think that they are doing me a favor when they try to ban the National Book Award Winning book about the masturbating teen, Junior, from Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, or Emily Danforth’s great big gay coming of age novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, let me tell you in no uncertain terms that I would emphatically prefer that you keep your eyes on your own paper, and your nose in your own book.
Leave my children out of your crusade. You don’t speak for me.