When I was young, I was a voracious and pretty mature reader. By mature, I mean I wanted to read above my reading level and, probably, my emotional level. My parents basically much let me read whatever I wanted. There was something so exhilarating about that. I felt free to explore, and when I read things that were too mature for me, which happened accidentally and often, it both helped me grow intellectually and emotionally, and felt like a scintillating secret. When I was 16, I had a job that required a half hour commute each way, so I started checking out audiobooks from the library. I popped in Lady Chatterly’s Lover and was surprised by all the information about the obscenity trial in the introduction. I had never heard of any of this scandal before and, for whatever reason, I was pretty shocked. I still vividly remember bringing it up at the dinner table. The response went something like this:
Mom: You know people had sex in the 1920s, right?
Dad: Should she be reading this?
Mom: It’s a bit late for that, Charly.
Mom was such a badass. I don’t know if she meant it that way, but it felt so good to have my mom allow for and accept my intellectual freedom. I felt like an adult. Lady Chatterly was both profoundly uncomfortable and beautiful for me. It’s still one of my most meaningful experiences with a book. Occasionally, there were teachers who were surprised by some of the texts I had already read and hinted at them being inappropriate for a younger reader. Mom felt kind of threatened by those reactions, but I always held firm that her letting me read what I wanted to was one of the most important experiences of my young life. I still think that. And I know that the background to that decision was that I could talk to her about anything that I wanted to.
Now, I have a little book club with my 10 year-old sister. 10 is a far cry from 16, but I’m starting to think more about what a commitment of trust and acceptance it takes to let someone read whatever they want. So far, Marissa and I have read three books together. The first was The Hunger Games. I was hesitant about the level of violence, but Mom said yes, so we read it. Marissa picked up on the themes about class and rebellion and had both great answers to my questions and pretty good questions herself. Part of our conversation focused on the difference between prejudice and oppression. As I explained oppression, Marissa’s face fell. Her eyes welled with tears. I felt like I was bursting some sort of bubble. I asked her what she was upset about and she responded, “I hate oppression!” and pounded her little fist on the kitchen island. I love this kid. Since then, we’ve read The Giver, and Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Next up is Tallstar’s Revenge, a huge novel about cat warriors that I’m only reading out of love.
My sister is hitting pueberty and she has a lot of questions about her body, about the world, about getting older. Since to her I’m in a nebulous category between child and adult, a lot of those questions get directed to me. I don’t lie to her and I don’t deflect, but I’m aware that my answers have consequences for how she thinks about things and what she repeats to other kids. It feels like a lot of pressure sometimes. While we haven’t read anything all that mature yet, each time I pick a book I haven’t read, I have a moment when I hesitate, wondering what tough questions the book could raise and how I will answer them. It makes me really think about how much monitoring children’s reading material is about protecting them and how much is about protecting adults from uncomfortable questions.
So, thank you, Mom!