I found the paperback on a metal card table at my neighbor’s garage sale: Judy Blume’s Then Again, Maybe I Won’t. I was 8 years old and already loved the author for books like Blubber, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and Superfudge. The well-worn paperback cost a quarter, which I handed over to my neighbor and babysitter, Cheryl. The cover held an image of a boy with binoculars. Color me intrigued. I was already engrossed in the story (about spying on a female neighbor as she undresses in her room across the street) when the doorbell rang. Cheryl conferred with my mother: that book I’d bought? It wasn’t exactly appropriate for a kid my age. I was summoned to the door. This babysitter/traitor held out the quarter in one hand, and we undid the deal. Sold out by the very one whose ranks I had hoped to join.
She tossed her feathered hair and all but wagged her finger at me. Maybe she thought her babysitting job was on the line. Maybe my mother wouldn’t have cared what I was reading. But my mom trusted Cheryl, and the two of them were conspiratorial, chuckling at my choice of reading material. Isn’t she precocious! I seethed inside, mortified. Did they think I was interested in spying on people as they undressed? (Was I?)
I vowed to read the book anyway. At the library I gulped down the whole thing in one sitting. Later I read every Judy Blume book I could find. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was my introduction to the realities of menstruation, a puberty bible for girls growing up in the 1980s. When I found out that the book was frequently challenged or banned, all I could think was, “Why? Why would people want to prevent me from knowing about myself?”
As readers, we get to decide whether to accept or reject the knowledge that books contain. My youth was spent reading novels like they were life manuals for some future me, divining what was to come, even if I couldn’t see or imagine it yet. Even if my babysitter didn’t think I was ready. I didn’t want anyone’s laughter or condescension at my choices, so I read covertly, sneakily, my stack of library books bookended by less controversial titles. I love you on your own merits, Ramona Quimby, Age 8, but with the most gratitude for acting as my cover story.
Preteen years, late 1980s mall era, bangs shellacked with hairspray. Saturday nights, I’d go with my family to Waldenbooks or B. Dalton Booksellers. I could pick out three or four books at a time, depending on the price, and chip in my allowance if I wanted more. Browsing bookshelves with my family is one of my happiest childhood memories, no doubt one reason I wanted to become a writer. “Ready to check out?” my dad asked one Saturday, holding his stack of scholarly writing on King Arthur. I handed him two of the latest in the Sweet Valley High series, while slipping a third book behind my back. “I’m going to browse some more,” I lied. If he saw my copy of Girltalk about Guys by Carol Weston, he mercifully pretended not to. I’d been scoping out this book for weeks, visiting it, my footsteps muffled on the tan carpet. Standing with my back to the aisle, I’d read and reread the section on how to talk to guys. How to be confident. Not unrelated, the sections on looking and feeling your best.
All of it was urgent and mysterious and not-something-I-could-talk-about. If puberty was a transitional time from caterpillar to butterfly, I was still trapped in the cocoon, gawky limbs pushing to get out. I’d had enough skulking around the bookstore: This was a book I needed to own and read privately. Avoiding eye contact with the cashier, I made my purchase. After, we went to Sizzler, but my mind was elsewhere. I wanted to spend the rest of the night reading in my room, which I did as soon as we’d finished our steaks and baked potatoes and salads. The book promised real questions and real answers, and the Q&As revealed the best truth of every good advice column: that many, many other people out there shared similar problems. People like me, more comfortable asking a stranger to explain what was going on with zits, extreme emotions, body hair, and social life. Not to mention tampons: What the hell? I was filled with questions I didn’t know how to ask, and questions I didn’t know I had. Weston already knew, understood, and answered. Life thus far had taught that these were taboo topics, so I kept the book hidden in my closet, swaddled in the blankets of my old doll’s bassinet. I took that book baby out as often as possible, always with my bedroom door shut, the book’s open pages like some kind of new door.
A few years later, my older sister Katie bought a copy of I’m With the Band by Pamela Des Barres, which she stashed under her bed to keep me from hogging it. This memoir of a 1960s-70s rock groupie was clearly not my property. I noted when Katie would be at band practice (marching, not rock, at a Catholic high school), and raced through the racy pages. There was sex and rock and roll and pining and more sex and drugs and tons of gossip about musicians I loved. One of the rock stars who blurbed the book was Robert Plant, offering “again a thousand apologies for the premature ejaculation.” Not just entertainment, but education. Sex ed aside, this was a time period I wanted to learn more about. I was born six years after Woodstock but taped a concert poster to my wall as if I’d been there. I read everything I could about the era, especially related to music. Des Barres, obsessed somewhat differently, set out in Los Angeles to unapologetically conquer as many rock stars as she could. I was miles away from this lifestyle in every possible sense: geographically, emotionally, physically. But vicarious experience was, to use the parlance of Des Barres, delectable. By turning pages, you could run the gamut of experiences (and yes, the STDs) without having to face any emotional consequences or itching.
I read the tell-all at least a dozen times. “Give it back,” Katie said when I admitted I’d pilfered her paperback again, because she wanted to reread it. Not surprisingly, there was fallout for the author: On the talk show circuit, Des Barres defended herself from would-be slut-shamers. What of the male musicians she became involved with, I wondered? The power balance might’ve been skewed, but this was the memoir of a woman who controlled her own choices and went after what she desired. She was candid about her heartbreaks, too, airing her life for all the world to see. That took guts. That bravery inspires me now, some 25 years later, writing about books that once seemed worth hiding. Books that could’ve been banned from libraries or by family and kept out of my hands. Books that helped me understand the world and myself, both in constant states of change. Women writers who inspired me to write my own books, about topics others may want to challenge. Look. I want to show you.
As had become our Saturday morning summer routine, my friend and I were sitting on the benches outside of our local café nursing iced coffees and watching the neighborhood go by.
“That’s a weird outfit,” Anshu said, nodding in the direction of a man whose printed belt matched his printed shoes, which matched his printed hat.
“Is it just me or are there more lesbians around here than there used to be?” I responded.
“Maybe.” She chewed on her straw. “Remember that time in college when it snowed two feet? I want it to be cold like that now.”
I nodded. We were silent, taking in the traffic and the people coming and going and the small dog that was tied to a signpost and the woman who was having a battle of the wills with her bike lock.
Anshu’s eyes then landed on a girl—about nine or ten—sitting with her mother on the bench beside us, oblivious to everything, her nose in a book.
“She’s reading The Witches,” Anshu said, nudging me and nodding in the child’s direction. “I can see the words ‘Norwegian Witch’ from here.”
I looked over. Sure enough, I could read the large, child-sized font from where I sat as well. I looked again at Anshu, who is not known for her soft side. I could almost reach out with my bare hands and grab hold of her desire to be picked up out of her own body and replaced into that of the girl’s.
“I love Roald Dahl,” Anshu was growing more misty-eyed by the second. “I wonder if her mother gave her the book?”
“I don’t know,” I said noncommittally and eyeing the girl’s mother who, like us moments earlier, seemed preoccupied by the intricacies of traffic patterns.
I smiled. I wanted her to keep indulging the nostalgia.
From there we traded childhood reading habits. Anshu had grown up Indian-American in Seattle and I had grown up Just Plain American in Virginia, but our formative literary lives had been the same. We remembered bringing books to the dinner table and we remembered being told to put them away and participate in conversation. There were the flashlights snuck into bed for reading after lights out. I was indignant all over again about Amy stealing Laurie out from under Jo even if Jo didn’t care. Anshu described running across her backyard in Seattle the way she imagined Anne ran across the fields of Prince Edward Island towards Green Gables. We both remembered how, when we walked our family dogs, we would leave the house with a leash in one hand, a book in the other. The walks, which without a novel seemed endless and boring, would be over and we’d be back at our front doors—dogs relieved, parents satisfied—before we had even had a chance to look around and take note of the clouds, the weather, our fellow dog walkers, trash days, “For Sale” signs, the Volvos parked in driveways.
I wondered whether these experiences were some of the things that had led us to be, at thirty, sitting together on a bench in Brooklyn: single, childless roommates.
If we are lucky we are read to before we read to ourselves. That is where it all originates. For me, the beginning of the story went like this:
Dinner is over. It was creamed asparagus on toast and I had seconds. Dad is doing the dishes and my sister is upstairs in her room finishing her homework. The dog is licking the dishes sitting pre-washed but still dirty in the dishwasher. It is almost my bedtime, but first mom will read a chapter aloud. Every night for almost two months we have been sitting down together on the couch at this time and, as dusk gathers outside, she has been reading me Little Women. Before starting, she reaches an arm around me. There’s a part of her that is a would-be actress and so she is good at reading, doing distinct voices for different characters in their various situations: Meg leaving home, Jo cutting her hair, Beth exclaiming over that piano, Amy telling Jo she’s fallen for Laurie, Marmee in the arm chair by the fire reading letters from their father on the front.
At the end of each chapter, my mother gets quiet and still for a moment. By now it is completely dark outside and I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed. I can’t even see the trees in the front yard. Then: “Bedtime,” she announces decisively. I protest. Just a few more pages. One more chapter. But my mother grew up in the fifties on a chicken farm in rural Maine and has the get-on-with-it attitude of that time and place. “No, it’s off to bed with you,” she says taking her arm from around me and closing the book. “Another chapter tomorrow night.”
And so it would be until there were no more chapters because the little women had all grown up.
If there is one thing that can consistently reduce even the most hardened cynic to a sentimental softie, it is the books she read as a child.
Of course, we still read, my friends and I. We read on the subway and on the couch or in bed just as we used to do. But it’s not the same: the subway ride ends, the couch inspires naptime, a flashlight under the covers is absurd. I certainly can’t remember the last time I heard someone say, “I was walking down the street reading a book when….”
The closest I’ve come to witnessing such a scenario was last summer when a friend and I were going hiking. She had her nose in the trail map and we had yet to leave the parking lot or break a sweat when—not looking where she was going—she fell off the curb, cutting herself so badly she ended up needing to go to the hospital and foregoing the hike. In the time between now and when we last walked the dog and read a novel at the same time, it seems we’ve lost the ability to read and walk simultaneously. These days, I put dinnertime ahead of reading and fit the latter in where I can and when I feel like it. Often, until I am directly confronted with the sight of a girl and her book—a sight outside the purview of my current routines—it can slip my mind that I, too, used to read like that. To love reading like that.
As it was with our first loves, we fall hard for our first books. When we were with them the rest of the world fell away. And as with our first loves, we will never let go of ourselves like that again. I’ve asked myself when it was I read for the last time as a child, but the question is as pointless as asking when me and my first love lost what it was we once had. The answer is probably nothing more than, “One day the magic was there and the next day it wasn’t.” At some point I just took the dog for a walk without a novel, looked around, and either the things around me had changed or I had.
The diminishment of the intensity is an evolutionary imperative. We reach a point at which we no longer allow ourselves to read like that because if we did we would never get anything else done. We wouldn’t meet new people or remember to make those doctors appointments. If we still read with the intensity of an eight-year-old or loved with the intensity of a novice, at thirty we might forget to leave the house at all.
While the same could be said for boys—who I am sure have their own list of classics that conjure a unique common history—I am speaking here for girls. Girls and the books that taught them everything from how to reach out and touch something fuzzy to what it was like to get their periods and find an insane not-so-ex-wife in the attic. Just a list of titles is enough to conjure the timeline of an entire X-chromosomed American childhood: Pat the Bunny, The Runaway Bunny, Blueberries for Sal, The Lonely Doll, Miss Rumphius, Madeline, The Secret Garden, Little House on the Prairie, Little Women, Ramona Quimby Age 8, The BFG, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague, Julie of the Wolves, Jacob Have I Loved, Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, Rebecca, Jane Eyre again, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre again, Ethan Frome…
Somewhere around Ethan Frome is where the unselfconscious abandon began to dissipate in lieu of simply sincere appreciation and sometimes even a little critical distance. Whereas I can’t count the number of books I couldn’t put down in the first fifteen years of my life, I could name on two hands and feet the number of books I’ve felt that way about in my second fifteen years. But that fact does not make me sad or give me pause and not because I tell myself that if it were otherwise I would have ended up a hobo. What seems to matter most is that I had those first fifteen years to begin with.
My friends feel similarly. One formerly horse-crazy friend talks often about her childhood passion for the Marguerite Henry books. Another friend has an entire shelf devoted to her childhood library, and that’s where she turns on the days when she’s tempted to get in bed and never get out. Another friend has taken it all a step further than the rest of us and is getting a Ph.D. in Y.A. Literature, writing academic papers on Ramona and The Twits that she then presents at high-brow conferences across the country. These are the things we have carried with us and as such are the things we have to give away.
When I turned thirty this year, the same friend who had fallen off the curb and gone to the hospital gave me her three favorite Y.A. novels from childhood. A few months earlier, she and I had compared notes on what we’d read when we were young and she had learned that her favorites had not been on my early reading lists. When I told her I hadn’t read Caddie Woodlawn she said, “You haven’t?!” as if I just told her I had never brushed my teeth. With this birthday present she had wanted to rectify that—to her mind—gaping hole in my life.
I haven’t read the books she gave me just yet, but the fact that she gave them to me at all is just it: Not only do we hold these books we’ve read and characters we grew up with close, but we want to share them, to pass them on. As of my writing this, my friend who fell off the curb is also single and childless. I am not convinced I was the person she wanted to be giving books to that day.
When people have children, some are reluctant to admit it, but they have a secret preference in their hearts for a girl over a boy or vise versa and for a multitude of reasons. I am nowhere near the stage in life of being a parent myself, but when the time comes as I hope it one day will, I often think I want a girl. I want this because I recognize even now how much it will matter to me to know and understand how she is feeling and what she is learning and experiencing all for the first time. I know too how difficult it will be to access these complicated growing-up emotions of hers, ferreted as they will be inside a person not myself. To put a book that was once special to me into her hands and watch it become special to her is one way to do that. At least for a little while.
But before I send her off to read on her own, I want to be able to sit on the couch with her and do the voices of the characters. As it is with my mother, there is a would-be actress inside me, too. It will be getting dark outside and the spot on the couch where she and I will sit will be the only well-light place in the house. A husband will be doing the dishes and have a dog to keep him company and help with the grunt work. He won’t be watching because he wouldn’t want to intrude, but he will listen from the other room.
I will put my arm around her and start like this:
CHAPTER ONE: Playing Pilgrims
Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents, grumbled Jo, lying on the rug…
Seen from outside the window, she and I in the arms of the light beside the couch might make you think that here is where the entire world begins and ends.
[Image credit: Frank]