I generally think my parents did an okay job of raising me. They showed me a lot of respect and were very non-judgmental about certain aspects of my life, like my loser exboyfriend I knew they didn’t like. But I still resent the way my Dad, one Sunday on our weekly bookstore shopping trip*, said to me, “No. I’m not buying you any more kids books. You can read at an adult level, start reading adult books.”
I swear, I thought I was going to cry. I can’t remember if the book in question was an American Girl book, a Little House on the Prarie book, a Dear America book, or a Babysitters Club/Sweet Valley High book. It could have been an innocuous book by Louis Sacher, I honestly don’t remember. But I remember the tone in my father’s voice as he told me to grow up and start reading grownup books. I should probably point out that I was 11 or so at this point, which is, frankly, far too young for most of the adult books out there.
As I stared into the Adult Fiction section, I felt nothing but confused. How was I supposed to know what books were good or not? Karen Cushman and E.L. Konigsburg didn’t write grown-up books. My dad read books about ships and the navy. I didn’t want to read those. My mom read scary-sounding non-fiction with titles like, “Mad Cow, USA!” and then wouldn’t let us eat hamburgers anymore. Being told to find Adult books without any kind of guidance was difficult, and I retreated into the kids section to read until it was time to go home, which I did without any books.
I think part of my Dad’s logic at this time was that I was tearing through books made for kids, and it was starting to become expensive. I think he also thought a lot of the books I was reading were the book equivalent of cartoons. (Apparently he’d never heard of comic books.) But I do think that he thought I read at an adult enough level that I should be reading adult books, even if adult books weren’t the right books for me at the time. (Not only could I not handle adult themes, I thought they were dreadfully dull and didn’t get half the book.)
This did prompt my switch to the Young Adult section, for awhile, and also fed my obsession with historical fiction. Because even though I didn’t want to read books about boats, or mad cow disease, or anything else grown-uppy, I was always happy to read books about the Civil War and the American Revolution. So my parents encouraged that, and I eventually discovered Ann Rinaldi and Margaret George and other works of historical fiction. By the time I was about halfway through high school, I was better able to navigate the Adult Fiction section, although even now, sometimes, I still stare at it and think, “how am I supposed to know what’s good?”
I worry enough about how to encourage reading in kids (I think family reading time is going to be the answer) that I don’t stress about how to make sure they read “appropriate” books. I also know that I’m not any worse off for having read all of the Babysitter’s Club books and the Sweet Valley books. I turned out just fine, thank you.
*It’s not like my parents were really wealthy, but they were messy and lazy enough for it to be financially worth it for them to buy books instead of checking them out of the library. In my lifetime, I have paid probably over $200 in late fees and lost book expenses.