It’s unavoidable that children will be exposed to media that outpaces their emotional development: a racy scene caught on TV, a movie that they shouldn’t have been brought to . . . but what about books?
Most people have a funny anecdote of ambitiously starting a book that was way too old for them, and never forgetting it – after all, words (and the mental images they evoke) are seared into the brain long after fleeting stills from film or TV.
I always “read up” as a child, regarding my grade-school library as a fortress of books to be conquered one copy at a time. If I ran out of books in my reading level, I would just move to the next one.
Each book was marked on its spine by a certain colored dot, but our librarian knew that I was such a voracious reader that she basically gave me carte blanche to peruse the shelves. Combine that with having just devoured all of Tamora Pierce’s books – which I read at exactly the right age of 9 – and that’s how I wound up reading Piers Anthony’s A Spell for Chameleon, the first book of his Magic of Xanth fantasy series.
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Hindsight has readers calling these books more than a little sexist. While I was too young to be concerned with the politics of how Anthony portrayed his female characters, nonetheless I got an eyeful where the sexual politics were concerned.
To wit: The titular Chameleon is a young woman who drastically transforms into a hideous but incredibly clever creature, a woman of average looks and intelligence, and a hopelessly beautiful but supremely dumb woman. Then there’s the randy main character Bink, who loses his fiancée at the start and is tempted by Chameleon, struggling with whether to take advantage of her in her “stupid beauty” form. This book went beyond mere innuendo and straight into some graphic sex scenes – probably the first time I had seen such things laid out in writing.
Well, I thought that was graphic, until the summer I spent at my grandparents’ house in Germany. Having gone through all of my reading material, I asked my Oma if she had anything to read; she directed me to her library, where she had collected random books (gifts, airport purchases, etc.) over the years. I picked up John Updike’s Toward the End of Time when I was 12.
Toward the End of Time depicts a dystopian future in which the United States and China have attacked one another with nuclear weapons – the aftermath explored through the journal entries of retired investment advisor Ben Turnbull.
I don’t remember any of this apocalyptic setting, only Ben’s various dalliances with his second wife Gloria and the prostitute Deirdre, and various sexual references involving anuses and deer. No doubt my impressionable mind seized upon a handful of images and conflated them. But to be honest, I’m glad I don’t remember anything too explicit, even though I remember the confusing feelings reading such passages evoked.
By the time I read Neal Stephenson’s seminal cyberpunk novel Snow Crash at the age of 14, I had a better handle on how to manage reading adult material. For the first time, I talked to an adult about it; in the other cases, I kept my reading and reactions to myself, afraid I would be shamed or punished for stumbling into an adult book.
In this case, I told my mom I wanted to read the book and that I figured it was about the level of an R-rated movie. Her response was, “Just let me know if you have any questions.” There were a lot of f-bombs dropped and one questionable (for the age difference) sex scene; ultimately, I told my mom about the former, not so much the latter.
It was in my personality to stumble across inappropriate passages and process them on my own. In some cases, it was because my own reaction to such titillating stuff confused me, and I wasn’t ready to discuss it with an adult. And let’s be honest – most reading experiences are special and private things, that we don’t necessarily want to share with others.
Reading older books (and, at the same time, fan-fiction) was one of the factors that sated my curiosity and helped me mature on my own terms, without exploring more unsavory avenues. Plus, I can laugh about it now – about my initial panic and bafflement.
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