My mother gave me the gift of book loving. I didn’t grow up with expensive jeans or trips to fancy places or a coordinated bedroom, but books were thought of as groceries — non-negotiable. I don’t remember her ever asking me to wait until a hardback book came out in paperback. She understood that the really good books had long wait lists at the library and she knew that we all possess an inner book sensor that identifies the right time to read the right book.
I’ve passed The Book-Loving Gene on to all three of my children. I recently sent them off on a road trip with their grandparents and the biggest concern was: will we have enough books to last? My middle daughter, Maya (11), has the most voracious biblio-appetite. She owns both a “Future Librarian” t-shirt and a banned books bracelet. She’s starting to push my book boundaries and has me reflecting on my childhood.
At age 12, I read the Clan of the Cave Bear series about a cave woman named Ayla who, due to unfortunate circumstances, left her adopted tribe and set out on her own. Along Ayla’s journey she connects up with Jondalar, a survivor of a mountain lion attack. Though they don’t speak the same language, as she nurses Jondalar back to health they find ways to communicate. Jondalar was like the Fabio of Cave Days as he swept his long hair back into a ponytail. One of his many talents was deflowering young virgins appropriately and teaching them the ways of intimacy. Unfortunately, his prodigious member prevented him from ever fully sheathing himself inside a woman — until he met Ayla. Valley of the Horses by Jean Auel, with its seven-page description of mouth-on-fur action, was my introduction to the concept of oral sex.
I’m sure my mom told me, “If you have any questions, let’s talk about them.” She was open to discussing anything of a sexual nature with me. But what she didn’t know was that I couldn’t articulate my questions or that I didn’t have the guts to ask them. I finished that book with an appreciation for well-written consensual prehistoric copulation and a fear of big penises. As the smallest girl in the seventh grade, I was extremely nervous about getting paired with a well-endowed fellow. Though I was compelled to read Valley of the Horses, something inside me knew just because I could read it, didn’t necessarily mean I was ready for it.
Another series of books I consumed about that time was Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews. This is a creepy series about four children kept in an attic and physically and emotionally abused by their grandmother and subsequently poisoned by their mother so she might inherit the family fortune. The two older children in captivity develop a love interest in each other as they come of age and incest is explored in a strangely sensual way.
Did my mom know there were more than flowers in that attic? Again, she might have thought if I had questions I would come to her. Confused, I wondered how people related to each other could have sex. Why would they even want to? How could an author write about that in a way that kept me turning each page?
When my daughter, at age ten, approached me about wanting to read the Twilight series, I told her, “There are so many great books out there and I want you to be a kid for as long as possible. Let’s wait.”
As months went by she attended her eight-week OWL (Our Whole Lives) sexuality class and then brought it up again, “It’s not as if I don’t understand the facts about sex, Mom. Why can’t I read it?”
Most of her friends had already read or were reading the series. They were telling her about the book during recess. As a compromise, I said, “Let’s read it together.”
In the weeks that followed, I snuggled into bed with Jamin (13) and Maya, and Bella, Edward and Jacob. I listened to their thoughts about the vampire-human couple and posed some of my own questions along the way. Then we read New Moon together. At that point, Jamin was really tired of Bella’s whining and advocated for some adventurous science fiction instead. Maya read Eclipse alone and then begged to continue with Breaking Dawn. I talked to my friends who had read it and discovered that a) after their first time, Bella wakes up with bruises b) she gets pregnant and Edward begs her to have an abortion c) he tries to persuade Jacob to offer his stud services and d) he ends up delivering her baby and then injects her with venom. Vampire loving and its consequences sounds about as confusing as big-penis toting Neanderthals and messed-up attic sex.
Recently Maya and I started reading Breaking Dawn together. I don’t have a proactive plan for what will come up. She knows there is going to be a honeymoon night, “What will happen when you are reading aloud the sex parts?”
“I have no idea,” I told her, “it might be really, really awkward. We might talk about that.”
I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing with Maya. All I know is that it feels more right than having her read it alone or having her hear about it from friends. I have an affirmation on my vision board that reads, “If something goes wrong, I’ll figure out how to make it right.” And I believe that. I don’t think Valley of the Horses or Flowers in the Attic scarred me for life, but I can remember the confusion and discomfort to this day. There is a lot about sex we have to figure out for ourselves, but talking about “hard” issues might be better done together through a book.