On Reading: Be Not Afraid

I just finished reading AM Dellamonica’s Child of a Hidden Sea last night, and absolutely loved it.  It’s one of those books where you end up staying up past your bedtime so you can finish it up.  Fast-paced and fun, it straddles between YA and adult fantasy, following a girl named Sophie Hansa as she travels — first accidentally then purposely — to an alternate world full of magic, seafaring piracy, and family intrigue.

I mention this because I think it ties in nicely with a recent blog post by writer Shannon Hale called “No Boys Allowed: School visits as a woman writer”.  She talks of her tours of schools to talk about her Princess Academy books, specifically the problems she has at some schools where her audience is all (or nearly all) girls, with nary a boy in sight.  More to the point: the fact that the boys weren’t invited, or needing permission to join in.  It wasn’t just expected that boys would have no interest in a writer who writes about princesses…even if it was unintentional, they’ve also reinforced the idea that boys shouldn’t have an interest in stories about princesses.  It’s just not a manly thing to read, even if you’re 10.

This reminded me of an event in seventh grade, between myself and the school librarian.  [I mention it briefly in the comments section of Hale’s entry.]  They had this special event every month or so where kids could buy cheap paperbacks from a bookseller; they were your typical MG and YA novels, maybe some comic collections and kids magazines, that sort of thing.

I took an interest in that partly because my dad and I had started taking road trips on weekends to Northampton or elsewhere to stop at bookstores, and I’d pick up something to read every now and then.  This book club was an easy way for me to find more things to check out.

At the time, I was interested in a lot of YA novels from Apple Paperbacks and other publishers; the covers may have been kind of dorky and the stories somewhat simple (strangers following you, problems with your friends, having weird yet really cool magical abilities), but they were fun reads.  I knew pretty early on that I wasn’t that interested in stories about sports, or men of action, or any of those other typical boy-centric stories.  The reason was simple: I like a good story, regardless of the gender of the main character…but the subject has to interest me.  I wasn’t going to waste time reading about a kid trying to make the baseball team when I had no interest in baseball and sucked at it anyway.

Mind you, this was also the time where I’d started becoming interested in writing fiction.  The Infamous War Novel I started in 1984 was the first one I completed, but I’d had at least a dozen or so incomplete ideas dating back at least a few years earlier than that.  This had little to do with passive reading.  I was gravitating to what I knew I enjoyed and wanted to write.

So when I’d ordered a few of these Apple Paperbacks (including Willo Davis Roberts’ The Girl with the Silver Eyes — one of my first forays into the SF genre, come to think of it!), I was excited to start reading these things.  However…

However, the school librarian had side-eyed my choice in reading.  In fact, if I remember correctly she actually pulled me aside.  “Are you sure you want to read books like this?” she’d asked.  “Don’t you want to read about sports or spy novels?”  I stood my ground and kept reading these things, but there was something in the back of my mind that nagged at me: was I reading the wrong things?  Was it wrong for me to like books with female leads?  I shrugged that off just as quickly as it came, but that was probably the moment where I realized I would not be able to confide in this particular librarian.  After all, she was also the one who had seen me pick up a copy of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer in the school’s library and asked if I would really ever get around to finishing it, considering it’s over five hundred pages long.  And now I had it in my head:  Would other boys think I was a fag (and I mean that in that wonderful 80s teen way) because I liked books about girls?  Did I have to keep these books to myself now, for fear that others would side-eye me as well?

She apparently had my number well before I had it myself.

The sad thing is, this was also right about the time where my attention span had started to wane.  Not out of any emotional or mental deficiency, but because I was starting to get bored.  I didn’t figure it out until many years later that my grades really started slipping right around that time because I’d lost interest.  I’d rather be listening to music or writing (yes, even then at 13…especially then) than reading some assigned book that I just didn’t want to deal with.  The end result was that I would end up with my first failing grade in my entire school career.  I got an F.  In English, of all things!  I wanted to be a writer and I loved reading!  What had happened?

Thankfully, I turned it around and managed to squeak by with a C- by the end of the semester and didn’t have to stay behind or take summer school. I knew I wasn’t dumb, I just needed to make a concerted effort to get the work done.  It was a slog and I did a half-assed job most of the time, but I did well enough to graduate with the rest of my class.

But the damage really had been done in junior high.  I don’t blame that librarian…she was of an older generation and was safe in her Boys Are Boys and Girls Are Girls world.  My bad grades were my own damn fault.  But if it wasn’t for my 7th grade English teacher assigning us Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine (one of my all-time favorite novels), my mission to write and finish a novel, and a stubborn will to read what I wanted, I’d probably have done worse.  I remained a B- student pretty much all the way until I graduated college.  And I barely picked up a book for pure entertainment purposes, even though I was still attempting to be a writer…that wouldn’t happen until around 1995.

I know it sounds petty, but this is what happens when you throw preconceived expectations on kids of that age.  Let me explain — I know you mean well, and I can see where you’re coming from (even when the gender segregation is a dumbass thing to do).  You’re giving them anchors and guidelines, something for them to base their life experiences on.  You’re trying to train them to see potential roads they should follow for future education, and that’s a good thing.  But at the same time, you’re not paying attention to how the kids are processing it.  A. and I have similar tastes in some things, but wildly different tastes in others.  I don’t even have the same path of logic as she does half the time.  We should learn how to think critically, but we also have to remember that each person thinks, lives and reacts differently.

I like what I like, and I choose not to be afraid of admitting that.

This is also partly why I chose to put Denni and Caren Johnson as the most important characters of the Bridgetown Trilogy — I remembered those Apple Paperbacks (and I was reading Kate Elliott’s Jaran series at the time) and enjoyed reading female lead characters.  I had no other reason, political or feminist or what have you, for centering the story around them.  They. Are. Important. Characters.  And they were not extensions of me.  That’s all.

I know this is kind of a long diatribe, but I felt it was important to share.  I’d like to believe that the boundaries we should teach kids are not external such as gender roles or conformity, but internal, such as respect and awareness.  Read what you want to read.  Write what you want to write.  Learn what needs learning.  And don’t edit your reading preferences because of someone else’s opinions.

Be not afraid.

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