With depressing regularity, some American parent makes headlines by questioning the advisability of teenagers reading classics of the YA canon, and schools ban books like The Catcher In The Rye or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Shouldn’t we be past this as a society by now? Don’t we all remember that scene in Field of Dreams when Amy Madigan shouts down the bully at the town hall meeting and wins over the audience by demanding, “Who’s for the Bill of Rights? Who thinks freedom is a pretty darn good thing? Who thinks we have to stand up to the kind of censorship they had under Stalin?
Nobody wants to be Stalin. Still, parents worry the way power corrupts: absolutely. They’re concerned that letting their children read widely will stunt their growth somehow, disturbing or even scarring them. I’m a parent, though my daughter is at the stage where she’s just beginning to recognize the letters A, B, and C. I understand fear.
I was also a tween once, though, one whose parents were too busy to monitor what she read; and far from scarring me, reading inappropriate books was foundational. It made me a more thoughtful, moral, sensitive person—and, yes, a more knowledgable one about so-called mature issues. But reading about sex didn’t lead me to go out and get laid, and learning about discrimination didn’t make me some kind of rabble-rouser. I graduated high school a virgin who had never had a detention. Now I’m an employed, tax-paying citizen who votes and belongs to a synagogue. In many ways, I could not be more square; but from the time I was 10, my mind has been expanded by challenging fiction, and I am better for it.
Here, then, is a list of The Most Inappropriate Books I Read As A Tween, In Order Of How Vital They Were To My Development:
7. Presumed Innocent, by Scott Turow
I was about 10 when I realized reading novels off of the New York Times bestseller list would make me appear precocious and, at the same time, teach me valuable life lessons about the morality of man, the fallibility of the judicial system, and, most memorably, various methods of birth control. Via a scene in the book where a woman reaches in and pulls out her diaphragm, I learned what a diaphragm is besides the organ that helps one breathe.
6. A Time To Kill, by John Grisham
Grisham’s The Firm tells the exciting story of a young lawyer who joins a legal practice only to learn his employer views its associates more like family—or, to be precise, more like La Famiglia. To try to get the protagonist to stay put, his superiors don’t merely offer him a better salary and benefits package, they blackmail him and replace his wife’s birth control pills with Tic Tacs in an attempt to get her pregnant. I looked at Tic Tacs in a new way after that.
But it was A Time To Kill that taught me America had not gotten over itself when it came to racism; that, indeed, many Americans still reacted with distrust of, if not outright contempt for, the descendants of people it had spent hundreds of years kidnapping, exploiting, and enslaving. Grisham’s story served as a useful counterpoint to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, which, like many tweens, I devoured in big credulous gulps around that same time.
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5.The Portable Dorothy Parker, by Dorothy Parker
Tweens and young teenagers are fed an alarming amount of sentimental claptrap. Nothing is a better antidote to that than the reality check of a perfectly written, acidly observed Dorothy Parker short story or poem, such as this one, titled “Unfortunate Coincidence,” which reads, in its entirety:
By the time you swear you’re his
Shivering and sighing,
And he swears his passion is
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.
4. Tales Of The City, by Armistead Maupin
Surely I had encountered LGBT characters in literature before. I must have. But as far as my memory is concerned, Maupin was my Virgil. The denizens of Maupin’s San Francisco, specifically 28 Barbary Lane, are sarcastic and warm at the same time, outcasts who form a loyal family around matriarch Miss Madrigal. As the series goes on, the novels become increasingly outlandish, featuring wacky adventures to do with transubstantiation, gay rodeos, and Quaaludes—try asking your parents what Quaaludes are while avoiding answering their followup questions about how you heard about them in the first place—until the HIV epidemic affects our beloved characters, turning the series into an entirely different kind of education. Tales Of The City was the book that made me realize, “When I grow up, I want a community like that.”
3. Still Life With Woodpecker, by Tom Robbins
After discovering this cheerfully profane, antic, anarchic novel about a princess who falls in love with an outlaw, I went on to read every Robbins book I could find. At least one of them, Jitterbug Perfume, I recognized as a more epic and “significant” work. As they say, though, you never forget your first. Woodpecker is brash, entertaining, and colorful, full of ideas and memorable turns of phrase, and, yes, sex, lots of sex, and even more joy. There are many plot twists I cannot remember, but I will never forget the line, “‘There are only two mantras, yum and yuck, mine is yum.'” Robbins mantra is “yum,” too, and, and his creativity is infectious.
2. Valley Of The Horses (#2, The Earth’s Children series), by Jean M. Auel
After we read Auel’s The Clan Of The Cave Bear for an eighth-grade ancient history class, I approached my teacher to see if she had any of the sequels. She hedged for a bit and finally told me she would give me the books in exchange for a signed permission slip from my parents. By then the color in her cheeks had told me everything I needed to know.
I got this eye-opening book myself, and its sequels, The Mammoth Hunters and The Plains Of Passage. Never one to be stingy, I shared them with my friends, so we could all gossip about the nearly superhuman Ayla and her besotted beau Jondalar as though they were people in our grade. Though parts of the novels could indeed be described as “prehistoric porn,” Auel is as good at lush and detailed depictions of old Europe’s pagan, paleolithic societies as she is at the complex relationships between men and women.
1. Night Over Water, by Ken Follett
Fascists, clipper planes, and jewel thieves make for excellent window dressing. This bestseller was foundational for being the first book I ever read—and read, and read—featuring explicit sex scenes. If you want your tween to learn early on that there are more ways to be intimate with a partner than intercourse, and that communication between partners is both key and super hot, slip her this paperback. Neither of you will be sorry.