The moment my daughter, then 6, finished reading "My Tooth Is
Loose," I made a speech that I believed to be magnanimous, noble,
farsighted and wise.
"Now you can read," I began. "Our written language is entirely
available to you. I will not tell you what you can and cannot read. The
words you will see are beyond my control. I only ask that when you
happen upon some piece of writing that you do not understand or have
questions about, you come to your daddy or me and let us help you with
Placid as usual in the face of sonorous, highfalutin' drama, she agreed
to the terms as I spelled them out. I felt righteous and cool at the
same time, not an easily achieved sensation. And things went along swimmingly
for a long while. She didn't have any questions, it seemed, about "My
Tooth Is Loose." Nor about "Sleep Tight, Pete." Nor (later on) about the
entire Black Stallion series. Nor about "National Velvet." Nor about "The
Wonderful Wizard of Oz." Nor the Little House series, nor the Narnian
classics. "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Wonderful Adventures of Nils" were
big favorites, but they generated no questions. And there were no
consultations over "Watership Down," which she read this past year during
second grade, except when she suggested that I read it again because "it
is a really good book."
In fact, she presented me with exactly zero of the kinds of questions
and concerns I had been expecting all along. I'm not sure what I was
expecting, probably long conversations with her about justice and
loyalty in Prince Caspian. But she has proved to be a very private
reader. Mostly she emerges from a book looking thoughtful and
preoccupied. She'll often suggest I read something she has recently
finished. And often I do, reading it more for getting a sense of who she
is than for its own sake.
My daughter is not drawn to junk books, or what I perceive to be junk
books. Until recently, she has never asked me to procure her a book
that I might -- were I the censoring kind -- be forced to censor. I had
been suspicious of the squeaky-clean Boxcar children, but after reading
one or two volumes I find them perfectly OK, and gladly add to her
collection whenever I can. My freedom-of-reading speech, in short, had
never really been put to the test. Until a couple of months ago.
I had dashed into a bookstore looking for a couple of novels to read
over spring vacation. There was no rhyme or reason to my selection. A
friend who moonlights as a salesperson suggested "Wicked" by Gregory
Maguire, a fictional biography of the Wicked Witch of the West. He said
a bunch of the employees had been recommending it enthusiastically. I
had my doubts, but made the purchase and left.
When my daughter saw this book her face lit up. I could see her craving
it, the way a different person might crave an ice cream sundae gliding
by on a waiter's tray toward the patron at the next table. What was it
about? she wanted to know. I told her. Could she read it when I was
done? My speech of long ago turned to ashes in my mouth.
"I'll have to see what it's like," I said.
"But you said you'd never tell me I couldn't read something," said the
girl with the elephant memory, who hadn't once, in all these years, ever
tested the terms of our agreement. Now I was forced to eat the ashes.
"You're right," I said. "But this is written for grown-ups and I have to
read it first to see if it's appropriate before I say yes."
I read the book happily, found it thoroughly imagined, intelligent,
funny and well written. But there are parts, great parts, which are
both merrily and darkly raunchy. Other parts, too, for one reason or
another, are not appropriate for my 8-and-a-half-year-old child, even
assuming that she would probably read them uncomprehendingly. She saw me
happy in the book, and that made her even angrier. When I finished, she
asked me again.
She became truly upset. It is hard to say which she was more angry about,
the fact that I had changed our reading policy or that she couldn't
read that particular book.
"You can read it when you're older," I said. "I'm sure you'll love it
when you're older. But it is definitely not appropriate for you now."
She was in a tearful stew, but accepted the verdict. As did I. The
truth is, I am the censoring kind.
- - - - - - - - - -
Now that I've admitted it, I confess there is no end to my censoring,
and in fact I've been censoring since the day she was born. Since before
she was born. But maybe screening is a better word for it. Or
I'd be riding around in my car listening to Howard Stern, the growing
bulge before me pressing against the steering wheel. Suddenly I'd catch
myself and hastily but regretfully punch the button of the classical
music station. Only symphonies, cantatas, sonatas and minuets for the
developing ears of MY fetus. (Nothing unusual about this, I'm sure.)
Then she emerged, and I buried in the bottom of her bureau the bundles
of pink clothing and other fuzzy wrappings that came her way. No gender
stereotyping for MY liberated girl! (Doubtless I'm in good company here
Without a moment's pause I changed the names of the characters in all
of her books so that the heroes became girls. This seemed a necessary
step to ensure that she become the main character of her own life.
Arthur, the rebel Teddy Bear who ran away from home, became Arlene. Mr.
Bear, the wise old forest creature to whom all of the timid female farm
animals defer when it comes time to help Danny select a birthday present
for his mother, had to become Mrs. Bear. Spot and the other unisex names
stayed the same, but the personal pronoun was always changed to she.
Needless to say, my husband
was sorely tried by the effort to keep up with such on-the-spot
editorializing, especially because this kind of vigilance was mostly
necessary at the bedtime book time, when it was a challenge for him
simply to remain conscious through the last page.
This kind of watchfulness over her consumption of cultural artifacts
has continued unabated over these years, and has spread from books and
clothing to everything else, including the way we spend our free time.
The seriousness of purpose with which I tossed aside the pink onesies
has evolved into a mode of living with our children that depends on
sustaining a constant adversarial relationship with our culture as a
whole. Our children are intimately familiar with what Baffler critic
Thomas Frank termed "the sweet shriek of outrage," our ongoing protest
of the production of junk and unthinking consumption of junk.
We have allowed into our home small homeopathic doses of what passes
for children's entertainment ("Barney," "The Lion King") and children's
playthings (Barbie, Beanie Babies), but with the understanding that
these representatives are here as tokens of the outside world,
signifiers of our not being fundamental hard-ons or orthodox
throwbacks. Her initial experiences of these things have always been
with us by her side. Likewise for our two sons, who were born later on.
In fact, I consider that guarding our children's availability to their
crushingly mercenary and largely moronic culture is one of the most
important things we do for them. Actually, I don't really do anything on
their behalf that I don't do on my own account. I do not buy into the
unthinking suburban "lifestyle" (read, buy-style) around me, so why should
I impose it on them?
Our daughter doesn't know anything about the Spice Girls. She could not
sing you a single cold cereal jingle. Last night she asked me what
Godzilla was, some boys in her class having been joking about it all
week. It would never occur to me to take her to see "Titanic" (seen by a
sizable bunch of her classmates), and not because of the ship's disaster,
which she knows all about in engineering detail, but because of the
romance. She's too young to view Hollywood's ticket-selling portrait of
love and longing. But is she sheltered? That
would depend on what you consider shelter.
Through literature, our daughter has encountered the Holocaust (after a
quiet debriefing by me before I gave her the relevant novels), slavery,
war, racism, malevolent discrimination and other kinds of savagery
among humans. She understands, for example, that McDonald's baits its
burgers with bean bag toys to lure kid consumers; that cigarette makers add
an extra poison to their product that will make people have a harder
time quitting. She knows about envy, greed, righteousness and peaceful
conflict resolution. What she hasn't encountered in literature has often
come up on its own in conversation. She likes to piece together the
motives for human behavior. Luckily so do her parents. She trusts us,
and we trust her. She's considered quick-witted, resourceful, fiercely
fair and considerate. She is neither sarcastic nor ironical.
There will certainly come a time when she is on her own in the world
drawing her own conclusions. (In many ways that time has begun.) I like
to think that our steady sifting of the acceptable from the unacceptable
during her early years will serve her well as she begins to distill the
din for herself.
Here's the conclusion: I overheard her reading to her (almost)
3-year-old brother the other day. She was reading a Magic Schoolbus
story. While these books are often factually informative, they do
feature a kind of sassy, sarcastic humor on the part of the students,
who tend to mock Ms. Frizzle (their zanily dressed, offbeat science
teacher) even as she's taking them on a wild adventure for the sake of
gaining greater understanding of some scientific principle. Ms. Frizzle
is apparently oblivious to the jokes and insinuations made at her
expense, cheerfully focusing instead on the curriculum she has to
communicate and making it as enjoyable as she can. The story our
daughter was reading begins with the narrator calling Ms. Frizzle "the
strangest teacher in the school." Our daughter, launching into the
narrative, began her story time with an act of editorializing: "Our class
had Ms. Frizzle," she "read," "the most interesting teacher in the
By this act our daughter was trying to make the words acceptable to her
personal sensibility in order to present an image to her brother that
she could vouch for. Ms. Frizzle isn't strange; at least, that's not the
truest or kindest way to interpret the extraordinary character of Ms.
Frizzle. Such unkindness was not worthy to be passed along. For a
literal-minded 8-year-old, one who is loath to remove even a single
treasured item from her overcrowded night stand, and is reluctant to
change even one ingredient in the pasta sauce she loves, it is a big
deal to change a printed word. Somehow, though, her instincts tell her
it's OK. From experience she knows it's OK: Magnanimity that leads
to acceptance of the unacceptable is not a desirable thing. Instead, the
sweet shriek of outrage is her privilege.