In Which It Becomes Clear That I Am Now Officially Uptight

We got an e-mail the other day,
offering to send us a new YA book:

Mary Richards is a
normal 16-year-old girl living in Manhattan.
Well, almost normal. I mean, she goes to private school and lives on the Upper East Side with her adoptive family.  And
she’s also slowly transforming into a cat.

Well that sounds good, I
thought. Sort of like Gossip Girls meets Animorphs. Besides, I'm a sucker for a fun, junky book, and Diana is a sucker for all things feline. I mentioned it to Diana, who said "That sounds great!" And we
accepted the publicist's generous offer, and they mailed it to us, and
all seemed well.

We got it a few days later, and Diana plucked it out of my bag and
carried upstairs. Two hours later, I found it lying in the hallway.
"Hey, aren't you reading this?"

"I finished it."*

"Well, how was it?"

"OK."

Double
hmm. Diana is phenomenally unwilling to be negative about things. And
this was a book about turning into a cat. What did OK mean in this context?

"So, you weren't crazy about it?"

"There weren't enough characters."

I gave a prim speech about how it wasn't the number of characters in a book that made it good, but rather…blah blah blah.

So then I read it.

And oh
dear. I don't normally think of myself as prudish. Or
over-protective. Or puritanical. But it turns out I am. Here are the things I found difficult to accept:

a scene in which what appears to be marijuana is found in the locker of a character, who then escapes any consequence;

a scene in which our heroine wriggles desperately against a boy she likes because she can;

a scene in which our heroine, having become a cat, is licked all over by another boy/cat, with special attention paid to being licked on the tail. Yes, on the tail. Licked.

Lots and lots of all of this.

Here I thought I was cool with the general expression of sexuality in books. "Oh sure," I've been known to airily declare, "sex in books and movies is fine. It's the violence that seems so disturbing." Also: "Oh that? That goes right over their heads, I don't worry about it at all."

Well, it turns out I was full of shit. I am not OK with the idea of my girls reading about turning into cats and being licked all over by boys. Not. At. All.

So what do I do now that it's happened? Oh yes, and happened with my own dopey "Here you go, why don't you read this whole book about turning into a cat and being licked all over by boys?" special brand of mothering. I think I don't do anything. In truth, probably a lot of it did, in fact, go over her head. That's one of the benefits of being pure of heart and also a hellishly fast reader*.

But my response really surprised me. I can't even name exactly what it was that I felt so allergic to, but it was something about a state of mind, and an attitude towards herself and life, that the book seemed ready to say was par for the course for a 16-year-old girl, that didn't feel OK to me.

Just for the record, I'm not exactly happy to be the prude that I've become. I want reading about, well, just about anything to be OK. I also want to think that my feelings have to do with the fact that the book—well, it's not a good book. It has an annoying present-tense anomie, and while the idea of the whole thing appealed to me, it never comes to life, never thrills or surprises. No one seems to live in its pages. The action scenes are hopelessly confusing, the description is self-consciously poetic, and the people—they never animate. It turns out that I more or less agree with Diana in some way, for all my prim speech: there aren't enough characters. What I think she means is that there isn't enough to care about.

But as high-minded and critically castigating as I try to be, the truth is that's not why it freaked me out. What freaked me out is what YA seems to have become: something I can no longer handle.

*Note: Diana is an intensely fast reader, who tends to some sort of turbo-charged skimming with books that don't fully engage her. It doesn't seem possible for her to read as fast as she says she does, but she can generally answer all relevant questions about a book after she's "read" it. She just doesn't seem to engage fully with the language or something.

9 thoughts on “In Which It Becomes Clear That I Am Now Officially Uptight

  1. This has been happening for a little while. I would read what my niece was reading and it was all drama drama drama.
    Ever has it been thus (I mean, Meet the Austins is about as squeaky clean as can be but still drama). But the sex overlays are annoying to me too if it’s any consolation to hear from another prude.
    I loved the Austin family books when I was around her age. Wonder if they are too dated now for kids?

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  2. Nodding along with all of it. And thinking “At least it wasn’t the girl cat licking the boy cat’s tail.”
    So I’m uptight about what my daughter reads, but not exactly saintly in my own imaginings.

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  3. I still love the Austin books. I even still read them fairly regularly. I hope, really hope, that my daughter is not too sophisticated for them at 14 or whatever the right age is. They are exactly the opposite of the unalive book you’re describing. Squeaky clean they may be, but very human and alive.

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  4. Yikes — I feel like jumping on the fast train to prudery after reading about that book! Good Lord. I just want to ask, “Why?”
    I was and still am an inordinately fast reader like your Diana — I’m just saying that because your description at the end of the post was so interesting to me and described what I probably do and have done as well!

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  5. Since my girls are 5 and 1, it’s very easy for me to say, “Oh, I don’t care what the subject matter is…” but I know that it probably won’t end up that way. My mom’s tack (and the one that I already seem to take with TV and such) is the exact opposite of yours, though. I don’t mind the violence, as long as it’s not too graphic, and bad language doesn’t even phase me, but I do try to keep them away from sexual stuff.

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  6. I do think your feelings, at least in part, have to do with the fact that it wasn’t a good book – a good book might contain as much sex (or violence) but it might not seem so gratuitous. By having engaged you in the characters, and the story, a good book might even include similar scenes, but not leave you feeling that a girl wiggled all over a boy only because she could, and I guess I can’t even think of a way a good book could spend much time on being licked all over with special emphasis on the tail…. but smut or gore vs sex or violence is a distinction, and I don’t think you have to be a prude to make it. It’s probably not the same line to everyone, but yours to make for what you read, unapologetically.
    And as a super fast reader child I remember reading books that didn’t grab me was more like saying words in my head without linking them together as sentences or thoughts (if that makes any sense). Sort of in one eye and out the other. Might have been able to answer questions about it for a while, but more like cramming than studying, in terms of eventual brainspace dedicated to it.

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  7. Just to make you feel better (maybe?), I read pretty much every book in my parents’ library by the time I was in 5th grade and that included some seriously disturbing stuff (“Sybil” and the Frances Farmer autobiography come to mind), and I turned out just fine. My parents never thought I would read their books, but I was always desperate for new stuff because like Diana I read freakishly fast. My dad once got mad at me because he said I could not possibly be reading a the rate of a page every 30 seconds, but when he took the book away from me and quizzed me about what had happened I could answer him without a problem. When I read a book I wasn’t particularly interested in, I still knew what happened, but it didn’t emotionally grab me in any way so it had no real staying power.
    I actually think I figured out the super-fast reading phenomenon a few years ago – I am a ‘whole-word’ rather than a phonic reader, and I also tend to be a very good guesser at what certain words or phrases will be within a certain context, so my eyes automatically fly past those phrases to get to the other words. It also makes for some spectacular visual mondegreens and misread signs, since my brain automatically jumps to conclusions when I see certain words, which out of context can be very, very wrong.

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  8. Mary Richards? Like “Love is all around,” MTM Mary Richards? Or is that just me and my faulty memory? Did they mean to do that?
    And, for what it’s worth, I too was a fast reader/skimmer, and the amount of inappropriate content that passed me by continues to amaze me when I revisit certain soap-y books I read as a youngster. So here’s a vote for less harm done than it might seem.
    But still, Mary Tyler Moore as a cat–I just don’t know what to say.

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  9. There is some mention in the book for the Mary/Mary connection, but my feeling is that it was just put there because some editor of the right age said, “You can’t just name her Mary Richards and not mention it…”

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