When Does It Happen?

We'd been surprisingly disease-free for the longest span since having children, but it was bound to end. And lo, Diana was struck down last weekend, and spent many days in a feverish haze that was later deemed: strep.

That first day she was so sick she couldn't even read, really. She couldn't even play computer games, or DS, or watch Monty Python episodes or anything. Mostly she just lay there on the couch, drifting in and out of consciousness, every now and again rousing herself enough to be read to (note: the book to read someone with 102.7° = The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. You're welcome.)

At one point, she said, "That's a weird name."

I predictably answered, "What?"

"That." She pointed up at the giant bookshelf at the end of the couch. I will give you the sick-eye view.

Sic-eyeview

OK, now I see that it is all but impossible to identify anything here, but it was for her too, so I ask you to bear with me. And to see the book she indicated: it is the third shelf down from the top, on the far right, lying on its side. It is Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart. "What's it about?" she asked, and I sort of told her (or as much as you can when someone is that sick).

And I thought, Hmm, that's a book she would like.

And then I thought about it some more, with the constant references to his poor, maimed penis (this is less upsetting than it sounds, it's a funny book, you'll have to believe me). And I thought that she probably wasn't ready for it. For that, at least.

But it made me think about it: when do you start reading adult books? When did I take that first one off the shelf? For all my crystalline memories of reading various kids books as a kid, I have no clear recollection of when I made the transition. I read some interview with Stephen King in which he described getting his hands on some Elmore Leonard or someone and it was just, va-vooom—this is what I was meant to read. It was all grown-up books from then on.

I wish I could remember. I remember poring over Diseases of the Skin (never look at this; it will etch itself on your brain cells forever). But that was more of a my-dad-is-a-doctor type books. Not a real this-is-a-novel-written-for-grownups type book. I know that I read adult books now. But how did I get from one to the other? And what will it be like when my kid makes that switch? Is it like from crawling to walking, where you still crawl for a while, because it just feels right? Or will it be no looking back? I wonder.

Do any of you remember this? When? How? What?

23 thoughts on “When Does It Happen?

  1. Sometime around 5th grade I started dabbling in adult books (though staying away from truly gory, depressing or sexual situations). Now years later, I’m still reading children’s, YA, and adult books. I don’t think I every really stopped reading YA, I just added adult books to my repertoire.

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  2. Well, technically The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is an adult novel…
    For me, the transition was relatively painless because – as you’ve just demonstrated – in SF and F (my preferred genres), there isn’t a huge gap, or at least there wasn’t at the time. A lot of the SFF novels that were geared towards adults were only a hop, skip, and a jump away from the YA-targeted ones.
    For example, The Hobbit is meant for children, but Lord of the Rings is for adults. Anne McCaffrey writes both YA (the Dragonsinger trilogy) and adult (everything else). David Eddings isn’t so far from Tamora Pierce. Many of the Star Trek novels were quite innocent, like the shows themselves at the time (the ’90s), which I loved from age 12 onwards.
    Where I was exposed to definitely “adult” novels was mostly in school, and I hated almost every one of them until I rediscovered the authors on my own or was old enough to appreciate them. That didn’t happen until university.
    I now read mostly adult novels. But I still love going back to my old favourite YA and even middle-grade writers – they have a hold on my heart that no new favourite can ever have. More recently, I’ve started reading new (to me) YA authors, who are doing some really cool stuff these days. So I guess I’ve never wholly grown up. 🙂

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  3. I’m really trying to think about this, and other than the VC Andrews genre, I don’t have much memory until high school, when I started reading Steinbeck, Hemingway, etc. Oh, and Jane Eyre, freshman year. I think I stayed heavily into Paula Danziger & things like “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” for a long time. It probably depends on a lot of things–like good teachers, good librarians, etc.
    N.b.–I still love reading YA lit., so clearly some of us never complete the transition–either that or we regress!

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  4. I read JAWS over the summer between 4th and 5th grade (or maybe the year before). I was a tad grossed out by the skinny-dipping scene that starts the whole thing off and I did have to tell myself repeatedly that Lake Tahoe did not have sharks…
    But I was such a fast and voracious reader that it was inevitable that I would run out of reading material while camping, visiting relatives, whatever and just grab whatever the parents were done with. I read a lot of spy mysteries the summer after 5th grade (Deighton, Ludlum, Follet) and by 6th grade I was reading Orwell (it was 1984 appropriately), Hemingway, Steinbeck, etc. (my Dad’s other loves after the spy stuff).
    Then again I also started devouring sci-fi and fantasy from McCaffery to Asimov…
    Now I’ll read pretty much anything YA, adult, mystery, lit etc.

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  5. I remember finding my mother’s copy of Erica Jong’s Fear Of Flying under her bed when i was in 4th grade. It seemed sneaky and illicit and it scared me away from adult books until I was in high school!

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  6. The first grownup book I read was “Don’t Tell Me Your Name” by Hollis Hodges. I think I was 12 or something. I snuck it off my mom’s bookshelf and I’m sure that it went almost entirely over my head. However, I was very pleased, years later, to move to where Hollis lived and become sort of part of the ‘scene’. I told him his was the first grownup book I’d read. He turned out to be kind of a cranky drunk, but lovable in a way, anyway.
    After that first foray, I started taking things off my mother’s shelves regularly. Unfortunately I was drawn to things like “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” and “Go Ask Alice” and others of the ‘make you feel crazy in your head’ ilk.
    I think other kids my age started reading things like “Wifey” and V.C. Andrews, maybe around 7th grade, but for some reason I didn’t go for those.

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  7. I don’t remember when I read an adult book of QUALITY, but I do remember reading sordid paperbacks that I found in our house: Jaws, maybe, in eighth or so grade, Harold Robbins and Susan what’s her name — all trash and titillating, etc. Maybe the first REAL literature I read was Jane Eyre? I adored it.

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  8. In one year I read Jaws, Rebecca, and Gone With the Wind. I was eleven, in seventh grade. There wasn’t really any YA then, so one went from children’s books straight to adult books.

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  9. Looks like VC Andrews was the entry point for many of us, but I agree that there is so much crossover that it tends to be pretty gradual. She’s already reading some. I’d say that the unknown bit is how the quantity and quality of YA literature (some much better, some worse, but definitely MORE than there was when I was a YA) may change or delay that big push to adult books.

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  10. But was V.C. Andrews even a writer for adults? I didn’t know any adults who read her, only 13-year-old girls. It’s making me rethink the whole “Wow! Adults are reading YA now!” because maybe it’s more “Wow, adults and 13-year-old girls have always wanted to read junky, silly novels of the exact same type but we didn’t use to call it YA!” I wonder.

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  11. I must have read adult books before this, but the first one I remember finding on a bookshelf and thinking “I’ll read this” was Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were The Mullanveys. I think it’s because it amazed me so much that it stuck. Plus, I was in 9th grade, about the same age as Marianne Mulvaney, so that must have made an impression.
    It’s funny that I think of that as the first book though, because I had long been reading “adult books” for school (Dickens, Shakespeare, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter etc.), and I must have started reading Sherlock Holmes in 5th grade after my love affair with the Double Trouble Squared books.
    I also shocked my mom’s friend by reading Cider House Rules in 9th grade (I don’t know why. A Prayer For Owen Meany, which I read soon after was WAY more traumatizing). But We Were the Mulanveys is the first adult book I remember reading without it being assigned or recommended.

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  12. I don’t remember adults reading V.C. Andrews, either, but according to Wikipedia, Flowers in the Attic became a bestseller in only two weeks. There must have been a lot of adults buying copies.

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  13. Sometime around 10 or 11 I went on a binge of reading comic novels and humor – starting with the housewives like Erma Bombeck and Jean Kerr (and Shirley Jackson – it was years before I realized that she was the same person who wrote “The Lottery”). That lead to Douglas Adams, James Thurber, and P.G. Wodehouse. And Georgette Heyer. And Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers.
    I think of all of those authors as bridge novelists – written for adults but without the scary harshness of the adult world.

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  14. I had knee surgery when I was 11 and had just finished 6th grade. One day we couldn’t get to the library in time so my mom searched her bookshelves and gave me Cat’s Cradle to read. I remember loving it, not quite getting it, but it’s a fun book, really, and a fast read. Reading it later, it seemed a little crazy that I’d first read it so young, but I’m kind of glad – I think it really influenced my early political thinking.

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  15. I think it also depends a great deal on what’s in your house and how desperate your kids are to read something new. I blew through all of my allotted library books too quickly every week, and especially in the summer when I couldn’t get to the school library, it was either re-read my own books for the umpteenth time or check out my parents’ shelves. I started reading “adult” fiction in 3rd grade, not because I was so mature for my age or anything, but simply because I was desperate to read something I hadn’t read before. My parents had eclectic tastes in literature, and some real gems I can remember reading early on were a book of Mark Twain’s short stories and James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times (one of the funniest things I have ever read). And in middle school I too discovered the wonderfully trashy VC Andrews and romance novels (which I LOVED), as well as the worlds of adult sci-fi and fantasy, both classic and popular. Reading Piers Anthony novels while riding in the car is still a vivid memory.
    I think most voracious readers end up reading adult literature earlier because it’s what’s left after they’ve read everything else in the vicinity. I read adult stuff along with picture books, YA, everything. And I still read picture books and YA because I figure a good read is a good read no matter what age you are.

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  16. Wonderer’s comments resonate with me, because I too have read sci-fi and fantasy since childhood, and didn’t fully distinguish between child and adult sci-fi as a child.
    I first read the Lord of the Rings at 9, because my dad had read us The Hobbit when I was 4 or 5, and started on LOTR, but stopped because it frightened me. I wanted to know what happened next, plus it was serialised on the radio, so I read it to keep up. I also started reading Douglas Adams, John Wyndham and Anne McCaffrey around that time. I had a Dickens and Orwell phase around 11, plus non-scarey murder mysteries like Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie.
    However I certainly wasn’t ready to give up on kids books for a long time. I was probably still mostly reading kids stuff then. I still read it now, especially fantasy. I’m 38 and my kid is 3, so it’s not even like I’m reading it to him.
    I think most of the things I went for pre-adolescence were definitely AnneL’s bridge novels – written for adults, but not reflecting the complexity or scariness of the adult world.

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  17. You are all so right. Of course she’s already reading them, I just thought it would feel…different, somehow. My memories of actually reading kids books are so much sharper than those of reading grownup books, it’s such a more visceral experience.

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  18. Late to the party, but I read Gone with the Wind when I was 10. Mostly, I think, because my mom wanted me to read it and love it as much as she did. I did. I guess that was my first adult book. When I was 11, I told the librarian that I had read everything I wanted to in the children’s section and she sent me upstairs. I’ll never forget that trip. I checked out Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury (but I don’t remember which ones).

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  19. I was exposed to very “adult” novels were mostly in school and I hated almost every one of them until I rediscovered the authors of my own accord or was old enough to enjoy. It did not take place before university.

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  20. By 6th grade my mom had given my Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt mysteries and I had found Georgette Heyer. They were my transition to adult titles.

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  21. Honestly, I don’t remember any sort of bright line. It must have been around fourth grade that I first dipped my toe in. But at a pretty young age I had an eclectic taste. I read A Christmas Carol at a very young age (it’s such a great story, and I think maybe I’d seen a PBS adaptation). Sherlock Holmes stories, LOADS of Piers Anthony (in retrospect, his characterization of women …. needs work–but I still appreciate his imagination and humor), Jane Eyre, which my mom had given me … my memory’s poor but at least some of those I think I read pretty young. I wonder if my mom noticed the way that you have.

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