Releasing the Reins

In third grade, I’d exhausted the books in ‘my’ section of the school library.  I’d plowed through all the Little House books, the Chronicles of Narnia, and their ilk.  I was bored and wanted something more.

When the reading van came to school (remember the reading van?) I was one of the first in line.  I bopped in, passed the third grade section, and started browsing in the back, where the older kids were.  One book caught my eye — “Light A Single Candle” by Beverly Butler.  I was intrigued and took it to the check out, only to be stymied by the Sister who was running the cash register. She ordered me to put it back.

When I told my mother that night, she promptly wrote a note requesting I be given free rein not only of the book van, but of the library as well.  I clutched that note like a magical talisman when I approached the check out the next day, same book in hand.

“Well,” said Sister A, scratching her head and looking at the back cover.  “I suppose there’s no sex in it, right?”

I wasn’t exactly sure what sex was, but I know it couldn’t be good. I vigorously shook my head, and the prize was mine.

I remember that moment so clearly, because it was such a pivotal point in my life. Light A Single Candle didn’t have the sex scenes Sister A was worried about, but it did have a lot of teenage angst and maybe a little kissing. It was my first foray into ‘adult reading’ and it opened a whole new world.  (The nuns — who were fabulous English teachers — eventually came round. By fifth grade I was loaning my copy of The Thornbirds to them.)

Of all the gifts my parents gave me, the encouragement to read and the freedom to read what I wanted are two of the greatest. Aside from one embarrassing incident when my mother called me out to show a friend what I was reading (unfortunately, I think I was eleven and it happened to be Forever by Judy Blume) she never questioned my judgement or took a book away from me.

And now, of course, history has repeated itself.  It started a few months ago when my daughter picked up a book from a bargain bin.  I recognized the author’s name, but hadn’t read any of her work, and the cover looked innocuous enough — slightly paranormal, in a pretty fairy type of way. She asked if she could get it, and I reminded her of our deal — I get to read anything she does first.

I kept meaning to read the book, but things kept coming up, and then it wasn’t where I’d put it. I dug it out from my daughter’s room, took it to mine, and read a chapter. The next day, it was gone.  I took it back, read another, and realized the story made me uncomfortable when I thought about my daughter reading it. I put it in the pile for donations.  The next day it disappeared, only to mysteriously crop up by the family room couch.

We went on like this for a few days — me subtly taking the book away, her just as subtly reclaiming it.  I hated to come right out and forbid it, but I wasn’t all that thrilled with her reading it, either.  And then she picked up another book of mine — an autobiography I’d gotten from the library — and asked if she could read that.  I said yes, relieved. An autobiography!  On an educational topic!  Score!

But looking over her shoulder that night, I saw a swear — the swear, actually — on the page.  I asked her if she thought the book was really appropriate for her after all, and she pointed out that she’s heard that same word at school, seen it scratched into bathroom stalls.

“Have you ever heard me say it?” she asked. And I had to admit, I hadn’t. So we struck a new deal, one that she likes much better and that gives my mother payback for the angst I must have caused her. Em can read what she wants.

I’m strict about what my kids watch for movies and TV.  To me, the violent visual images, the sitcoms with the rude preteens, are rigid, in the sense that there’s no involvement from the watcher’s end.  What you see is exactly what’s there.

But books are different. When you read, you bring yourself, your experiences, your curiosity about a subject, to the page. Or, as Madeleine L’Engle has been quoted as saying, readers must be creators.  “The author and the reader “know” each other; they meet on the bridge of words.”

I’ve certainly read books where passages have gone over my head, nuances have been missed, because I didn’t have the life experience to comprehend them. Reading The Sun Also Rises at fifteen is a much different experience than at twenty-five, than again at forty-three. But not understanding the nature of Jake’s injury as a teenager didn’t stop me from loving the story.

Over the years, books have brought me pleasure and knowledge. I brought to each story what I could understand and took from it what I could handle. My hope is that my daughter will do the same. For the both of us, it’s the start of a wild ride.

Liz Michalski


  1. Karen on March 6, 2012 at 2:55 pm

    Love this, Liz…Em cracks me up at her very quiet way of doing exactly what she wants to do. 🙂

    • liz on March 6, 2012 at 5:14 pm

      I know … people underestimate the quiet ones at their peril! : )

  2. Vaughn Roycroft on March 6, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    What a wonderful sentiment, and what a gorgeous picture. I never had this conversation with my mom, but at some point she allowed me free reign of the reading van (which in our hometown was called the Book-Mobile). My parents’ support of whatever I wanted to read through my teens is a big part of my development as a person and a writer. I went through some phases I know they found concerning, too (horror, fantasy/scifi, all things battle and war), but to their credit, they never censored.

    So rest assured, Liz. Just look how I turned out. Er… strike that. Just know it’ll be fine.

    • liz on March 6, 2012 at 5:15 pm

      Funny, Vaughn. I try and convince my husband of the same thing when we discuss reading materials for her. I’m not sure he’s buying it either. : )

  3. Dee Garretson on March 6, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    I read what I wanted as a child, because my parents weren’t readers. The only book my father ever complained about was Animal Farm. My mother bought it for me because she knew I liked animals. My father had not read it, but heard it was about communism.

    I did read one book at twelve I wish I hadn’t, and that was Lolita. I found it very, very disturbing and had no one I could talk to about it. My daughter now is 11, and there are some books I wouldn’t want her to read yet. She hasn’t shown any interest in them, so that means it isn’t a problem at this point. Neither one of us are in a big hurry for her to grow up.

    • liz on March 6, 2012 at 5:18 pm

      I read Lolita when I was babysitting with a friend, at an English teacher’s house. I was a few years older than twelve, but I still remember it, and how we took turns racing through it.

      I feel the same way about not being in hurry for my daughter to grow up, and there are definitely books I’d prefer her not to read. My strategy is to just keep throwing the ones I’d like her to be interested in in front of her, and hoping that’s enough for now.

  4. Mom on March 6, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    You read Lolita??? God help me.

    • liz on March 6, 2012 at 9:15 pm

      : )

  5. Vaughn Roycroft on March 7, 2012 at 8:47 am

    Btw, Liz, I saw a post Jacqueline Carey did a while back about young (mostly women) who write her to tell her Kushiel’s Dart was ‘that book.’ The one they raced through at 12-14 with girlfriends while babysitting. (It’s very racy, even by adult standards.) And she wrote about her version of ‘that book’ being The Thornbirds. Ah, the circle of life. 🙂 Fun post.

    • liz on March 13, 2012 at 8:26 am

      Thanks, Vaughn. I haven’t read Dart, but will add it to my list — and hide it. : )

  6. Jan O'Hara (Tartitude) on March 8, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    Ah ha ha. I love it that your mom would chide you in public. Thanks for the comic relief, Mrs. M.

    I’m another one who went uncensored as a child and extended that policy to my own kids, who seem to titrate their reading interests to what they can handle.

    • liz on March 13, 2012 at 8:25 am

      Yep. She’s good at that. : )

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