I have this vivid memory of lying by the pool in Portugal (I know, you hate me already) when I was 12, sprawled out with a copy of “The Queen of the Damned” and munching frites. When it got too hot, I’d shed the book and dive into the water to splash around a little before returning to the tiles and delving back in.
Even at a young age, I was a voracious reader (no surprises there) and I didn’t pay much attention to where books came from, as long as they got their way into my greedy hands. My father let me roam in whatever section of the bookstore or library I pleased, so no literature was forbidden to me, but consequently, I read a lot of books that, uh, kind of went over my head.
Like, say, the entire Vampire Chronicles series, which I was totally obsessed with because, I mean, really, vampires! (Remember, this was before defanged romantic vampires got to be a thing in the 2000s. This was the 1990s, and vampires were Serious Business.)
So I read those books like popcorn, and I loved the heck out of ‘em. I passed them off to my friends in school so they could read them too but I had to stop doing that after a friend’s mom confiscated “The Vampire Lestat” and tried to get me in trouble with my dad. The way she carried on, you’d think I’d gotten her kid high on the skunkiest of weed or something.
That was the day my father and I had to have a conversation about “age-appropriate reading” and how while he was pretty free-wheeling, some parents might get upset at the thought of their children being exposed to sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Honestly, I think the biggest reason he wasn’t majorly concerned was because he knew most of what I was reading wasn’t really sinking in anyhow, as evidenced by The Orgasm Incident1. Better to let me roam free through the literary fields and answer any questions that came up than restrict my reading and have me skulking around getting all kinds of misinformation.
Consequently, I read things like “The Mists of Avalon” (yay, magick! (yes, I spelled it that way) and Arthurian legends and fantasy! Incest? What’s that?) and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books, totally missing the fact that the sex pollen was, uh, kind of creepy.
I might have felt a strange stirring somewhere that these adults were clearly up to something, but I was totally convinced that I had a handle on the whole plot when I was actually woefully missing many large pieces of the point. Same went for most social commentaries I read at a tender age.
Upon finding it was subject to numerous challenges and bans, I checked out “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” only to be deeply confused as to what all the fuss was about -- and I totally missed the class war in the book, to boot.
Thinking back on all the books I read as a kid, totally loved, and totally didn’t get until years later, I thought I couldn’t possibly be the only one, so I asked the xoJane editors, contributors, and family for theirs. Rebecca’s already written up her list, but what about the rest of us?
Madeline remembers “She’s Come Undone” (sixth grade) along with “Catcher in the Rye” and “A Farewell to Arms” in seventh: “Did. not. get. it. ‘Catcher In The Rye’ I thoroughly enjoyed, but I'm sure a lot of it went over my head.”
Kate says: “Definitely ‘The Bean Trees.’ I stole that book from my mom in the fourth grade and read it until the cover fell off. That book definitely has some really intense messaging about white supremacy, adultery, miscarriages, sexual abuse, and torture. I don't want to say they 'went over my head' -- I was a pretty precocious kid, so I knew what most of the plot points were referring to -- but I definitely didn't feel their full emotional impact until I got a lot older.”
We had to read “Animal Farm” in 7th grade. It was the first time in English class I had NO clue what was going on...I'd say “Catcher in the Rye” is a book that changes with every read. Same with “Jane Eyre.” I definitely didn't understand why the little girls in “A Secret Garden” and “A Little Princess” grew up in India, but were English, although I also never questioned it.
I remember being VERY confused in “Are You There God? It's Me Margaret” because she had to wear a belt when she got her period and even though I read that when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, I knew enough to know that maxi pads stuck to your undies and didn't require a belt.
Natalie seconded the vote for “Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret,” noting that “I genuinely think that was the first time that I found out about the Jewish faith,” and so did Emily: “Me too! Didn't understand any of the Jewish stuff, or the belt!” “I'm another, ‘Are You There God? It's Me Margaret,’ confused person,” confessed Louise. “The belts thing filled me with dread.”
And Natalie’s literary naughtiness didn’t stop there! “When I was 8 we stayed in this villa in Portugal [sense a theme here?] that had loads of books on shelves, and as the avid reader I was I spent the evenings holed up in my room reading those really famous kids books, Mills and Boon's. My mum went apeshit when she found out. I didn't really get what a ‘throbbing member’ or a ‘shiny slit’ was when I was 8, thank God.”
Louise also noted that: “I loved ‘Franny and Zooey,’ but I had no idea what I was reading. Same with ‘Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,’ and ‘Seymour.’ I just felt cool holding those little books.” Says Hannah: “I read ‘White Noise’ by Don DeLillo when I was 15 [me too!] and loved it but I'm sure I had no clue what most of it meant.”
Marianne was apparently more advanced than the rest of us -- she didn’t ‘fess up to any childhood reading that later turned out to have gone way over her head. But she did have this to say: “I also read that book by Roald Dahl about being at a boys school and [remember] kind of getting off on the canings so. Laugh.”
Now, it’s time for you to chime in: Which books did you read as a kid and later realize were, uh, totally not about what you thought they were about? What about those books that stirred a little something-something? (I read my copy of “A House Like A Lotus” to shreds just for that scene between Polly and Renny.)
1. Okay, fine, I’ll tell you, although usually I save this story for parties, when I can be appropriately dramatic and gesticulate all over the place as I narrate. In a nutshell, one night as a wee child I was staying up reading (what else is new) when I encountered a word I didn’t recognize. In accordance with family tradition, I bounced upstairs to ask my father what it meant, only to find him doing something nefarious with his girlfriend under the sheets. Not the sort to let that kind of thing stand in my way, I demanded that my father tell me what “orgasm” meant, and he suggested I “go look it up in the OED.”
This led to a fascinating and fruitful half-hour diversion (as any etymology nerd who has looked things up in the OED knows, this is an occupational hazard, much like “just checking” TV Tropes to look something up), until I found a reference in Old English, which I couldn’t read. My father, however, could, so I marched back upstairs, where Father and Girlfriend had resumed whatever peculiarity they were up to, tossed the OED (compact edition, natch) on the bed, and insisted he translate for me immediately.
That girlfriend didn’t really come around after that. No idea why. Return