The Biggest Obstacle

One of the most illuminating things about meeting so many booksellers and librarians in the last few months is hearing about the challenges they face in placing books in kids’ hands. It’s not an easy job they have—and certainly they’re not in it for the riches. But it’s not the reluctant readers that are their biggest challenge (at least not from what I've heard).

The biggest obstacle is us—the gatekeepers. I heard from booksellers that parents regularly insisted that their reluctant reader would be wasting their time on a graphic novel. They wanted their child to read a “real book.” Being a parent who listens to other parents talk, this doesn’t surprise me too much. I can remember when the Harry Potter series was first exploding and parents would brag about their seven-year-olds reading it. I’d have to suppress my urge to eye roll. I can remember my own parents bragging that I could read the newspaper at that age. But isn’t the point of reading not that you can decipher the words, but that you can derive meaning from them? As someone who has made my living by making books for other people to buy, my attitude is only: Please read. Please love books. Please want them and escape into them. And beyond that, whatever floats your boat. 

So snobbery is certainly one roadblock for booksellers and librarians—the notion that one’s child is or should be a genius and read like one. One bookseller told me that she had a parent come in asking if they had a version of Noam Chomsky for toddlers. Which, among other things, is hilarious.

But way more difficult is the barrier the gatekeepers construct around subject matter.  There are some parents who don’t want their kids to read anything that might disturb them—and we could have a whole conversation about how we learn to cope with our world via reading. But what I was even more fascinated by is this: Over and over booksellers and especially librarians say that they have to be incredibly careful about sexual content. Parents will explicitly state that they’re fine with violence and spookiness, but sex? Not fine.  

I just got back from the Texas Library Association meeting in San Antonio, Texas, which was such a wonderful experience, and this was a very active conversation while I was there. Librarians were happy to know that there’s no sex in my book, because it means they can recommend it to a wider assortment of kids. On the one hand, of course I’m pleased that my book is open to all kinds of readers. On the other, I felt guilty that my book might be chosen over one that has sexual content. I think my book is terrifying in many ways, but apparently way more terrifying to some parents and adults is the notion that adolescents are sexual beings and have sexual thoughts.

I’d guess that many adults look at teenagers and think about what was going on in their own heads at that age and it freaks them out.  Suddenly your child is someone with secrets and privacy. Suddenly your child is someone unfamiliar to you. This can be something we embrace and are curious about—look at you, fine young person, let me learn something new about you today. Or we can approach it with revulsion and a desire to take back the control we thought we had at one time.

These thoughts have especially percolated in my head as I’ve been reading Megan Abbott’s The Fever,  which has been very hard for me to put down since I started it. The novel is written from a few perspectives, but the central protagonist is Deenie, a teenaged girl who feels like she’s changing in ways she can’t control. If that isn’t a metaphor for adolescence, I don’t know what is. And this is the really poignant thing about of all of this: At the same time that we adults are afraid of the changes in our kids, they’re just as terrified. In The Fever, a number of teenaged girls in the public high school are struck one-by-one by a strange ailment. Seizures, twitches, hallucinations—each suffers in different ways, but in all cases they lose control over their bodies and to some extent their thoughts. Wild theories spread as to what has caused the ailment—from HPV vaccinations to the town’s toxic lake. But what bubbles right up to the surface of this novel is sex. That our children are having it, thinking about it, and sometimes victims of it in ways that we wish we could protect them from. We see these girls—not even at the age of consent—who nonetheless have sexual feelings they can act upon, and bodies that other people with sexual feelings want to act upon. And yeah, that’s pretty terrifying.  There’s a powerful refrain in the novel—the girls often appear facially different to themselves, to each other, and to their parents. Almost as if they are transformed, or possessed.  It’s no coincidence that classic stories of demonic possession (which often focus on girls), show the possessed child spewing sexual profanity. There is truly nothing more terrifying to us than the collision of untouched adolescent girls (and boys) and sex. Nothing more terrifying—and yet such is life.

And if such is life, my goodness, we should really want our kids to read about it first, shouldn’t we?

I’ve rattled on long enough. By all means, if you’re looking for a thought-provoking novel that you can also lose yourself in, get yourself a copy of The Fever. I’m planning to deep dive into everything else Megan Abbott has written.

Happy spring. Don’t worry about what the birds and the bees are getting up to. If we cut back on the pesticides, they’ll do just fine. 

My copy of The Fever, which I've looked forward to getting back to every day since I started it. I don't feel right when I'm not loving what I'm reading, so Megan Abbott is making me a happier and more well-adjusted person right now.


January 1978. Rudolph Nureyev is a guest on "The Muppets," and I'm ten-years-old. Not even an adolescent. But I had feelings, people. FEELINGS. See Miss Piggy's face? That was me, age ten.

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Peternelle van