August 11, 2010

Then Again, Maybe I Will

I've mentioned somewhere in this bloggity world that Judy Blume's book Deenie changed my life, turned me into a reader of chapter books. What I didn't remember about that time, until recently, is that after reading Deenie I set out to read more Blume books and checked out Then Again, Maybe I Won't from the library. I never finished the book, but not because I didn't like it.

I was twelve-ish. I loved the way my Nana Pat described her Agatha Christie mysteries to me, and I wanted to emulate her, so after I'd read a few chapters of Then Again Maybe I Won't, I set out to find my mother and began describing the book to her. I think she may have been folding laundry in the living room. I said something along these lines: "I'm reading a book about a boy named Tony who has dreams at night, and when he wakes up in the morning his bed is all wet."

Now, my mom had explained the female reproductive system long before this time, but I'd either spaced out during the male half or we'd skimmed over it. In any case, I didn't have a clear grasp of what was happening to Tony, so my mom explained it to me and mentioned that I might not want to bring up the topic in polite conversation.

I want to be clear: My mom never said, "Don't read that book," so I can't blame her for what happened next, which was this: I was horrified. I returned the book to the library and never read another Judy Blume book again, which now makes me sad for my naive and prude-ish tweenie self.

In fact, I didn't even remember the masturbation scene in Deenie until I read about it during my research for this post, which makes me think that it went right over my twelve-year-old head. Fortunately, I'm not the only reader who missed it. Yes, the other oblivious readers were younger; I was a late bloomer.

So yesterday I took Buckaroo to the library, and while he was meandering through the picture books I pulled Then Again Maybe I Won't from the shelf and finished the tale I began so long ago. One of Blume's main story lines does address Tony's sexuality and how he manages it:

"Just as I finished writing the figures on the math board I started to get hard. Mind over matter . . . mind over matter, I told myself."

He solves his problem by holding a text book in front of his pants. He also talks about his wet dreams, fantasies, his guilt about watching from his bedroom window as the neighbor girl undresses each night. But here's what struck me: this book was written in 1971. Sure, there were other books about sexuality written before 1971, but how many were written for kids?

I'm beginning to think Judy Blume is a genius.

Yes, I was too embarrassed to finish the book, but it sparked a conversation between my mom and me that we would not have had otherwise. It gave me my first glimpse into the life of an adolescent boy. And think of the boys! So many not only understand Tony's plight, but live it. I hope they all read this book if for no other reason than to learn that they're not alone-- that boys have been trying to will their penises into submission since the dawn of time.

Which reminds me: Sweet P's dad once mentioned that he was required to write a book report on Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret after he teased a girl in school about wearing a bra. I love that teacher!

I was not surprised to find that so many of Blume's books have been banned at one point or another in so many places. The Reagan years were the worst for book censorship, Blume writes on her Web site, but after buckling under the pressure to remove lines about masturbation from her book Tiger Eyes so that it wouldn't be another victim of censorship, Blume became an anti-censorship advocate.

"If someone had told me then [while writing her first book, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret] I would become one of the most banned writers in America, I'd have laughed," Blume writes of the impetus for her activism.

I don't think too much about censorship. I'm an adult, I live in a fairly liberal area, and if I or my kids want to read a book that's not available at my library, I buy it online or at the bookstore. But now I'm starting to think about what might have happened if I'd never read Deenie, the book that was so instrumental in making me a reader. What if it had been banned from my school library? Would there have been another book to take its place, or would I be watching a soap opera right now instead of writing this post?

And what about the kids in places like Wasilla, Alaska, whose parents might not have the means to order books not available at the library? Will those children find the book that drives them to become a lifetime reader, thinker?

Ok, it's not true that Sarah Palin tried to ban a giant list of books from the town library, but she did threaten to fire the librarian if she couldn't see eye to eye with Palin on censorship.

Scary stuff. Right now, in fact, the radio program Fresh Air is banned from the airwaves in Mississippi because a comedian talked about his need, because of his poor self image, to wear a shirt while having sex. I cannot imagine life without Fresh Air.

Here's what I don't understand about censorship: Why would we want to keep kids (or anyone)from reading about the very experiences they're living? Especially if those books are going to enlighten them in some way. And if we're going to ban books because they contain stories about infidelity, prostitution, rape, or murder, I guess we'd better start with the Bible. Just sayin'.


Karen Cantwell said...

Patricia - one of my FAVORITE books growing up was Are You There God, It's Me Margaret. I can't imagine not having access to that book, because like Deenie for you, it really turned me into a reader. In fact, I went on to read Deenie! :-) Nice post. Thanks for sharing.

julia park tracey said...

I read Deenie as a 10 y.o. and did not understand the masturbation references. I remember reading that she touched a "special place" and wondering what that special place could be. Her elbow? Her knee? It never said! I found that so frustrating. How could you rub your elbow until you felt better. Yep -- I just kept reading and didn't get it at all. My point -- adults get it and think the kid gets it, too. Not always so. And I guarantee you I am otherwise a genius...

Katy Upperman said...

This is such a timely post for me... I just finished reading Judy Blume's FOREVER yesterday. Seeing as how I'm in my late 20s and married, it wasn't so shocking, but if I'd read it as a teenager I probably would have been blown away. Even now, I couldn't believe she referred to "balls"! I loved FOREVER, of course, as I do all of Ms. Blume's books, though I haven't yet read THEN AGAIN MAYBE I WON'T. Now, thanks to this post, I'm dying to go out and get it!

Suzanne said...

I have tears in my eyes as I write this. What readers and books and talkers can do! I love you for writing this. I think of all the books for teenagers I have gotten to read and how they have impacted my adult life. Who might I be if I had met Liesel Meminger from The Book Thief or Bobby from The First Part Last when I was in grade school? What conversations might I have had with my mom or a librarian or a friend? Thank you for thinking of me!

Patricia Caspers said...

Thank you all so much for reading and taking the time to comment! I think I need to re-read _Deenie_ now and then move on to _Forever_. So exciting!

I'm wondering if there YA books that address the issues of LGBT teens in a healthy way. Off to research!

Gemma said...

I remember reading Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. By the time I read it I was hitting 15 and new everything I needed to know but that book was definitely interesting.

The subject of censoring is ridiculous, I see that children can be impressionable but it doesn't mean our government's should be allowed to dictate what we read or what our children read.