Appropriate Literature: Guest Post by Elana K. Arnold

On Monday, Stacked kicked off its “About the Girls” series with a guest post from Elana K. Arnold, author of Infandous. In case you missed it, we’ve reposted the essay here in its entirety. 

A few days ago, I got an email. This is what it said:

“My 13 year old daughter is interested in reading your books. I research novels before she reads them to ensure they are age appropriate. Can you please provide me with information regarding the sexual content, profanity, and violence so I can make an informed decision.”

The subject of the email was: Concerned Mother.

I’m not proud to admit that my first reaction was a twist in my stomach, a lurching sensation. Was I attempting to lead her daughter astray, were my books nothing more than thinly disguised smut, or pulp?

And I wasn’t sure how to respond. Yes, my books have sexual content. They have profanity. There is violence. But my books—like all books—are more than a checklist, a set of tally marks (Kisses? 6. Punches thrown? 4.) 

Then I began thinking about myself at thirteen, about what was appropriate for me in that year, and those that followed.

When I was thirteen, I read whatever I wanted. No one was watching. Largely I found books in my grandmother’s home library. I roamed the shelves and chose based on titles, covers, thickness of the spines. I read All You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex (But were afraid to ask). I read The Stranger.I read Gone with the Wind. And I read at home too, of course, and in school—Anne of Green Gables and Bridge to Terabithia and Forever.

Those early teen years were steeped in sex, even though I wasn’t sexually active. In junior high school, there were these boys who loved to snap the girls’ bras at recess. I didn’t wear a bra, though I wished desperately for the need to. I was sickened by the thought that one of the boys might discover my secret shame, reach for my bra strap and find nothing there.

So one day I stole my sister’s bra and wore it to school. All morning I was aware of the itch of it, its foreign presence. I hunched over my work, straining my shirt across my back so the straps would show through.

At recess, I wandered dangerously near the group of boys, heart thumping, hoping, terrified. Joe Harrison did chase me—I ran and yelped until he caught me by the arm, found the strap, snapped it.

And then his words—“What are you wearing a bra for? You don’t have any tits.”

The next year, there was a boy—older, 15—who didn’t seem to care whether or not I needed a bra. We kissed at a Halloween party, just days after my thirteenth birthday. I was Scarlett O’Hara. He was a 1950’s bad boy, cigarettes rolled into the sleeve of his white T-shirt. He was someone else’s boyfriend.

The next day at school, a well-meaning girl whispered to me, just as class was about to start, “If you’re going to let him bang you, make him finger bang you first. That way, it won’t hurt as much.”

Later that year, before I transferred schools when my family moved away, my English teacher told me I was talented, and that he would miss me. Then he kissed me on the mouth.

The next year, a high school freshman, I was enrolled in Algebra I, and I didn’t think I was very good at it. Truthfully, I didn’t pay much attention to whatever the math teacher/football coach was saying up there, preferring to scribble in my notebook or gaze into half-distance, bringing my eyes into and out of focus.

On the last day of class, the teacher called me up to his desk. “You should fail this class,” he told me. “You went into the final with a D, and you got less than half of the questions right.”

I had never failed a class. I was terrified.

“But,” he went on, smiling, “I’m gonna give you a C-, because I like the way you look in that pink leather miniskirt.”

At fifteen, a sophomore, I took Spanish. I raised my hand to ask a question, and the teacher—who liked the students to call him Señor Pistola—knelt by my desk as I spoke. When I finished, instead of answering me he said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t hear a word. I was lost in your beautiful eyes.”

I wasn’t having sex. I had only kissed one boy. But still, I was brewing in it—sex, its implications, my role as an object of male desire, my conflicting feelings of fear and excitement. 

Recently, I taught an upper division English class at the University of California, Davis. The course topic was Adolescent Literature. Several of my book selections upset the students, who argued vehemently that the books were inappropriate for teens because of their subject matter—explicit sexual activity, sexual violence, and incest. The Hunger Games was on my reading list, too, a book in which the violent deaths of children—one only twelve years old—are graphically depicted. No one questioned whether that book was appropriate. Of course, none of the characters have sex. Not even under the promise of imminent death do any of the featured characters decide to do anything more than kiss, and even the kissing scenes end before they get too intense.

So I think about the mother who wrote me that email, asking me, Are your books appropriate for my daughter? I think about the girl I was at thirteen, and the girls I knew. The girl who told me about finger banging. The other girls my English teacher may have kissed. The girls who had grown used to boys groping their backs, feeling for a bra strap, snapping it. 

I think, What is appropriate? I want to tell that mother that she can pre-read and write to authors and try her best to ensure that everything her daughter reads is “appropriate.” But when I was thirteen, and fourteen and fifteen, stealing my sister’s bra and puzzling over the kiss of the boy at the party, the kiss of my teacher in an empty classroom, what was happening to me and around me and inside of me probably wouldn’t have passed that mother’s “appropriate” test. Still, it all happened. To a good girl with a mother who thought her daughter was protected. Safe. 

And it was the books that I stumbled upon—all on my own, “inappropriate” books like Lolita and All You Ever Wanted to Know about Sex—these were the books that gave me words for my emotions and my fears. 

Maybe the books I write are appropriate. Maybe they are not. But I think it should be up to the daughters to make that decision, not the mothers. Censorship—even on a familial level—only closes doors. We may want to guard our daughters’ innocence, we may fear that giving them access to books that depict sexuality in raw and honest ways will encourage them to promiscuity, or will put ideas in their heads.

I don’t think our daughters need guardians of innocence. I think what they need is power. 

Let your daughter read my books, Concerned Mother. Read them with her. Have a conversation. Tell her your stories. Let her see your secrets, and your shames. Arm your daughter with information and experience. 

Give her power. 

Read a review of Infandous posted yesterday on Kirkus‘s website here