I’ve always been a voracious reader. One of my earliest memories is of being 3 years old, locking myself in the closet of our Newport, RI, Navy-issued townhouse, trying to sound out the words of The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes while my twin sister pounded on the door demanding that I read to her.
She caught up a few days later, but that’s how it’s always been between the two of us. One would learn something from our parents; the other would learn from the one who learned it first.
At 5 we raced through the Little House series. At 7 it was Jo and Laurie who captured my attention (Team Jo all the way!) And at 8, it was all about Anne of Green Gables. We read the entire series in a summer, and I suppose looking back now, I could say that Rilla of Ingleside was the first book I read with major adult themes. It’s a brilliant story of Anne and Gilbert’s youngest daughter becoming a woman in the midst of World War I. The fact that Kevin Sullivan ruined this story after portraying Anne and Gil so faithfully in the first two movies staring Megan Followes and Jonathan Crombie is something that simply cannot be forgiven.
But at 8, that didn’t matter. I just didn’t get the true romance of the last chapter. Yeah, the war sucked, and Rilla was on her own, but it wasn’t until I re-read the books as a college sophomore that I knew, I knew, it was something so incredibly special that I hold it up as the pinnacle of emotionally satisfying endings.
So, technically, it wasn’t my first “adult” book.
That came when I was eleven. Sadly, the teacher’s name escapes me, but this is how her English class worked…on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, we’d do “English,” a subject that was truly ironic because we were in a Department of Defense school in Italy at the time. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we’d either alternate through a group-read of something our teacher had chosen or silent reading of our own choosing. We were in sixth grade, so she was still navigating through such standard fare as The Westing Game.
This was the (very) late ’80s, mind you. Butterfly collars and all that nonsense. While I wasn’t stupid enough to bring a Sweet Valley High book into the classroom (that, not being considered one of the “approved” books), I thought that a classic tome of 1600s New England adultery seemed like something that might have been okay.
When she saw what I was reading, my normally mild-mannered English teacher snatched it out of my hands. “Does your mother know you’re reading this?” she demanded.
Considering I was already pretty far into it, and she bought it for me, yeah she did. I wasn’t going to incur any more unexpected wrath by pointing that out, though. “Yes, ma’am.”
“And she’s okay with this???”
She’d made a phone call home to make sure — a considerable expense considering that phones in Italy were a rarity I didn’t fully comprehend until later — and the next self-reading day I was back in the classroom with Hester. Once I finished it, I got why she might have been a little concerned. After all, I was 11, now. Thanks to years of sneaking All My Children on days when I was home sick from school, I was considerably more worldly than I was at 8. Still, I enjoyed the book. I cared about Hester and Pearl, and I remember that book report being one of the best I ever wrote. Mostly, because I wanted to prove to my teacher that, yes, I was old enough to understand the subject matter.
And when I showed up later with Wuthering Heights, she didn’t even bat an eye.