Every generation of readers has one. That book. The book with racy passages. The book with the “reputation”. The naughty book.
The proliferation of Fifty Shades of Grey-that book- means that is entirely possible that at least one of my high school students will bring in copy as an independent choice reading text. Of course I will require the student choose something more age- appropriate if this particular book is being read for class credit, but there are many books that teeter on acceptable boundaries. I have had middle school students bring in copies of Twilight, Eclipse, Breaking Dawn; a series built on heart-pounding sexual teasing for three prolonged book lengths. I have seen a 10th grade student engrossed in reading Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and although I was aware of the steamy material, I saw no such reaction from the student who was being deeply exposed to Swedish misogyny. Popular culture books, particularly steamy popular culture books, are passing fads in literature.
Naughty book popularity rises and falls with readers. Every year there is some student who could be sneaking “for mature audience” materials. When I was growing up, the paperback copies of The Godfather opened automatically, like Lucy for Sonny, on page 18. Yes, Mario Puzo’s bestseller was full of quivering and pulsing, when it wasn’t violently establishing the dominance of the Corleone family. Coffee, Tea or Me? , which detailed the escapades of stewardesses during the sexual revolution, was the other “naughty” text that I remember the adults keeping out of my reach. No matter. I “borrowed” my aunt’s copy during Thanksgiving dinner and read furiously in an upstairs hallway. Hiding from the relatives celebrating the holiday, I wasn’t missed, probably because I had been seated at the “kid’s table” with at least a dozen cousins.
I also know other adults have had brief flings with inappropriate literature in their youth. I know this also, because Pamela Munoz Ryan, author of the award winning children’s book Esperanza Rising, discussed her naughty book adventure at a keynote address at the 82nd Saturday Reunion at Columbia Teacher’s College in March 2012. Opening her remarks, Ryan claimed, “to read because it’s safe and to write because it’s dangerous.” She explained how her love of stories made her choose to write, and then she shared her own “naughty book” story.
When Ryan was young, she discovered racy romance novels in the home library shelves of a Coca-Cola addicted neighbor. Ryan would return those empty soda bottles for candy money, while at the same time, she would “borrow” a copy of a torrid romance novel. She recalled one specific incident, however, involving The Valley of the Dolls, a steamy best-selling fictional account of the rich and famous. She snuck the book out of her neighbor’s house in the back waistband of her pants. At the time, she explained, the only “safe” place for reading was the town public library, and Ryan was soon holed up in a little used aisle of books pouring through the Valley of the Dolls. There, she was approached by the town librarian.
“I could not help notice how engrossed you are in reading,” said the librarian while Ryan desperately tried to hide the title of the book, “and I wondered if you ever read this book?” In her hand the librarian held a copy of Anne of Green Gables.
Ryan said she had not read the book and feeling obliged, checked it out.
“I rode home on my bike that day,” says Ryan, “with a copy of Valley of the Dolls tucked in my waistband, and a copy of Anne of Green Gables in my bicycle basket.” She paused for a moment with the recollection, “You know,” she stated to a congregation of teachers, “I have read the Valley of the Dolls only once, but I have read, reread, and revisited Anne of Green Gables many times.”
Teachers too know that a student will at some point in his or her life be exposed to reading materials that may be too mature, or too salacious, for his or her age. We can counter these sensational texts because we know what books will last, what books will transcend the effects of time, and what memorable characters will help our students as they mature and grow into adults. Students should read because, as Ryan stated, “it is safe”, and we need to encourage their reading as much as possible. We should be ready to help them make good choices, such as the classics Little Women or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. We should be ready to recommend a contemporary Esperanza Rising, The Book Thief or Dairy Queen. We must allow students a choice in their reading but look for the opportunity to suggest a more appropriate title, because we know that the Fifty Shades of Grey tucked in the backpack ,or in their waistband, is a passing fad. Great literature endures, and fortunately, Anne of Green Gables will be there for the reader.