If you’ve read this blog before, you know that childhood and books are two of my favorite topics. So a while back, I had the idea to do a guest-post series that would combine the two. I asked several writers to think back over their childhood and adolescence, and write about a book that helped them grow.
Today, I’m thrilled to kick off the series with a post by Pamela Jay Gottfried. Pamela is a rabbi, blogger, and wears many other hats as well (see her complete bio at the end of the post). She writes about being in middle school and wanting to read a “daring” book, and what she learned from her mother’s response. Thank you, Pamela!
It seems like forever ago.
I am in seventh grade, and everyone is reading Judy Blume’s new book, Forever. We are reading in class—hiding the paperback edition inside our textbooks and pretending to pay attention to our teacher at the front of the room. Aimed at older readers, the book contains explicit descriptions of a teenaged couple’s first sexual encounter. It is 1977, and the publication of Forever has stirred up a fair amount of controversy.
I am 11 years old. An early and voracious reader, I skipped second grade, so I’m more than a year younger than all of my classmates. I am simultaneously unprepared to rebel against my parents and desperate to fit in with my sophisticated peers. Most girls I know are reading this book without their parents’ consent, but I can’t imagine sneaking around school with a contraband copy.
My mom, who is completing her MA in Education at Monmouth and preparing to be a student teacher at my school, possesses a professional interest in which books Middle School kids are currently reading. Soon after Forever becomes a cultural phenomenon, my mom sits me down for a heart to heart. More than 35 years later I cannot recount her exact words, but I recall her earnest tone of voice; I can hear her desire to be an open-minded, modern mother.
My mom tells me that she knows many of my friends are reading this book against their parents’ wishes, and reassures me that she doesn’t believe in censoring my reading choices. She has already purchased a copy of Forever and will permit me to read it. But she wants to read it first, in case I am confused by its content. Then, if I have any questions at all, I can ask her.
I don’t tell her that I’m not going to have any questions. I know about the mechanics of sex. When I was four and wondered where my brother came from, she gave me an age-appropriate book to read. And I’d read Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret a year earlier, long before I could relate to Margaret’s yearning to grow breasts. I realize that I may not be ready to read about Katherine losing her virginity, but I feel confident that I’m not going to discuss Forever with my mom.
Long after I’ve forgotten the details of the book’s plot, I remember our having this conversation before we both read it. At the time, I was unaware of how significant this moment was in my early adolescence. Today, as a mother of two teenaged daughters, I am struck not only that my mom granted me permission to read Forever, but also that she recognized and validated my desire to do so. Whenever I face similar circumstances with my own girls, I remember being in seventh grade, listening to my open-minded, modern mom take a stand against censorship. Her approach to the Forever controversy continues to influence me as a parent.
Pamela Jay Gottfried is a rabbi, parent, teacher, artist and the author of Found in Translation: Common Words of Uncommon Wisdom. She credits her love of words to her parents, who encouraged her to develop her vocabulary through reading and using the dictionary at an early age. Connect with her at www.pamelagottfried.com.