What makes a book “good” or “bad?”
I was an English major in college, so technically I know the answer to that question, but when you really get right down to it, how does one determine whether a book is a worthy of someone’s time? Whether or not it is “good” for them to be reading it?
My 13-year-old daughter recently came home from school upset because her English teacher said she needed to bring a book with her to read during free reading time.
I was a perplexed by this. My daughter lives and breathes books. When she was in kindergarten her babysitter taught her how to hula hoop. Two days later, she figured out a way to hula hoop while holding a book. Reading has never been her problem. Reading too much? Maybe.
When I asked her why this upset her, she said she couldn’t read what she wanted to read.
“It has to be a ‘good’ book,” she said, eyes rolling.
I knew where her teacher was coming from. She wants to get her students out of their comfort zones and expose them to the vast possibilities that books hold.
But I also felt my daughter’s pain. In her mind, that meant no more books like Secrets of My Hollywood Life or Best Friends For Never. She felt like she had to toss all of those out in favor of Catcher in the Rye.
I knew all too well how it felt to want to read “bad” books. It started in junior high for me, too.
My mom had a shelf of books downstairs in our family room just to the left of our electric typewriter. Two rows of thin white spines with red-tipped pages….Harlequin Presents.
The authors seemed to be the stars. Their names were bigger than the titles of the books, their glamour accentuated by an exotic font that brought to mind places like Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana.” That font promised things only known to mature, worldly women ‑ intrigue, opulence, sex ‑ things a 12-year-old girl growing up in the middle of a cornfield felt she would never fully understand. It was a powerful font.
Those books had been sitting on that shelf for years, mostly ignored by me. The covers had sketches of women with feathered hair and men with neckerchiefs and mustaches. I hated the mustaches. They made me think of Magnum P.I. and his hairy legs in those short shorts. I put the books back and returned to Little Women and Anne of Green Gables.
A few years later, my hormones arrived, and at just the right time in pop history, too. New Kids on the Block had just come on the scene. Kirk Cameron was gracing the covers of Teen Beat, and Patrick Swayze was making my little heart ga-gung all over the place. I was primed for romance.
Dog-eared copies of V.C. Andrews novels had been making the rounds in my junior high for a while. Some helpful eighth grader had even underlined the dirty passages for quick reference. I gave them a shot, but they weren’t for me. While the stories were definitely titillating, they were also completely terrifying. There was too much incest and rat poison.
My mom’s romance novels were just the right speed. They were a surefire way to get all the titillation I needed without any of the rat poison.
I don’t remember the first one I read. But it wasn’t long before I found myself going back to that bookshelf again and again.
Like any good aficionado, I developed a process. When selecting a book, I would methodically pull the books out one by one and study the covers to see if the main characters fit my stringent list of desirable physical characteristics (mainly no mustaches).
If those characteristics were met, I would flip them over and read the plot descriptions on the back like I was a connoisseur of fine wines. What was I in the mood for? A little light intrigue? A nurse in love with her doctor? A marriage of convenience? Oh, yes, that would do nicely.
Marriages of convenience were my favorites. The two main characters were bound to end up in bed together at some point. Even if it didn’t lead to sex, it might lead to a little French kissing (unless it was a red Silhouette Desire, then the couple would definitely be having sex, and in places that seemed unfathomable to my adolescent mind … like the shower).
The beauty of these books was that they were short. I could finish one in a day or two and move on to the next one. But soon my appetite had exceeded my supply. I had worked my way through all the facial-hair-free books in my mom’s collection. I needed to find a new source. But where?
Babysitting gigs usually turned out to be fruitful. Most of the moms had a stash somewhere, even if it was just one or two. The trick was to try and read them in one sitting. You didn’t know when you would be babysitting next and you definitely couldn’t ask the mom to borrow it. Then she would know you were rifling around her nightstand. So you put the kids to bed early and prayed the parents stayed out late.
Cutting short games of Candy Land so I could read erotic fiction didn’t go unnoticed by the kiddos. They ratted me out and my babysitting jobs dried up.
That left the library. Once I located the romance section, it was surprisingly easy. I would just slip one or two between a couple of Sweet Valley High or Babysitter’s Club books and then not make eye contact with the librarian while she was checking out my books.
For almost all of seventh grade, I spent every free moment wrapped up in a world where it was totally plausible for a man to fake a marriage with a woman he just met to prevent his dying mother from finding out his real marriage to a woman his mother never met didn’t work out.
I was having a love affair with reading, and it was exciting. It was the first time in my life I had stayed up until 2 a.m. to find out how a story ended, and it was the first time books made me cry. Beth dying in Little Women hadn’t even done that.
Things got a little sticky toward the end of the school year. Through an odd twist of fate, my oldest brother was my reading teacher, and one of the requirements for his class was to turn in book reports on any outside reading we had done. My plan had been to read one Babysitter’s Club or Sweet Valley High book for every romance novel I read and write reports on them.
This plan would have worked if I had actually read any Babysitters Club or Sweet Valley High books. I didn’t turn in a single book report for almost a whole year.
When my mom found out, she made me write book reports on every romance novel I had read. My cheeks burned with embarrassment as I wrote out character descriptions and plot points. It was like turning in a report on something you had read in Playgirl.
To my brother’s credit, he didn’t bat an eye. He gave me half credit for the reports since they were late and never said a word about it.
Looking back, I have to wonder, was it a “bad” thing for me to read these books? Maybe. Once, I was in a car with a boy I had a crush on. It was snowing and the car went into a shallow ditch. I thought “Ok, this is it. He will offer me his coat, he will take me into his arms…” That didn’t happen. He didn’t even ask if I was ok. He jumped out into the snow bank and started stomping around and getting really angry. Then he asked me to get out and help him push the car out of the ditch.
So, they might have set me up for some unrealistic expectations when it came to boys.
But the books weren’t altogether bad. For instance, I learned there are a variety of ways to describe the different stages of arousal, such as “heaving pillows of downy, white flesh” and “throbbing manhood.” They also taught me new things about the world, like a man with a mustache is capable of love.
More importantly, I was reading something every day, and this is a habit that has stuck with me. Romance novels gave me a genuine love for reading. They paved the way for me to read books by Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen. Later it was other strong female voices like Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, Margaret Atwood, and Toni Morrison. Yet, even amidst all this “good” writing, I still snuck in a romance novel every once in a while. Because I think there is room for both.
Do I think kids should be challenged? Absolutely. But should we make reading feel like work? Should we shame kids for wanting to read something other than a Newbery Award winner? No. I think we forget that books can be fun. They don’t have to be serious, or even all that well written. If they entertain you, then they are doing their job.