When My Mother Dared to Let Me Choose My Own Books

“I do not believe that any book should be denied to the man who possesses the wisdom to understand it, Bruno, but that does not mean I am confused about where truth lies.”
~S.J. Parris, Heresy

The summer I turned 11 was a turning point for me. As an author who opposes censorship and advocates for our many freedoms, that summer is etched in my mind. It was the summer my mother trusted my decisions. It was the summer I experienced the positive outcome of a freedom to read what I chose. It was the summer that had a lasting impact on my life, values, and beliefs.

As we prepared to enter middle school, my friends all opted for a big summer camp finale which left me to a long and boring summer alone. Having read all my library books, I rummaged through the basement in search of books or games cast off by my sisters. They were 6, 8, and 11 years older. I found several that looked promising, but one was especially intriguing. When Debbie Dared. The hardback book had no dust jacket so there was no book summary. I read a few pages, as the school librarian had taught us, and it seemed interesting. A girl moves during the summer and hopes to make a few friends before she begins Jr. High.

DebbieDaredI took the book to my mother. “Is it okay for me to read this?” I asked.

She was preparing a cup of tea, something she’d done at this time of afternoon—our former nap time—for decades though we were all long out of preschool. Glancing at the book she said, “Looks like it belonged to one of your sisters.”

I nodded. “Found it in the basement. It’s called When Debbie Dared.” I paused. No reaction. “So, can I read it?”

She studied me for a moment and took a sip of tea. “Why couldn’t you? Did you read a few pages?”

“Yes. The girl in the story is a little older, going into Jr. High. What’s Jr. High?”

“It’s similar to middle school. Jr. High included grades 7-9. Grade 6 was still in elementary.” I wrinkled my nose thinking that I’d still be in elementary next year with this set-up. “Your eldest two sisters went to Jr. High, but then they restructured the grades.”

I thought about that and looked at the book, wondering what Debbie dares doing?

Mom calmly watched me, sipping her tea and unwinding. “So tell me, why do you think you shouldn’t read it?”

“Well, the title—When Debbie Dared. There’s no summary.” I showed her the blank back of the book. “I don’t really know what it’s about.”

“What do you think it’s about?”

I shrugged.

“What do you think the ‘dare’ is about?”

My throat tightened. Again I shrugged. “I don’t know. Do you remember?”

Mom laughed. “Honey, I probably never read that book. If I did, or if your sisters told me about it, it was so long ago, I don’t recall.” She patted my hand. “What do you think? Why are you worried about this?”

“I don’t know. What if . . . what if it’s about . . . about dating or . . . or sex?”

illustration by Stephanie Piro

illustration by Stephanie Piro

I could tell this was something she hadn’t considered. But, in hindsight, how would my sisters have read a book about such things? The book had to be about a decade old, give or take a few years.

“I see,” Mom said, then sipped her tea. “Why don’t we do this? You read the book and if you get to any parts where you think you shouldn’t read it, then stop. Or, if you get to parts you don’t understand, bring it to me and we can read it together and talk about it.”

“Really?”

“Really.” She patted my hand and I ran off to read, my conscience greatly unburdened.

During the next day or so I read and gave her the plot summary. Sure, the story was outdated but I enjoyed it. It turned out the big decision Debbie needed to make was about shoplifting. She wanted friends before school started and two popular girls befriended her. But, to prove her loyalty to them, she was supposed to steal a bracelet from a jewelry store in town. She agonized over it, but in the end stood up to her so-called friends.

Later Mom noticed I was sprawled on the couch reading a different book. “Did you get to a part in the other book and stop reading?”

“No. Finished it.”

“So, what was Debbie’s dare?”

“Shoplifting a bracelet. She didn’t.”

Mom moved my legs to make room for herself on the couch. “So, do you plan to shoplift now?”

I put my book down and scoffed. “No. Debbie stood up to her friend. I liked that. Now I know how I could do the same thing if someone tries to get me to do something I don’t want to do.”

Mom patted my leg as she got up. “You know, you can always come to me if you don’t understand something you read, or hear, or see somewhere.”

“I know. Thanks, Mom.” She kissed my forehead. “That title was pretty unfair, though. It wasn’t what I expected at all.”

She smiled. “But it got you to read it, didn’t it?”

She was right. And I learned something from that book that stayed with me until this day. And, itt did help me say “no” when pressured to smoke cigarettes or try drugs or whatever. And if my friends didn’t respect that, then I knew they weren’t really my friends.

We-should-have-the-right-to-think-for-ourselves-540x720

quote by ALA President Roberta Stevens

Most importantly, because my mother was brave enough to allow me to read that book—when neither of us knew what it was about—she gave me an opportunity to learn and to grow. She trusted me to choose. What if she had denied me that right? Worse, what if someone else—a stranger somewhere—had made that decision for me? And that’s why I advocate against censorship, against taking away such a right. We have no idea how and when our fellow readers are ready to deal with the ideas presented through the intellectual property of authors. Everyone should have the right to choose his or her own reading material. Stand up for this right.

Yes, children are impressionable but their parents—not any other parents or teachers or adults—are responsible for monitoring their child’s reading material. This idea is supported by the “Library Bill of Rights” (the American Library Association’s basic policy concerning access to information) which states that:

“Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents—and only parents—have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children—and only their children—to library resources.” Censorship by librarians of constitutionally protected speech, whether for protection or for any other reason, violates the First Amendment.

Censorship by anybody, violates the First Amendment.

To learn more about challenged and banned books, visit the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom page.

Learning from your Published work

My writing clients and workshop participants constantly want to know what I did to get where I am. I know they hope there is an easier way to reach their publication goals; there isn’t. It comes down to this: the more you write, the more you learn, and that combines toward your first publication credits. It doesn’t end there, of course; you’ll continue writing and learning.

MS-editAs I teach/coach, I draw on nearly 30 years of publishing experience, but I was in the “pre-publication” trenches for some time before that. When I look back, I see two things I did that rocketed my skills toward publication: 1) learning to read with a writer’s eye, and  2) learning from the editorial changes made to my writing.

Obviously, the latter was a result of the former. The key detail here is ‘continuing to learn’ and reading my own published work, comparing it to the manuscript I had submitted, and learning from those  changes. This is what made the difference.

This “issue” of editorial changes has come up many time over the 20 years I’ve been coaching and teaching writers. It is often in the form of complaints: “They edited my final paragraph” or “they rearranged my article–the paragraphs are all over the place” or “how can they change words/phrasing without checking with me?”

In response, I tsk tsk and shake my finger. “Did you not listen during the marketing segment?” I want to shout. “I did cover this in class.” Then I calmly remind them that magazines and websites work to a serial schedule and have a layout to fill. Time and space is vital. Was your cut paragraph due to space? Was your phrasing changed because you failed to edit empty words or echos? Does the “rearranged” text have better flow? Did you study the publication’s audience before the final edit and change words/phrasing that might be offensive, or too difficult for the target audience (this mainly for children’s authors)?

Tight schedules and contract terms (these vary and depend on the rights you sold) for magazines/online publications warrant editors doing their jobs and tweaking your prose to fit target audience, publication mission, and layout/space. Major changes are often passed by the author first, but not always.

Read-magazineThe best thing to do is to stop griping and look at these changes. What can you learn from them? Early in my career I was lucky enough to submit repeatedly to a small girls’ magazine and the editor really liked my writing. She provided a brief explanation for editorial changes when she sent my first contributor copies and check. It amounted to: “make every word count.” In comparing the manuscript I sent with the version that appeared in print, I realized helping verbs were replaced with strong, specific verbs. Adverbs were cut and again, specific phrasing that showed (not told) replaced them. My next effort was more polished and this editor went on to purchase many articles from me during the next few years. These credits opened doors to larger and better paying markets.

Something similar happened to a former workshop participant and writing friend, Cheryl. She contacted me to “catch up” on what she’d accomplished since taking my local writing classes. I celebrated her publishing credits and her gig writing blogs and articles on insurance for an industry site. But, she had a new issue: after a nice run, a change in editors resulted in Cheryl hardly recognizing her own articles.

I shared my story and made this suggestion: Try to back up to see the full picture. Read the heavily-edited posts from the publication’s perspective. What can you learn about the handling of the topic that might help you with the next batch of articles/blogs?

She did this and was able to see how the content changed. And, she noticed the blogs had been edited to be much shorter. This prompted her to contact the new editor. She also wrote her next submission to follow this new “format” it seemed they were using. It happened that their scope was changing and they were simply working with what she sent them. It seemed that during the change in her “handler/editor” no one thought to tell her that site’s scope was changing. But, they loved the new “sample” article and, based on that style, they said “it was much more what they are looking for.” Her motivation is back, and they are even more impressed with her writing skills.

pile-magsThis connects with another important skill for freelance writers: looking carefully at sample articles, stories on sites you plan to submit manuscripts to, or reading recent issues of magazines. Note the style, format of articles, and length for clues. You’ll then do your final edit with these in mind before hitting “send” on your submission. The more you write, the more you learn, and the better your chances at publication.