So I’m sitting on the train the other morning, minding my own business, my nose in a copy of Ellen Hopkins’ latest, Tricks. If you don’t know who the best-selling author Hopkins is, it’s because you don’t have a teenager in the house. Her utterly captivating books take on controversial and painful subject matter — abuse, drug use, family tragedy — in a most unusual form: They’re written in blank verse. I know you’re thinking, Yeah, right, what self-respecting teenager is going to read a novel written in free verse? The answer is: lots of them. I witnessed it first hand when my oldest daughter, then 13 or so, fell in love with Sonya Sones’ What My Mother Doesn’t Know, also written in free verse, and now I’m seeing it again with Hopkins, whose unadorned, unfettered narratives are very, very powerful.
But back to the train the other morning. I was lost in a copy of Tricks — which tackles teen prostitution — when I was startled back into reality by a woman from my town I know by sight, not by name. “I would never let my daughters read that,” she practically spat. “Do you know what she writes about?” I regarded her for a moment and said mildly, “You know, I don’t believe in censoring books.” “That’s your choice, of course, but I personally wouldn’t want my girls knowing any of this,” she replied. Honey, I thought to myself, I bet they already know most of it. But — and feel free to call me a coward — I didn’t say any of this her. (It’s just not worth it with some people.) I simply let myself get lost in the book’s lyricism again.
“As For My Body
It’s battered, scraped, bruised. The Tears
of Zion shift looks about a hundred years old.
I did spend a few bucks at the Salvation Army.
Bought a used skirt, two tank tops. Underwear.
I hate to think who used them, why they gave
them away. But they only cost a dime apiece.
I stink, too. I’ve managed four or five showers,
when the man of the hour wanted to spring for
a motel room. More often, it’s the seat of his car.
Quick and easy, five minutes or less. No emotion.
No pain. And the weirdest thing is, I’m not
the least bit embarrassed about doing it any more.
That’s the worst part. That, and when my brain
insists on remembering Andrew. Thinking
about how he held me, rained his love down
all around me, brings devouring pain.
So I’ll think instead about the coming night, where
I might peddle the remaining tatters of my soul.”
Okay: Literature it’s not. But I completely understand why teens would want to read it. Books are a way to get information. I’ve written about this topic before, right after I found a Gossip Girl paperback tumbling out of my daughter Maddie’s backpack. That was years ago: She was in middle school when that column came out, and she’ll be leaving for college next summer. She and her sister are practically grown. But in the intervening years, my take on teens and books hasn’t changed. Yes, kids might — in the case of Gossip Girl — be spending way too much time reading about the shopping habits of morally challenged New Yorkers. Or they might be reading about crack addicts or domestic abuse or teen pregnancy, maybe all in the same book. One of my girls recently finished Amy Efaw’s After, about a straight-A student and soccer star who doesn’t realize she’s pregnant until she delivers (and then she stuffs the baby in the trash). But what of it? God knows I learned a lot of things from books, starting with Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret when I was 8 or 9 and moving into my mother’s Literary Guild Main Selections (principally Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight) and then into Jaws and The Godfather. When I was 16 or 17 I found my parents’ “secret” stash (The Happy Hooker, The Joy of Sex). And who remembers Jean Auel’s prehistoric porn, Clan of the Cave Bear?
What about you? Did you do the same thing? Do you have rules for your teenagers and the books they read?