Reading Teen Romance: A Mother’s Intellectual Freedom Gut-Check

Censorship, Privacy

By: Kate Lechtenberg

Sweet Valley TwinsWhen I was about ten or eleven, I decided I was definitely old enough to move from Sweet Valley Twins to Sweet Valley High. Jessica and Elizabeth, those wholesome twelve-year-old Twins were getting pretty boring, and I was confident that I was ready for their high school adventures.

But I was not prepared for the moment when Bruce, the Sweet Valley bad boy, touched Elizabeth’s breast in my first foray into their high school stories.  I’m pretty sure I read and re-read that scene about twenty times, and then secreted it back to the library, hiding it from my parents, lest the find out that I had read the word breast in a book–and that I enjoyed it.

I remember feeling felt that same mixture of excitement and shame sitting in my school library, reading a steamy book about a young ballerina’s tryst with her on-stage partner.  I don’t remember the name of the book or anything else about it, but I remember clearly feeling like I was doing something wrong by reading about sex in the sixth grade. But I was curious, the books were on the shelves, and I kept reading.  And I didn’t say a word about my secret, elicit reading to anyone.

The next generation: My daughter’s reading

girl readingNow, as my own middle school daughter devours romance books online and in print, I think back to these early reading memories.  Why did I feel shame? Where did I get the idea that it was wrong for me to read those books? And why didn’t I talk to anyone about these books?

My daughter has a lot more reading choices than I do, and I’ve already had to do a gut-check more than once as I think about what kinds of books she reads. The literary snob in me that doesn’t want her to read books like Gossip Girl (which one mother called “pure smut”) and Pretty Little Liars.  Why should she waste her time on superficial characters, unrealistic dialogue, and brand name-dropping narrators?  Isn’t it my responsibility as her literary guide to show her the way to quality literature?

My feminist, anti-racist self also wants her to steer clear of these books.  They may appear to be harmless, literary fluff, but really, aren’t they just transmitting damaging misogynistic and white supremacist impressions of romance, love, and sex in which the blonde haired, white-skinned beauties dominate the social landscape while still playing into the hands of heterotrajectory that is assumed for romantic relationships?  Isn’t it my responsibility to put gender-affirming, inclusive, humanizing images of love and sex in front of my daughter?

Censorship and privacy: Mother-daughter edition

But when I think about the anti-censorship positions I hold as an educator, librarian, and scholar, suddenly I feel like I’m a hypocrite if I put any restrictions on what my daughter reads.  Shouldn’t my daughter have the right to explore literature on her own as I did? To learn to spot healthy and unhealthy relationships, and empowering and limiting images of women and men? To learn through experience, rather than through my sancti-mommy preaching to see the white male gaze in the books she reads?

Privacy protection concept, notepad with chain and padlockSo the first rule rule I consider for my daughter’s reading: let’s talk about what you’re reading.  No hiding, no lying about what you’re reading…just open communication and sunlight. We will be the perfect model of progressive mother-daughter relationships, with open communication as our guiding principle.

But… should adolescents have to share everything they read with their parents?  If I answer this question in the abstract, it’s a clear and easy no. Young people should be able to explore on their own, and in some cases, privacy from parents is essential for adolescents’ ability to explore the world, relationships, romance, and sexuality.  But since I like to think of myself as a progressive, enlightened parent, my daughter shouldn’t need privacy from me, right?  Adolescents only need privacy when their parents are close-minded or when they want to shield their kids from the real world…and that’s not me, so my daughter should have nothing to hide, right?

My mind goes so quickly to the “you don’t need privacy if you have nothing to hide” argument, that I startle myself.  That’s not an argument I should accept for my own privacy (even though in my lazy privacy-disengaged ways, I have used that argument to avoid hard questions about privacy), so why am I so quick to erase my daughter’s need for privacy?

Rules, Control, and Letting Go

As I think more about it, I realize that the rules I would consider are about me. I want clear rules that will keep me in control of and informed about my daughter’s reading life.  And while that might seem reasonable–I should be informed, right?–the more I write about this, the more I realize that I’m trying to hold onto the days when I know everything she’s doing, reading, and thinking.  

Two girls and a little girl with hands raised to meet the sunrise over the sea.  Focus on models. Shallow depth of field. Toned image.I remember how hard it was when she first went to daycare (at age 5 months!) and I had to start accepting that she did things without me, that she behaved differently when she was with other people.  That shock and loss flared up again when she went to school and started mentioning things about the world (how many teeth a shark has, or what kind of biome we live in) that I didn’t know she knew–things I didn’t teach her. Yes, I want my daughter to learn on her own, and I want her to explore the world through reading…but I can’t help but feel a sense of loss and even betrayal when I find out what she has learned without me.

In the end, I realize that this isn’t about what kinds of romance my daughter is reading at all. It’s about my mother-self clinging to my baby girl.  So instead of focusing on rules about what kinds of books she can read, what kinds of romance are “appropriate” for her, maybe I need to just focus on cultivating the kind of relationship I want to have with my daughter, and with my son (whose reading is still focused on superheros and Kwame Alexander and hasn’t worried me yet!). I can talk and support and invite as much as I want, but I probably also need to accept that as they get older, my kids will continue to grow larger and larger parts of themselves away from my influence.  And no amount of well-meaning (but fear-induced) guidance/rules/censorship of their reading will erase their independence. And I’m working on being ok with that.


Kate Lechtenberg is a doctoral candidate in Language, Literacy, and Culture in the University of Iowa’s College of Education. After working in public schools for fourteen years as a high school English teacher and school librarian, her doctoral research now focuses on text selection, multicultural literature, educational standards, and equity initiatives. Kate teaches a young adult literature course in the College of Education and a school librarian course on print and digital collection management in the School of Library and Information Science. She was also a member of the AASL Standards Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.

One thought on “Reading Teen Romance: A Mother’s Intellectual Freedom Gut-Check

  • I love the fact that you have written about this as an intellectual freedom issue! There is such a broad range of books, including series fiction, available for young adult readers today, which is a good thing, but also potentially more fraught for parents. As you wrote, the most important part is to keep the conversation open with our children. We don’t have to like everything they read, but we are their parents and we only gradually relinquish different levels of control in reading, as in everything else. Some of the dystopian nightmare books marketed today have real literary value, while others seem pretty worthless to me. It’s harder for parents now.
    I remember vividly reading biographies of famous women when I was a child, many recommended by my mother. As for the famous “malt shop” novels, some were harmless series fare, but others had an underlying message of female empowerment. I don’t consider these to be part of that genre, exactly, but Beverly Cleary’s books for middle grade and teen readers were several notches above, because they were by Beverly Cleary. They would be considered quaint relics today, but they conveyed the idea that self-esteem was more important than boys, especially when the boys were arrogant and controlling.
    My daughters never read the Sweet Valley High books, but they did love The Babysitter’s Club series, which I think will really stand the test of time on many levels.

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