At the Back Fence Issue #300

April 21, 2008

From the Desk of Rike Horstmann:

A Young Girl’s Introduction to Romance

My niece, who is nearly twelve, is a voracious and precocious reader. In spite of the fact that she’s bilingual (German and English) she’s perpetually out of reading matter. This Easter, while we were all staying at my parents’ house, she sneaked to the shelf where my father keeps the romances I lend to him, gave them a cursory inspection, picked Outlaw Bride by Jenna Kernan, hid in the TV room, and proceeded to read the whole novel in secret. When I came across her, she tried to hide the book, but I recognized the cover anyway. There I stood, transfixed in the middle of the room, desperately trying to remember how hot the book had been (Warm, thank heaven), how many love scenes there had been (only one, more thanks), and where they were situated (two thirds through the book – she had read them long since). So I let her finish the book in peace, but I directly went to my father’s shelf and carefully removed Distracting the Duchess by Emily Bryan and Julie Anne Long’s The Perils of Pleasure. Because I certainly don’t want my niece to read the sex scenes in these two books at age eleven and eight months. And these are still in the ‘Warm’ category! Later, when she had finished Outlaw Bride and asked for another romance, I handed herThe Toll-Gate by Georgette Heyer. My sister caught her with that and berated me for spoiling her daughter’s reading taste. I am still deeply grateful she knows nothing of the Kernan book.

This incident has led to some careful negotiations between my father and myself, and we have agreed that from now on, only romances that can be classified as ‘Kisses’ or ‘Subtle’ will be shelved where my niece can access them, and all that contain more detailed sex scenes will go to another, hidden shelf. Because there is not way to keep that girl away from the printed word. Forbidding her to read a certain novel will only whet her appetite, and, as we have learned, she will read in secret what she fears her mother will disapprove of.

On the whole, I regard my niece’s use of duplicity and stealth in acquiring new reading material with a sort of amused tolerance, because I was just like this myself, at almost the same age. My own career as a romance reader started with Breakfast at Six by Mary Scott, a New Zealand author who was very popular in Germany in the 1970s. (Interestingly enough, there’s a German Wikipedia entry about her, but not an English one.) My friend’s mum had a whole collection of Mary Scott novels, and I used to hide in their living-room while the other children were playing outside and read every single book in secret. I also read romances that were considered suitable for youngsters: Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy; Astrid Lindgren’s Kati in Paris and Kati in Italy; and Elizabeth Goudge’s City of Bells. My favorite aunt gave me Kilgaren by Isabelle Holland for Christmas, my first romantic suspense. And I must have been twelve when my mother, weary of my pestering when we’d go to the library again, handed me my first Georgette Heyer novel. My father owned them all, and I devoured every single volume. In the municipal library and in the bookshops I haunted, I discovered Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Gwen Bristow and Anya Seton, a year or two later Carola Salisbury, Phyllis A. Whitney, Constance Heaven, Jane Aiken Hodge, and Clare Darcy.

As all of these romance novels were comparatively harmless in the sex and violence department, my parents were able to let me read them without a single concern, and they never made the slightest attempt to censor my reading matter. I did not read Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s Shanna until I was fifteen, and Rosemary Rogers’s The Wildest Heart until I was sixteen, and although I enjoyed the former, I was disgusted with the combination of sex and violence in the latter, and this effectively turned me off bodice rippers. My parents’ only worry about my romance reading 25 years ago was that my taste in literature might suffer – actually, that was my mother’s worry (and wasn’t she right!). My father simply read the romances I had taken out from the library, and discussed their merits with me. He never tried to curtail my reading then, but faced with his granddaughter reading Outlaw Bride now, he instantly agreed that we should try to prevent her from laying hands on the sexier romances for the time being.

My niece is aware of how sex functions theoretically – in Germany almost all children know about where babies come from and how they are conceived from children’s reference books, often picture books with titles like We Are Having a Baby, and parents speak about these matters with their children openly. So what I am trying to keep her safe from?

My father’s main argument for censoring her reading is that he doesn’t want to see her imagination spoilt as regards sexuality. My own main argument is similar, but with a slight shift in emphasis: I don’t want her to develop too many false expectations. Sex scenes in romances, for all the variety possible in this field, tend to be sadly stereotypical. In addition, they are often so Guinness-World-Records-worthy that even as a grown-up, sexually experienced reader, you need a good deal of self-confidence, sexually, not to permit yourself to be placed under pressure by all the sexual perfection / adventurousness depicted, but instead remain aware of the utter artificiality of these scenes. So – no, I don’t want my niece to expect she will experience orgasm during her first sexual intercourse, nor that it is her partner’s duty to give her one. I don’t want her to speculate more than she will anyway how a penis can fit into her vagina. I don’t want her to consider only a man who gives her oral sex during their first encounter a good lover. There are several sexual techniques I would prefer her not to know about at all until let’s say she’s twenty, and definitely not to learn about them through books she gets from me. Instead, I would wish her to experience in the field of sexuality (in a few year’s time, that is) without too many fixed expectations in her head.

My niece doesn’t visit my house too often, but what I am to do during her next visit? She usually sleeps in my study, which doubles as a guest-room, and where all my romances are shelved. Forbidding her to touch the romances is pointless, and I wouldn’t want to do that anyway. What I will do is both steer her towards the other bookcases in my study – YA, fantasy, mystery, classics – and, back in the romance department, try to point out some romances I am sure she would enjoy. Still, I can’t expect her to stick to those, not when there are several bookcases to explore.

So what else I will do, is cull my collection, and hide some of the sexier books in a box in the basement (artfully rearranging the shelves so that my niece doesn’t guess my subterfuge, naturally). What will have to go? Passion by Lisa Valdez, even more for the Patience teaser at the back of the book with its initiation to dominance/submission than the novel proper. Elizabeth Hoyt. The Malloren series by Jo Beverley and some of her Company of Rogues books. Several Mary Balogh novels. Candice Hern historicals. Eloisa James, at least during the next couple of visits. My niece usually stays for a couple of days, so at least it’s worth the effort hiding all these books. Am I ridiculous in planning to go to all this effort? I do not know, but I love my niece fiercely, and I would not want to see her harmed in any way through anything that belongs to me, even if it’s my beloved romance novels.

As I was (and am) still fairly overwhelmed by this new development in my own family, I got curious about others’ experiences in similar situations, and asked my AAR colleagues about theirs. Their answers gave some fascinating insight into how this is dealt with in other families.

With one exception, all who came to reading romances as a preteen or young teen did their first reading in secret, although most say now that their parents would not have curtailed their reading anyway. In some instances, as young readers they censored themselves. Andi much enjoyed love subplots in horror stories, but didn’t turn to romance proper, because “I definitely knew about the social stigma concerning romance novels, so I had no desire to read them.” Blythe “read romance here and there as a teen, but was put off by the idea that they weren’t for ‘smart people.’ It took me years to decide that smart people could read whatever the hell they wanted.”

The first authors my colleagues either read themselves or gave to young girls are an astonishing mixture! Many started with books that were already considered classics by the 1970s, like Pride and Prejudice and Gone With the Wind, novels by Maysie Grieg, Barbara Cartland, Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart. Others’ first experiences with romance were with books that were groundbreakers then and are considered classics now, like Woodiwiss’ The Wolf and the Dove and A Rose in Winter or Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Rachel points out that “the early 80s was an excellent time to be discovering trad Regencies. Catherine Coulter, Joan Wolf, Elizabeth Mansfield, Clare Darcy – the shelves were full of finds.” Johanna Lindsey, Jude Deveraux (The Raider), Charlotte Lamb (Dreaming) and Meg Cabot (She Went All the Way) are named as first romance authors encountered by other AAR staff. Jane remembers reading her “sister’s books which ran heavily in the Rosemary Rogers/Harold Robbins mode – in other words very adult”, but adds that she’s surprised that even though she had read all of those wildly dramatic books, the one she most remembers was Blue Ribbon Romance by Jane S. McIlvaine. She continues, “It was a YA book about a girl named Copper. She’s a regular girl who loves to ride horses and she ends up beguiling Fowler Wainbridge III with her skills. The book was a reprint of a 50’s book with all that entails and I loved it. Still have a copy long after the Rogers and Robbins books disappeared from my shelves.”

But should preteens be protected to some extent from unsuitable scenes in some romances? Here, opinions differ widely. Heather is quite pragmatic about it: “I don’t have a problem with pre-teens reading romance…at least they’re reading. If it’s out in the open, then it can be discussed when issues do arise. I don’t think the sex in romance is an issue for most and I don’t think they hurt self-image, or make later relationships unrealistic.” Lee offers a similar viewpoint, adding, “I think it’s impossible to prevent children from reading or viewing anything that we may not think proper for them to be aware of at that age. So maybe suggesting some books the child might like is a good idea, but on the other hand, telling her ‘this was my favorite book when I was your age’ may turn her off. It’s better to have books on an open shelf and let kids pick and choose their own books, although perhaps not all your favorites.” Our other Jane, Jane G, on the other hand, thinks that “generally preteen girls should stick to young adult books – or, if they do venture into adult romances, they should have a ‘mentor’ of sorts, someone to guide them, direct them to good books and good authors, and keep the sensuality below ‘warm.’ Certainly some girls can handle it … but others just aren’t ready for the hot sex. If you don’t know where to look, it’s easy to pick up a book and get much more than you expected, whether you’re an adult or a child.”

What do love scenes in romances mean for young readers? Jane, who read Rosemary Rogers and Harold Robbins as a child, recalls: “Much in those books was ‘too mature’ for me, but I just read past those parts. If I wasn’t familiar with something or didn’t understand it, I just kept reading for the story and relationships and ignored the things that were beyond my ken. Because of that I’ve always been of the opinion that kids should just be left alone to read.” Although Laurie didn’t read Rogers, she did “borrow” Harold Robbins, Sidney Sheldon, and Judith Krentz from her mother as a young teen. Nothing she read about – aside from “poppers” that were prevalent in the Robbins’ books – was something she’d not heard about in Southern California in the 1970s. She admits, though, that she made some mistakes with her own teen, who ferreted out books she thought she’d hidden fairly well, and took fairly drastic measures to keep that from happening again.

Looking back at my own reactions to reading love scenes, I remember that I found them embarrassing and tended to over read them. With my very first Georgette Heyer novels, at age twelve, that even included the kisses at the end! For other young readers, romances provided some kind of sex education. Carolyn says: “I know, that for me, reading about it kind of satisfied some curiosity about the subject.” Kate goes a step further and emphasizes the positive light in which romances show sex: “By the time girls are twelve, they pretty much have all the knowledge anyway. I think it’s really positive for them to read about sex in the context of love, instead of just as a marketing ploy or power game. The concept that women can enjoy sex, and that it is a natural part of a healthy relationship just isn’t taught enough. Instead it seems to swing from something to be feared to something that can be used to get what you want. That’s…uh…not to suggest that I’d be handing my daughter Joey Hill. “

Our other Kate – Kate G – didn’t read her first romance in secret, but instead was initiated to romance as part of a family tradition. “I hated to read and would only do so for school. Finally it was the summer I was going into high school and my mother sat me down because she was so worried. She asked me to try just one book,” she wrote, which her mother had given to her at age thirteen, adding, “This book took my mother a week to read. She went to the library and took it out for me and when I was done, no pressure, we would discuss and even rent the movie to watch together. That book was Gone with the Wind and I finished it in three days!” She recalls that after finishing the book, her mom rented the movie and she watched it with both her parents. And from that moment on, Kate G was hooked…mainly on romance. She continues, “My mother happened to buy two Harlequin Romances thinking, ‘hey, it is some sort of romance, Kate will read it.'” At that point there was no turning back. Kate still owns those Harlequins and GWTW ranks in her her give all-time favorite keepers, and she cannot conceive of being without a book nearby. And if she has a daughter, she plans to continue the family tradition.

Questions to Consider:

Those of you who started to read romances as a teen or even preteen, what were the first authors and novels you read?

Those who have daughters/nieces/granddaughters/best friend’s daughters whose early steps towards romance reading you have observed or even guided, which titles and authors did you recommend then? Were there any romances you steered the youngsters away from?

Those of you who live with children, where do you keep your hot romances? And how do you prevent your children from reading what they shouldn’t?

Do you think it reasonable to try to shield a preteen from reading too explicit love scenes? Which sort of love scenes do you consider suitable for an almost twelve-year-old girl?

Which of the authors publishing at present would you recommend for a young teen or preteen who is just starting to read romances?

Rike Horstmann

(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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