A is for Anal, in the back door.
Mommy must love it, she cries out: “More, more!”
So yeah, way, way, way over the line for a kids’ book, right? In fact so far over the line that one can’t even see the line any more. But apart from this rather obvious example, where does one draw the line when it comes to sexual topics in children’s books?
A little background. While visiting my mom this summer (in whose home, incidentally, my old bedroom is exactly as I left it when I went off to college, not sure if that’s creepy or comforting), I re-discovered piles of my favorite pre-teen novels. Things like The Magic Tunnel, The Door in the Wall, Escape to Witch Mountain, and Lost Race of Mars. I read through bunches of these and most of them I loved just as much now as I had decades ago. (In fact, I was so inspired that I mapped out a middle grade novel for me and Nik to write. But that’s a topic for another post. And I should probably mention it to Nik at some point…)
The kid-book joy fest came to an abrupt halt, though, when I got to Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters, a companion book to her absolutely fantastic A Wrinkle in Time.
Now I’m not a prude by any means, as some of you may have gathered from past posts, but allusions to topless women, virginity (or lack thereof), prostitution, and the exile of menstruating women, all in a kids’ book? I cringed.
Many Waters follows the story of the 15 year-old Murry twins, Sandy and Dennys, who accidentally propel themselves back in time to Biblical days while messing around in their parents’ laboratory. That part’s okay, and in fact I adore middle grade scifi stories. But the allusions to sexual development, sexual promiscuity, and sexual intercourse seem not only inappropriate for readers of this age level (10-12 years), but also completely unnecessary to the story line.
Here’s what I mean.
First off, pretty much all of the characters, male and female, wear only leather loincloths. I don’t really have a problem with that, except that L’Engle, on more than one occasion, provides what seem to be unnecessary descriptions of the various breasts: “small rosy breasts”; “delicate and rosy breasts”; “rosy breasts”; etc. (Odd, actually, how the breasts seem to maintain their rosiness despite the desert sun - perhaps a touch of sunburn?)
Second, there’s a running reference to virginity. You see, unicorns exist back then, but don’t allow non-virgins to touch them. L’Engle doesn’t offer a definition of a virgin (thank goodness!), but on more than one occasion, a recently married male character proudly interjects (needlessly, in my opinion) into the conversation that he isn’t able to touch the unicorns. Um, good on you, Japheth, the wife’s putting out nicely, apparently. And then there’s Tiglah, an unmarried female, whose father and brothers seem to think it’s a hoot when a unicorn backs away from her touch in a show of sparks:
The men roared with laughter. “Ho, Tiglah, you thought you could fool us, didn’t you?”
Third, speaking of Tiglah, “her beauty is for sale,” which the twins pick up on quickly (although don’t take her up on her offer). Says Dennys to his brother, “Tiglah is what the kids at school would call an easy lay.” And later,
(Tiglah, to Sandy): “You recognized my voice!”
(Sandy, to himself): “No, your smell, you slut”
Yeah, the word “slut” in a kids’ book. Yikes.
Finally, there are the completely needless references to the exile of menstruating females to the “women’s tent.” L’Engle doesn’t explain why they’re banished. Presumably to suffer for mankind, eat chocolate, and bitch about men. Whatever. Perhaps it’s historically accurate, but again, why put this in a kids’ book, especially as it seems completely irrelevant to the storyline.
Many Waters was first published in 1986, the fifth book in what became The Wrinkle in Time Quintet. I wonder, would the mention of virginity and slutty girls and menstruation fly in today’s middle grade market? Can you see Scholastic or another children’s book publisher accepting this in a manuscript?
Even in Twilight no one has sex until they’re married.