Everything I Need to Know: Curious Youngsters

It's been awhile, but I had a letter asking for advice this week, so welcome back to Everything I Need to Know, I Learned from Romance Novels. It's not a book – that'd be EIKAL, which is a book – but it is advice and suggestions for romance readers who write in with problems that are sometimes befuddling. This week's letter comes from BSB, who writes: 

Dear Sarah: 

I have a very curious first grader who has taken to reading like a fish to
water. I used to be able to read my romance books in plain sight without her
understanding or caring about what I was reading. Now, if I pull out a book
to read while she's watching television, I suddenly have a 48 pound backseat
reader over my left shoulder asking what certain words mean. She's intrigued
by all the books I have which features headless men and generous man titty.
(She also thinks all the books about the same man because of the similar
cover shots.)

And, the other night she asked me if the latest book I was
reading contained sex. Because I cannot tell a lie, I told her yes. Now, I
have the overwhelming desire to hide all my novels like I'm trying to hide
evidence to a murder. On the one hand, I don't want to appear to be ashamed
of my reading material. On the other hand, I don't want her to pick up one
of my books and read something she doesn't quite have a full grip on. Any


Dear BSB: 

I first read this email and thought it said, “I am a very curious first grader” and probably had much the same reaction as when you realized your first grader was reading over your shoulder. Oh, dear!

I feel your pain because I have a first grader, and he is a very precocious reader. And when there's man titty all over the house, it sends a very strange message to someone who is old enough to interpret sexuality in rudimentary fashion, but not old enough to understand what it all means.

If I can give a suggestion, my advice is to tell her in no uncertain terms that reading over someone's shoulder is uncool and not polite in the least. I also think it is ok for you to have things that are Just For You, and not for her. I don't think you need to hide the existence of sex from her, and I don't think it does either of you any good to feel embarrassed or ashamed about sexuality or the portrayals thereof in your books. 

Bookcovers are your friend, in this case. If you're reading paperbacks, there are plenty of book covers that fit mass market and trade size, and allow you to read without the prying and curious eyes that can't help but look at all the glorious expanse of man titty. And that's not a slight to your daughter- we are all naturally drawn to looking at other people, particularly skin. I think that's part of why all that man flesh is on the covers.

For that reason I have a bit of a frustrated love/hate for romance covers, because while some of them are elegant and beautifully done, those that feature man chests and O-Face clinches still advertise very loudly that THIS IS A ROMANCE AND THERE BE SEXYTIMES IN IT. That's a great message for grabbing the buyer who is looking for a romance to read, but it's not necessarily a great message for you to transmit when you're holding the book on a park bench, on the bus, or in your own living room. It invites comments, from passersby and folks living in your house with you – from the condescending to the merely curious. 

Overall, I think the best strategy is to show none of the shame or embarrassment you might feel, if possible, because that will likely make her (a) more curious and (b) confused as to why you're reading something you seem unhappy or reluctant to talk about. Your decisions about how to discuss sexuality with your daughter are totally your business, and I don't mean to advise you in that direction at all. Many a romance reader I know was introduced to the genre by their mother, aunt, or older sister – and someday you'll likely share your love of the genre with her. I hope so – it would make for outstanding Thanksgiving dinner conversations. It seems she might be a romance reader in the making – just not quite yet!

Happy reading – in peace! 



I also asked Tori, better known as Smexy's Sidekick for her advice – figuring she would also have words of wisdom. Boy howdy, did she ever. 

Dear BSB:

Well first off, congrats on raising such a well adjusted, curious child. Second, I've always said it goes down hill once we teach them to speak. *laughter* As a mother and a reviewer, I have many books I do not want my child reading. A majority of them stay on an e reader that she knows contains books that are not appropriate for her. Of course, my child is 11 so it is easier for her to understand that then for your 6 year old. There is no shame in reading romance and no shame in reading things not appropriate for your little one.

Not lying to her is good though. Simply tell her that you are reading adult books (mommy books) and they are not for little girls to read. If she asks why, tell her that there are stories in there that are not for her age to read. That she has books just for her and direct her to go pick out one of her books to sit down and read with you. That worked with mine when she was that age. I just had to keep telling her that these were mommy's books and not for her and then redirect her to her bookshelf. Of course, I had to stop reading my book and read with her but that was fine.

As for leaving them lying around, you can either leave them where you normally do and keep reiterating that these are not for her or place them somewhere she cannot reach. She's always going to ask and be curious. Keeping it not a big deal will let her know it's not a big deal and make it less tempting.

– Tori from Smexybooks.com

Do you have advice for BSB? Have you been in this situation? 


General Bitching...

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Trippinoutmysoul says:

    I’ve had this same lovely incident with my almost-first grader. At 5 years old she asked me what “those books with the part nekkid guys” were about, and my short, easy answer was “Romance”. Now coming up on 7, she asked if they have “S-E-C-K-S” (in deference to her 4 year old sister’s innocent ears) in them. I was honest and said yes, because Romances are stories about love and adults, and only adults who love each other have sex. So yeah, my answer was part truth and part untruth, but I’m hoping she doesn’t figure that out until she’s much older. And until then, I’m happy having already planted that seed in her precocious and independent mind.

  2. 2
    Ren says:

    You could also take the opportunity to foster the idea that romance novels have perhaps 300 pages in them that are about something other than boinking.

    My mother clutched her pearls when I got into her SEX BOOKS, and I thought she’d gone insane. “Mom, she’s in a carriage with her maid. Mom, he’s in a horse race. Mom, they’re doing any number of things that aren’t NC17, so why the freaking hysterics?”

  3. 3
    Faellie says:

    I was always allowed to read any book in the house. I’m old enough that the romances were of the non-graphic variety, but Brave New World at the age of 11 was a bit of a shocker.  I don’t think it did me any permanent harm, though. 

    Your child has seen you reading pornographic books (that’s putting it bluntly, but accurately).  But as soon as a child goes to school, that child will be associating with other children who will have seen pornographic pictures and videos, because that’s the world we live in at the moment, and pictures and videos are even easier for a child to access and understand than reading over your shoulder.  There’s another 9 or 11 years of sexual images, words and pictures ahead of your child before she is legally old enough to have sex herself, and peer pressure will mean that she will be aware of it all.  It really is a brave new world we have created, and the only option is to raise children to be independent thinkers, to understand that with sex different levels of knowledge and actions are appropriate to different ages, and to learn how to say “no”.

  4. 4
    Ren says:

    Pornographic? Really?

  5. 5
    Faellie says:

    With man-titty on the cover?  Probably sexually explicit.  In the context, sexual explicitness which is intended to titillate rather than having a purely educational or informative purpose.  So yes, pornographic.

    Another test is: if what is being described in the book were being shown on a cinema screen, what would it’s rating be?  Descriptions of genitals?  Descriptions of what people do with their genitals?  Over-17 or over-18 “adult” rating, and dependent on the picture content, not showable in a mainstream cinema at all.

    Describing something as pornographic doesn’t mean I disapprove: I like this site and read these books.  And generally speaking, greater sexual explicitness has been more acceptable in books than in pictures and video.  But although our current society is habituated to sexual explicitness, and much more is acceptable than used to be, the basic definition of “pornographic” hasn’t yet changed.

    I think that something sexually explicit and designed to titillate is not appropriate for young children, whereas I do think approriately described and accurate educational information which ostensibly describes the same thing would be (daddy’s bits and mommy’s bits and making a child – not necessarily the words I’d use but the words I’d use probably aren’t for this site or this post – which is itself telling).

  6. 6
    Alana McCurley says:

    I haven’t been *in* this situation, but I was a voracious reader and when we moved to a foreign language speaking country when I was 8, there was a very limited number of English-language books. I read my mother’s Harlequins (on the sly) by the time I was 8. She found out and started purchasing Harlequin Intrigues and Superromances (more story than the Blazes/Temptations) – told me I could skip the sexy bits if I wanted to and I could ask her about it if I wanted to. But the only books I was ever told were not appropriate for me to read were books that contained child molestation/abuse.

    Doesn’t seem to have done me any harm :)

  7. 7
    Des Livres says:

    This might be a dated distinction, I’ve always seen a big difference between the pornographic and the erotic. Both can be equally graphic, but porn has an element of cruelty/exploitation that erotica does not.

    Everyone who participates on this site would have some familiarity with the erotic, but not necessarily with porn.

  8. 8

    We’re still fighting this out in my house between me and Oldest (9). The trade off we’ve worked out is “no you can’t read mommy’s books but here are a whole bunch of good books I’ve picked up at the library that you can read.” I’ve found that having an alternative she can enjoy right at hand makes the fight between us easier.

  9. 9
    SarahCW says:

    I was the same way growing up – I wanted to read everything my mom read. As a compromise, we sat down and went through all her books and made a list by grade – what grade I had to be in before I could read that book.  It satisfied me that my mom wasn’t censoring my books, but she also explained to me that I might not appreciate books until a certain age.  And truthfully, I forgot about almost all the books by the time I reached that age…except for Mary Higgins Clark – I was allowed to read those the summer before 5th grade, and I went on an MHC glom.

  10. 10
    Lauren says:

    I loved it when my mom, who belonged to a book club, received her books.  I don’t think that I would be the voracious reader that I am today, if it weren’t for her getting Mommy Dearest et al when they came out in hardcover.  Looked at the pictures, and had to know the rest of the story.  Thank goodness my mom didn’t do the whole wire hanger thing when I borrowed her stuff!  My most favourite book in grade five was Stephen King’s The Stand, along with so many Sidney Sheldon books.  (Rage of Angels was my very first romance.)

    In my house I don’t care what my kids read -to a point.  If I have it in paper form or on my ereader, they are welcome to it.  If it is site that they have to put a credit card number in for that is a whole different story!

  11. 11

    Congratulations! The most important thing is your child is seeing you read books. Studies confirm, over and over again, that one of the key ingredients to raising a reader is for your child to see you reading for pleasure. Definitely discourage her from reading over your shoulder, because as SB Sarah says, that’s just rude. However, you could encourage her to read along with you with an age appropriate novel. If it has a strong girl and a helpful boy sidekick, it’ll prepare her for the wonderful world of romance novels when she’s older.

    BTW, I strongly recommend Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw as an entry-level romance when your lass is around 10-12 years old.  I still love it, and it was my introduction to romance novels

  12. 12
    Sveta says:

    As far as I know, I was encouraged to read whatever I wanted. (No, I can’t ever recall seeing my mom reading Harlequin novels, but then it was Russia in late 1980s early 1990s.) To this day I have no idea how, but somehow we ended up with a Harlequin in the house and I read it around the time I was either in my early teens or mid-teens. At one point too a friend of my dad gave him some playboys and I secretly looked through them when I was very young. I think I turned out to be okay. Probably more than anything it will be the attitude towards sexuality and whatnot that will cause the child to feel the way they’ll feel.


  13. 13
    Janine says:

    Depending on the kid, putting something off limits can make it more desirable and lead to more fights/sneaking around.

    Or you could use boredom as a tactic. At this point, your kid may not realize there ARE boring books because everything she reads is at her level and designed for kid interests. You could get her something non-sexy—Georgette Heyer, or an old Barbara Cartland, or maybe a Christian romance—vetted by you of course and either start reading it to her or hand it to her everytime she asks. In about six pages she ought to be bored and wander off. Pick something with lots of description of scenery…

    And in the end, it may not be all that damaging. I got my hands on a fairly old-school romance at about 9, and that was how I found out what my mother vaguely referred to as intercourse was. No biggie. The thing about text is that if you don’t have the personal experience to picture it, there’s a limit to how much it means to you. (And of course those were Ye Olde Days of Purply Prose so I’m not sure how much anatomy I managed to deduce amongst the “love flowers” and “manly swords” anyhow.)

  14. 14
    Flo_over says:

    Just don’t do what my mom did when she found I had snuck a romance novel home (she was not a reader) from the library.  She wigged out, screamed, yelled, shamed me left, right, up and down, and then DEMANDED I throw away the book.

    Yes, bibliophiles gasp in horror, throw it in the TRASH.

    I tried to explain I would have a BLACK MARK upon my library card, that I would be forced to pay for the book (and when you’re making $2.00 a week on extra chores that’s a big damn deal!), that the librarians would HATE ME, I was banished to the backyard with the book until I chose to throw it out.

    I hid it in a plastic bag until the next time we went to the library.  Snuck it into my backpack and returned it without issue.  YES, I lied to my mother… but at least my library card remained PRISTINE!  Priorities.  Clearly.

  15. 15
    PamG says:

    I would second the advice given here, but I would also suggest that you help your precocious reader find some baby book crack of her own.  My kids are the age of many of the posters on this site, but what I recall really clearly is how they would fall in love with a genre or an author or maybe just one book and just gobble it all up over and over again.  So maybe a little redirection and an effort to clothe the man titty would work for you.

    I am rereading some of the classics that I avoided in high school and I am shocked at the sexual content, subtle though it is.  The content itself is not shocking, but I am blown away by my own ignorance at 16—hell, at 20!  I was always pretty open with my girls and they got to read what they wanted, but it happens that when they were little I was reading mostly mysteries.  Still they were not hobbled by ignorance and they both turned out pretty good.

    However, you handle this, I would say cherish the curiosity and keep the dialogue open.  I am secretly a little proud that my girls think my Discworld doppelganger is Nanny Ogg.  Be open with your kids and you may be rewarded with the ability to make them simultaneously cringe and giggle with a pune or two.

  16. 16
    LG says:

    I enjoyed Mara, Daughter of the Nile, too. Actually, a lot of the books I read when I was younger were ones I enjoyed at least in part for the romance in them, even if I didn’t think of them as romance novels. I laugh to think that the first book I read that was called a romance novel on the spine was Fire Dancer by Ann Maxwell. I think that book was actually written as science fiction and only published and marketed as a romance novel later one, which explains the frustrating lack of a romance novel ending.

    Back to the original question: I’m not a mom, although I do remember being curious about the books my parents read when I was younger. I think emphasizing that reading over someone’s shoulder is not cool is probably a good idea – that makes it more of a general manners thing rather than a “this book is special and must be treated differently than others” thing. My parents rarely ever told me I couldn’t read something – the one time my mom said “you absolutely may not read that until you’re 30,” I was so incredibly curious about the book that I can still remember its title to this day (although I never did read it, because my mom even got our local librarian on her side, so all the ways I could think to get the book were closed to me).

    For the most part, I’d sneak books from my parents’ shelves and, if I wasn’t ready for them, they tended to bore me enough that I put them back after a few pages. Also, in the past few years I’ve been rereading some of the books I read when I was younger, and, I have to say, there are things that happened in some of those books (unhealthy relationships, sex, death, etc.) that I don’t think I really processed when I was younger, or at least didn’t process the same way an adult would. It didn’t so much scar me for life as not make much of an impression on me – I’m always amazed at the things I do and do not remember about those books.

  17. 17
    Jeannie S says:

    I think the advice given was very good. I have left my books everywhere (I still do) and not made a big deal about it. I was worried my daughter would try reading them, but she never did, she wasn’t interested in my books (she still isn’t). Now that she is 15 however, she did say she wanted to read Fifty Shades of Grey. I told her that was not an appropriate book for her at all, where I was informed that it “really isn’t that bad.” I guess she has very good sources lol. I refrained from telling her that I had just downloaded it on my kindle, after waiting a month on waitlist at the library. And I am one of those people that DO love it!

  18. 18
    Isabel C. says:

    For what it’s worth, I started reading romance novels around 8 or so. Mom was not thrilled; Mom attempted to stop me; key word “attempted.”

    I, er, don’t think it’s worked out badly in the long run. ;) (Plus, I developed l33t ninja skills, as the kids say.)

    I’d stress “reading over someone’s shoulder isn’t okay”, as a general thing, because…good Lord, do I wish more people’s mothers had taught them that…and also have the talk that my mom did with me: books are great, enjoy ‘em, but sex and love don’t really work like that most of the time, and there’s a reason that novels end when they do and not five years later when you discover you’ve married the man who knows the Only Right Way to Load a Dishwasher. (Er, paraphrased, that.)

    Otherwise? If you’re talking to her regularly and healthily, I don’t think reading something she doesn’t understand yet will be an issue. The most you have to worry about is her sharing information with her classmates, and my mom…also lived through that.

  19. 19
    Ashutoshs1986 says:

    Stumbled upon this blog by chance and feel fortunate to for this.You write like an angel.Highly intelligent angel,though.I started writing a blog few days back.Would really appreciate if you could read them and provide me with your honest feedback.


  20. 20
    Des Livres says:

    I remember being in primary school ?5th grade? and getting Barbara Cartland from the library, and causing Pointed Comments amongst the librarians.

    How about setting her up with Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic books while you are reading yours? Or you could just read the Circle of Magic books yourself…I did, in my late 30s which was how old I was when she wrote them.

  21. 21
    Julie Jacob says:

    I face similar issues but with my older daughter, now 11. She is reading lots of YA stuff but she is expressing interest in lots of my books. I read primarily m/m romance on my ereader, but have lots of paperbacks het romance on my shelves.  I know lots of folks started reading romance at her age, but I so don’t think she is ready to read such explicit sexual stuff at this point. And even though we are very open and accepting about m/m romance (I run a m/m review blog so clearly we are open about it), she is nowhere near ready to read about explicit gay sex.  Or am I being totally naive here? Do most girls start romances at this age?

  22. 22
    M_E_S says:

    My mother was never a romance novel reader, but none of our books were ever hidden in the house.  I just had a tendency to choose the largest book I could find and read that first (which explains why I read “Gone With The Wind” at 12, but didn’t start on romances until college).  But I learned very early not to read over someone’s shoulder, which I agree is the key lesson at your daughter’s age.

    For younger readers, there are lots of books with romantic elements that I remember ADORING as a kid.  “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” is a great one that I still love.  Six may be a bit too young for that, unless she’s a really precocious reader.  For me, that age was pretty much consumed by book series (Magic Attic Club, Babysitter’s Club, the Boxcar Children) that kept me busy and out of my mom’s hair until we had to go back to the library for more.

  23. 23
    Des Livres says:

    I was 10 when I first read romance – someone gave me a Mills & Boon for my birthday. If a kid is really intent on reading romance, how about books like late Betty Neels? (in the earlier ones the Hero could be quite unpleasant).

  24. 24
    The Fairy Godmother says:

    Having an elementary school teacher as a grandmother, I was able to read and write at the age of three and haven’t stopped devouring books since. I can understand your problem though, especially since there is so much context in romantic relationships that she won’t get and may give her a skewed perception of relationships, sex etc.

    It might be an idea to tell your daughter that romantic relations is like voting: there is so much context, so much growing up to do and so much learning that it is relegated to adults for two reasons: one, so that they have the time to learn all about these things, two because they ought to learn about these things so that other people won’t fool them and exploit their good intentions. Also, there are so many things, about both sex and politics, that may look scary and confusing now, but would make sense once she has the knowledge and the context.

    So, she should work on being a child, read a lot of books, learn what makes a story good (even when it has a sad ending -Hans Christian Andersen, I am looking at you), keep an open eye on how friendships and other interpersonal relationships work so that when the time come to cast the ballot (literally and metaphorically), she would at least have a good idea what she is doing.

  25. 25
    Jeannie S says:

    I was about 12 when I read one of my mother’s romance novels – actually one that was loaned to her by a friend but she never read. I thought it was great, I loved the romance part of it, but looking back, it was a very bad 70’s female pirate romance. Most of the explicit parts went right over my head, at that age, nuance is lost on adolescents.

    Like most things, making a big deal and forbidding something just makes it more desirable.

  26. 26
    Anna says:

    I think some of the commenters are forgetting just how young a first grader is.  A child in first grade is six years old.  Six. Years. Old.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with, say, my nine-year-old picking up the vast majority of my books if she were so inclined (I do have a few that would be too scary, but we’re talking romance novels here, not horror, so that’s irrelevant to this discussion).  A six-year-old is different, though, and while we’re not trying to teach a six-year-old that sex is somehow bad or shameful, there are just certain things that are going to be beyond the grasp of a child that young.  Fortunately for me, I have a healthy collection of YA novels, which is a good place to steer readers who might be a little too young to appreciate a book geared to adults.  At least until they’re old enough for “The Talk.”

  27. 27
    Sierra says:

    I think I read my first explicit sex scene in 6th grade. It was an unexpected rape scene in Clan of the Cave Bear, and I really wish I’d started with something else. I love romance and everything, but that’s still a disturbing memory. (I picked it up off of my grandmother’s shelf without her knowledge. It just looked cool…)

    Honestly, for a first grader, keep the sex away. Depending on how your child reacts to “you’re not old enough yet,” you may want to find a way to phrase it so that she doesn’t feel like she’s being deprived. I know I would argue that I was blue in the face if I was told I wasn’t mature enough for something, even going so far as to write persuasive argument letters to my parents since I knew throwing a fit would work against me.

    I have a passion for children’s books, and can recommend sooooo very many, all depending on her reading level. Some of them have romantic elements, but minor ones. The old Nancy Drew books were favorites of mine in first grade, and the Ned element was just right for me. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a favorite author, and with those I got her whole developing relationship with Almanzo. More romance than that was actually boring to me in elementary school. Make sure her books have got great stories with remarkable female characters to relate to and she’ll most likely be so engrossed she’ll forget that other types of books exist.

  28. 28
    Sierra says:

    *argue until I was blue in the face

    I need to not comment until I’ve had coffee…

  29. 29
    Keira Soleore says:

    My daughter’s been very curious and has asked what’s in my stories? I focus on the characters and the plot. I tell her about the writing, the prose. I show her examples of good writing that I really liked. She invariably pulls out the book she’s currently reading (she’s an avid reader), and she’ll share the same points about her book. So I basically move the focus to where it really belongs: the story, rather than the what-what.

  30. 30
    MissB2U says:

    I won’t add to the (very helpful!) advice given by everyone.  I want to share the awesome outcome of successfully navigating those initial literary rapids.  Every night, and now often during the day since he’s out of school, my youngest son and I sit together in the living room.  We each have a comfy leather chair and share the giant ottoman.  We each have a yummy beverage.  And we read.  Together.  For hours.  He looks up to ask what certain words mean, or to comment on something in the book.  I answer and feel such contentment and happiness.  These are the moments that make my heart sing and comfort me when my sons no longer live at home and I’m reading alone again.

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