As a kid growing up in suburban Pennsylvania in the ’90s, I lived for Silent Sustained Reading, or SSR, that point in the school day when the teacher asked us to clear our desks of everything but a book. This was typically also the point when kids tended to become a little rowdy, but I got smug satisfaction in staying out of whatever trouble was brewing. I loved being the nerd in the front row of the classroom, burning through chapters, wearing the glasses I had desperately wanted but didn’t really need.
Even after I grew up and left SSR behind, I continued to love that image of myself. But as I got further into adulthood, I realized just how much I didn’t understand about the books I had read as a kid. I spent my first five post-college years working in the children’s division of a major book publisher, and there’s nothing quite like discussing Dr. Seuss and The Giver in weekly sales meetings to change your perspective on what those stories really mean. So when I decided earlier this year that I wanted to start a podcast, I knew almost immediately what I wanted it to be: a look back at all those old favorites, this time through older, wiser eyes. (In an homage to my beloved SSR, it’s called The SSR Podcast, this time standing for Shit She Read.)
“I now see in each of my old literary heroines a person who was trying painfully hard to do exactly what was expected of her, all the time.”
Twenty episodes in, I’ve made my way through enough of my elementary- and middle-school staples to realize how much the experience of reading them has changed — really, how much I’ve changed. Reexamining the literature of my childhood has opened my eyes to how time, place, and context shape the way we absorb pop culture at any age. It’s also given me a road map of my own personal evolution, providing specific markers that allow me to look back at my coming-of-age experience and see where and how my adult self — my goals, my opinions, my likes and dislikes — began to take shape.
I’ve grown out of a childish ambition to be righteous.
I’ve been a perfectionist for as long as I can remember, which in my early years manifested itself in your predictable Goody Two-shoes tendencies. Given the choice between Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield in Sweet Valley High, for example, I would have picked the straitlaced, conservative, bookish latter twin every time. On a recent trip back to Sweet Valley, though, I found Elizabeth grating, condescending, and a little dull. While I initially felt some guilt for abandoning my one-time idol in favor of her more free-spirited sister, I realized that somewhere along the way, I had grown out of the desire to be perfect that had so motivated my actions as a kid (and that my decision two years ago to quit my corporate job and pursue writing full time was proof of how far I had come).
I’m still largely a play-by-the-rules kind of person, but I now see in each of the literary heroines I once tried to emulate a person who was trying painfully hard to do exactly what was expected of her, all the time — and it’s been refreshing to reflect on how I’ve been able to let this go. In coming back to childhood books, you may discover that you no longer connect with the characters you once idolized. It’s a little jarring, but take it as a sign of personal growth.
I’m more sympathetic to “villains.”
Whether it’s Mia Thermopolis’s popular nemesis Lana in The Princess Diaries or Jessica Darling’s Clueless Crew in Sloppy Firsts, I struggle these days to accept that certain characters are implicitly bad and do only bad things. Maybe it’s just that age and experience make us less inclined to believe in black-and-white narratives, but with this embrace of grayscale comes a greater sense of literary empathy. Now, I see that Nancy Drew’s animosity toward the Topham sisters in The Secret of the Old Clock is wildly arbitrary, and that said sisters may actually have been much kinder than Nancy herself. While the title character in Harriet the Spy states in no uncertain terms how terrible basically all of her classmates are, I no longer simply assume that she’s in the right. Instead, I see that Harriet is — spoiler alert — basically a terrible brat, and I feel for the (many) kids she rails against in her notebook.
I’m now a highly skeptical consumer of messages about sex.
One of the most difficult parts about assuming the unofficial role of kid lit’s revisionist historian is that I’ve sadly ruined more than a few love stories for myself and SSR listeners. The Bridget-and-Eric virginity storyline in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, once a tale of forbidden love and bad timing, now reads as an icky encounter between a college boy and a lovesick high schooler for whom he never had good intentions. As a teenager, I found Edward Cullen’s protective behavior in Twilight positively dreamy; now, I get fired up just thinking about it, convinced that it’s representative of heroine Bella’s lack of sexual agency in the relationship.
This may be more reflective of changing times than my changing personality, but it does speak to the values I’ve adopted as an adult. Generally speaking, I think realizations like this offer a good litmus test for how we’ve engaged with cultural shifts — particularly those that have taken us away from the norms we were raised with — in the years since we were teens ourselves.
I’ve become a tough critic.
Apparently, I’m sort of a snob now. I guess I should be grateful that I’ve become more discerning as I’ve gotten older, but it’s pretty disillusioning to realize that Carolyn Keene and Roald Dahl — once my literary idols — might be great storytellers, but they are not necessarily talented writers. Still, the newfound ability to see these authors through clearer, more critical eyes feels like a heartening indication that I’ve learned to form my own opinions and see beyond nostalgia when necessary.
While your personal discoveries would naturally differ from mine in more specific ways, picking up one of your old favorites is a worthy exercise. When revisiting the characters and settings you used to love, you may find that you now hate them, or that you love them even more, or that you just can’t bring yourself to care what happens to them anymore. Whatever the case, I guarantee an adult reread will give you a new perspective on who you’ve become.