Melissa Grunow talks about the encouragement her mother gave her to read, using books as rewards not punishment.
Just ten pages to go. I’m hunkered down in our home’s main bathroom, my knees curled under me, a Nancy Drew mystery spread open on the bathmat. I had strained and struggled for nearly an hour to finish the remaining chapters by the light of the hallway, but there were too many shadows; the font was too small, and my eyes couldn’t overcome the darkness. So, I tucked the book under my pajama shirt, locked myself in the bathroom, and scanned the pages as fast as I could. It was 10:45, and my parents always went to bed right at 11:00. The about-to-be-turned pages rattled between my small fingers as I shook with anticipation that I would soon solve the mystery and fear that I would get caught.
At four pages to go, there is a heavy knock on the door, and I fumble the book as I scramble to my feet. “What are you doing in there?” My mother’s voice. Another knock. “You’ve been in there forever.”
I flush the toilet and flip on the water faucet for a few seconds, feeling clever that I was hiding my real reason for being in the bathroom for so long. I tucked the book back under my shirt, opened the door, and came face-to-face with my mom who was still waiting in the hallway.
As much as I tried to slink past her, my head down, muttering apologies, I couldn’t hide the rectangular lump beneath my shirt. Not only did she take the book, but I was grounded for staying up past my bedtime for the third night that week. I was fourteen.
I had never even wanted to read Nancy Drew. Instead, I was on a mission along with my friends to read every book in the Baby-Sitters Club series and anything written by Judy Blume. I learned the business of taking care of the neighborhood children, how to market myself at $3 an hour, and increase the fun factor of Friday nights with my charges by reenacting some of my favorite scenes. I even attempted to assemble a “Kid Kit,” but the single box of crayons, dried-up markers, and used coloring books were no match for the kids’ own toys and video games, and I soon gave up the endeavor.
At some point, my mom decided that I had outgrown the Baby-Sitters Club, insisting that reading should be a challenge, and if I could read them in just a few hours, then they weren’t challenging me anymore. I graduated to second-hand recommendations of my mom’s reading selection: Danielle Steele, Mary Higgins Clark, and whatever she could remember reading from her teen years, namely Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. Although I missed my go-to series, I felt grown — special — that my mom wanted to share her books with me.
That year for Christmas, I tore the wrapping paper away from a stack of the classics: Black Beauty, Little Women, The Secret Garden, Treasure Island, Cheaper by the Dozen. Then in the spring, I struck gold when I stumbled on a box of books at a garage sale, just fifty cents for the entire box that ranged from Helter Skelter to Flowers in the Attic, to my first Nancy Drew book, the very same book that got taken away from me after my late-night reading binge in the bathroom.
As a child, reading was my only permitted option for entertainment. We only had one television and no cable, so my parents had perpetual control over the remote. I wasn’t allowed to watch PG-13 movies until I was thirteen or R-rated movies until I was seventeen, and we didn’t have money for the theater, anyway. Books, though, were free at the library or cheap at a garage sale (or the dollar store, which is where my Christmas stack of classics came from), and they didn’t come with ratings. As long as I didn’t breeze through anything below my reading level, I could pretty much read whatever I wanted.
When I got older, I got a book light for Christmas, and my days of hiding in the bathroom or stealing all my dad’s flashlights and stashing them under my pillow came to an end. When I cried at the end of Black Beauty, my mom hugged me and assured me she had cried, too. When I threw A Walk to Remember across the room because it was such a god-awful book, my mom scolded me at first, but praised me later when she realized I was forming a personal aesthetic that enabled me to discern the fiction from the literature, the junk food from the sustaining nourishment. When I went off to college and changed my major from journalism (job-producing) to English (not job-producing) my junior year, she wasn’t even fazed. “It makes sense,” she told me instead. “You always loved reading. You’ve always wanted to be a writer.”
My mom treated reading as a reward, not a punishment. If I finished my chores, I could read in my room, uninterrupted. If I behaved during my week of grounding, I could have my Nancy Drew book back. If I got my homework done, then I could start reading Go Ask Alice, as she knew that once I started it, I wouldn’t be able to put it down until it was finished. She was right.
Because of my mom’s indirect encouragement, I craved the stories I found between often-ragged covers, often screening books she wanted to read for her before she would read them. If it didn’t have a somewhat happy ending, my mom would take a pass, and she trusted my judgment on which books to read and which to avoid. Her trusting of my advice gave me a sense of autonomy, of individuality, that all teenagers seek when they approach adulthood.
A few years ago, I stayed with my parents for a few days during Christmas, and was somewhere in the middle of reading The Help. My mom had rented the movie version and wanted for us to watch it together, but as we both knew, I had to finish the book first. For the first few days of my visit, every spare moment was spent with the spine cracked, turning pages, devouring the story. I tuned out everything and everyone around me to finish the book, and finally did so just in time to watch the movie together before I returned home.
“I can’t believe I got through it that fast,” I said, just as the movie was starting. “Last night I stayed up until almost 3:00 in the morning.”
My mom nodded as she adjusted the volume and settled back on the couch. “And you didn’t even have to hide in the bathroom this time,” she said, then smiled with her eyebrows raised until I chuckled in agreement and smiled back.
Originally published on 5/10/15.