An Ode to the Adolescent Years and the Romance Novels that got Me Through Them

I cringe when I think how young I was when I started reading romance novels. A combination of a love of the written word and hormones threw me into the embrace of steamy books full of leading men and dramatic women. It may not be exceptionally unusual that I was around 13 when I picked up my first Nora Roberts book, but looking back it seems too young.

It was Tears of the Moon that I read first. I found it there, nestled on my mom’s bookshelf. The moss green cover beckoning me. Opening the pages, I plunged into a world that was way over my head. And down the rabbit hole I went. At that time I think Roberts had about thirty books published and I feel like I read them all. Some were really exciting with suspenseful plots intertwined with a romantic story. Others were Soap Operas set to words. I would stay awake until three in the morning frantically turning pages.

I discovered Suzanne Brockman through my aunts. She writes about Navy Seals and her stories had me reading with ferocity. The exciting action-packed tales building the romantic intensity. It was very fun reading, I just wish I had been reading other genres as well.

Tami Hoag became another favorite author of mine, but I read far less of her books. She wrote more crime/mystery romances, I think. I have to say, I was not reading for content at this point…

I remember hiding certain books because of their covers. You know which covers. The romance novel exterior is the bane of every romance reader’s existence. Oh, the roguish, ripple chested man clinging to the long haired maiden with her gossamer dress hanging off her shoulder, how you proclaim to the world that within your binding is what some would call smut.

There is a stronger Young Adult romance genre now, but I wonder if I would have picked anything different. I did learn a lot about playing with the senses as a writer and how important it is to get your readers invested in your characters.


Assigned Reading

Assigned reading was the worst at times, but mostly because I don’t like to be told what to do, especially when it comes to activities I enjoy. When I look back on the books I read for school, I appreciated most of them. There were the classics here or there that I didn’t connect to, but I could still tell you why they were valuable. Maybe I’ll write a blog post about them in the future but right now I want to talk about the books that I needed to read for a grade that I enjoyed.

Night by Elie Wiesel was assigned to me in 7th grade. We were doing a WWII segment in both English and History, it was one of those great times when classes were able to work together. I loved these couple of weeks in my education. It awoke in me a fascination for all aspects of this dismal time in human history. Night was influential in that discovery. My English teacher suggested the short book to a friend and myself. She allowed us to leave the classroom and read aloud to one another. Sitting Indian style on a ledge, we shared this story between us. The incomprehensible torture depicted in a matter of fact tone carrying us from beginning to end. There are images described in such clarity that they spring to mind at the first thought of this book.

In my Sophomore year of High School, I was assigned to read what would become my two favorite books. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck spoke to me on a basic level. The idea that sometimes the most damaging thing a person can do to themselves is the most selfless act of love for someone else. The writing was simple and impacting, I loved how the characters spoke with unique voices. I had purchased the book before we finished it in class because I needed to know the end. I sat in my bedroom pouring over the last few pages, tears falling from my eyes to soak into the fresh paper between my fingers. At once I was liberated by the beauty of humanity and by its dark brutality.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee had the same effect on me by using very different tools. Scout is a superb main character. She is depicted in a way that allows her to age and gain perspective. And through her innocence she accomplishes what the adults in her life cannot. The story is beautiful and timeless. It astounds me how relevant the themes still are fifty years later.

Some honorable mentions go out to Lord of the Flies a book that balanced lovely writing with disturbing imagery. The Scarlet Letter that used intrigue and mystery to tell a story about inner strength. Romeo and Juliette for introducing me to some of the most romantic prose ever written. And The White Lantern a collection of essays about the exploration of Antartica that has forever put the phrase, “I’m cold,” in perspective.

A Reader is Born

My mom read somewhere that if you read bedtime stories to your kids every night they will always feel they can come to you for help. That sitting on the edge of your kid’s bed with a book shared between you, builds intimacy. I can’t speak for everyone, but in my case it worked. I love remembering the nights mom stayed awake to read to me and my brother.

Hearing her talk about those picture books makes me smile. She’ll tell me about ABC by Dr. Seuss. My brother is two years older than me and he loved this book. To hear her retell it, she read him this story every night for about a year. In her voice you can hear this was not just a year, for her she was trapped for a decade. She was forced to enthusiastically read this for a century, the words branded onto her brain. The night that my brother asked for a different story was the night my mom was set free, liberated by her son’s growing mind. Relieved, she went to my room it was time for my bedtime story.

“What book tonight?” She asked.

In my little hands, I picked up ABC by Dr. Seuss. And so continued another year of torture.

My brother and I are very different people, if you were to make a venn diagram of our personality traits, the middle section would be sparse. Mom identified this early on and in response, she found The Treasure Tree by John & Cindy Trent and Gary & Norma Small. It’s an energetic book about four friends working together to find treasure. We loved identifying with the different characters; all of them were depicted to be distinctive and unique from one another. Mom was consistent in the way she read it, each character had their own voice and certain words had their own emphasis. I was four years old when that book was prominent in my life and I still hear her voice when I think about its story.

Our cousins were spending the night when Mom started reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. We were young and the language was dry. Mom told us to hang in there. When Lucy stumbled through to Narnia, we were captivated. The snow from the story’s world filled our minds. Hurting for Mr. Tumnus’ near betrayal, we devoured the spoken words. We cried together in the end and we needed to know more.

When my cousin’s son turned one, Mom and I gave him these books. We knew they wouldn’t be very interesting for him yet, but the memory of them was too strong not to share. Opening her son’s gift, my cousin’s eyes filled with tears. The late nights, when Mom would read until her throat was dry and she was too tired to see the words clearly, were as precious to my cousin as they were to us.