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April 25, 2012

My Mom and No Limits Reading

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of  PICTURES OF YOU and eight other novels. Her new novel, IS IT TOMOROW, will be published by Algonquin Books, Spring 2013. She can be reached at She will also be participating in a live webcast with Anne Lamott on April 26th, which you can find out more about here

I’m ten years old and in the Waltham library, lost in the stacks, the titles winking out at me. Usually I’m here with my mother every Wednesday, but today, I’m here by myself, waiting for her to finish at the dentist and come and get me. I love how big the library is, and I wander from room to room like an explorer. Sometimes I pull the books down just to smell the pages or feel the leather bound covers, and every time I do, it gives me a thrill. I’m wandering in the adult section, looking at the authors, thinking I’d like to go through them from A to Z, when one of the librarians, Miss Pierce, the grey-haired one who I’m deeply afraid of, approaches me. “Is this where you’re supposed to be?” she snaps, her hands jabbed on her hips. I’m not sure what the question means but she draws her arm out like an arrow and points to the children’s room. “That's where you belong.”

I look at her flabbergasted.  The children’s room? Is she kidding? I’ve long outgrown the children’s room. My mom taught me to read when I was four, and the policy at my house is we are allowed to read whatever we want to.  This has caused some trouble at school, because while everyone was stumbling over Run, Sally, Run, in first grade, I was lost in my own world, reading Nancy Drew mysteries, a crime so heinous my teacher called my mother in for a meeting.  “You’re doing no favors to your daughter or to the class. Everyone needs to be on the same page,” she warned my mother.  My mother was so irritated with the teacher that she went up to the principal to complain, and when he backed the teacher, my mom still wouldn’t give in. “Never mind,“ she told me, “you keep reading whatever you want.”

That day, when my mother came to get me at the library, she found me slumped helplessly on a stool in the children’s room, staring unhappily at the rows of books. “What are you doing here?" she asked. When I told her how I had been banished from the other book rooms, my mother drew herself up. "Come with me,” she said.

I followed her to the main desk, where Miss Pierce was sitting. “I hear you won’t let my daughter take out books from the adult section,” my mother said.

“That’s right,” said Miss Pierce. “She can’t be in that room until she’s thirteen.”

My mother leaned forward. “She has my permission to read anything she wants. If she wants to take out Lady Chatterly’s Lover, she can. Don’t you dare curtail her reading. Don’t. You. Dare.” 

I never noticed that Miss Pierce had a tic by her mouth, but it made her whole face jumpy. I had never seen my mother so angry, or Miss Pierce so cowed. My mother pointed me to the adult rooms, the promised lands.  “Go find some books,” she told me. “Take whatever you want and as many as you want.”

I was like a starving person given a banquet. I usually only took out novels, but my mother’s seal of approval suddenly made me want to push my boundaries. That day, I took out two history books, some biographies, a book on the planets, and the three novels I grabbed up were from authors I had never heard of before. Miss Pierce stamped each book, her face sour. I had never loved my mother more. All that week I poured over the books, titles I might never have considered if my mother hadn’t given me the chance to be so adventurous a reader. My mom had opened up the miraculous world of reading for me, and she wouldn’t let anyone shut that door, even a little.