Categories can be a difficult thing for those that don’t particularly like to be categorized. Looking at the situation closer, however, suggests that perhaps the concept of categories is not the problem at all. Maybe some of us just don’t like the narrow concepts that previous generations have used to define things. Maybe we just need new categories.
Dawn and I were surprised to see a certain online book retailer categorize my Walking Between Worlds trilogy as YA, or ‘young adult’. We had a couple of discussions about it, and I pointed out what each of us already knew. We had both been reading Stephen King at thirteen or fourteen years old. I stopped reading Xanth books when I discovered that Piers Anthony also wrote books for adults, and that I enjoyed them a lot more. I was in sixth grade at the time. My mom had some pretty steamy romance novels kicking around, and I read plenty of those when I ran out of science fiction and fantasy and horror. I didn’t love them like the books I swiped from my dad, but they were more to my liking than the books being written for my age group.
I loved Doctor Seuss’ jaunty rhymes…when I was five or six. I outgrew them. I was super into choosing my own adventure for a minute there; I outgrew that too. It wasn’t until I started reading books that I was supposedly not supposed to be reading at all that books really came to life for me. The first time I read about a gruesome death, described in detail, I got to think about something that exists in real life, on my own. I had been shielded from it previously, by well-intentioned parents and teachers, and there was something special about confronting it alone.
The first time I ever read the word ‘fuck’ in a book, I was shocked. I looked around to see if anyone was watching me, and had been somehow alerted to just the moment that loaded word had leapt out at me. Nobody cared. The world didn’t tremble. I didn’t lose a little piece of my soul, but I may have lost a bit of my innocence. From the time I first read a book written for people instead of for children, I began to suspect all adults of some kind of conspiracy to shield children from real life. By the time I reached adulthood, I had narrowed the conspirators down to most parents. Somewhere along the way I realized that some parents actually take the time to explain the world in honest terms that the child can understand, and that some of those parents actually have a realistic and expansive view of the world; the rest of the kids get books.
It’s not a perfect solution, but at least it’s something. When I was a kid I was afraid there was no hope. Then I found Richard Bach, and I realized there were books about building hope and thinking clearly. I stopped reading fiction entirely for over a decade; I was fascinated to think that others had come before me asking many of the same questions, and had found better answers. I needed to read all their books, put together my own informed approach to life, and carry on full speed ahead. It ended up taking a little longer than I thought it would, but it was well worth the effort.
I was raised by books. My body was fed and sheltered by my parents, but my heart and soul were fed by the printed word. When I was a pimply-faced kid with braces, some adult called me ‘worldly’. I laughed and pointed out that I had only been to a dozen states, and one other country, and that I lived in Montana; I further pointed out that none of these had been my choices. My parents had dragged me wherever they felt like going, without consulting me on the matter or seeking my approval on any of the moves we had made. This kind adult said that ‘worldly’ isn’t about where you’ve been; it’s about how you see things, and how you think.
That has proved itself over time. Some folks go all around the world, and never set foot outside a narrow and confining perspective; others live and die in a small town, but are able to talk to nearly anyone about nearly anything with wisdom and clarity. The former are aliens to me, strange creatures with strange thoughts that I can’t relate to at all. The latter are my friends, my family, my people. We look at everything and ask “why?”, and we keep asking it as life goes on. We find different answers, often, and that’s part of what makes it so fun to find and talk to these folks: like books, they explore ideas without fear or hesitation or apology. They understand that if I get offended by someone else’s ideas, it’s because I am not confident enough in my own; being able to recognize the value in exploring another perspective is largely what makes a worldly person worldly, in my eyes.
I respect any individual’s desire to not think about something, or talk about it, or write about it. I do not understand any individual’s desire to squelch another’s thoughts, prevent another’s ability to speak, or censor another’s writing. The freedom to walk away is the only power anyone should have over anyone else. That’s the freedom I make use of whenever I meet someone new, or read a book by an author that I am not yet familiar with. If I like what I see, I stick around to see more. If I don’t, I walk away. I might mutter something unkind as I walk away, but that’s on me. One day I will let things go the moment I turn from them; and in the days between now and then, I’ll keep working on it.
Surely you have gotten the point of all this by now, or employed your freedom to walk away, but I’ll sum up just the same:
Not all children benefit from being sheltered from the world. Not all adults can handle exploring ideas outside their world view. There are books for the children that want to stay small inside, or whose parents want them to; there are books for adults who grow up, but loathe growth itself. I don’t write those books; I never will. I won’t tell you to let your thirteen year old kid read Walking Between Worlds or Zombie Zero if they want to; I will tell you that I would have loved reading them at thirteen. It’s part of why I wrote them, to give that pimply brace-face a little peace at last: “See, buddy? I did one of those things you always wanted to do! It’s going to be alright! Hang in there!” It’s also part of what made my parents good parents: they let me make my own choices when it came to reading, and therefore develop into my own person.
My books will have violence and cruelty and pain, because life has those things. They’ll also have tenderness and romance, and a spiritual undertone…because life has those things. They’ll cross genres and appear contradictory at times because…well, you get the picture. I was annoyed at first when I realized that bookstores all categorized my favorite author differently. I would find Richard Bach’s books in the children’s section, in the autobiographical section, on the new age and metaphysics shelf (you know, the little one in the back of the store), in both fiction and non-fiction, and in literature. It would have been so much easier to just walk up to the ‘Worldly Readers’ section and find them all right there.
By the way, that online book retailer finally got around to re-categorizing Walking Between Worlds. Apparently they’re in on the conspiracy; there must be parents working there too.
Thanks for reading!