I was minding my own business. Really, being a thirty-something male in the YA section is risky enough. I wasn’t about to go around making eye contact. My family was across the street waiting for a pizza. I was killing time. That’s when the employee came up.
“Hey, you know young adult literature.”
I nodded, tried to look knowledgable. This particular employee and I had just finished having a discussion about IMAGINARY GIRLS, which she had just finished..
“This woman is looking for a book for her granddaughter, and I’m having a hard time…”
They should make a cape for such occasions. I was in my element. I would help this woman find a book that just might change her teenage granddaughter’s life. I would save the day.
“She is a bit…” Her voice trailed off as the woman approached us, looking stern. After we were introduced, I asked about her granddaughter – what she liked to read.
“She comes from a very religious family,” the woman explained. Normally, this would raise a red flag. But I felt comfortable. I speak Evangelical.
“I work at a church,” I assured her. I told her of my seminary degree, my career spent molding the teenage theological mind. Unimpressed, she turned to the shelf, pulling down a copy of a book that featured a dragon on the cover. Her reaction was as I expected. There would be no dragons in her granddaughter’s future.
After suggesting a few titles, I picked up a copy of Lisa Schroeder’s book, THE DAY BEFORE. I told her the premise. Even though she was six inches shorter, it seemed as if she was peering down at me.
“I don’t know if I want my granddaughter reading about… love.” She spit out the word. “It might lead her to unwholesome thoughts.”
“Oh, well… I would let my daughter read it. You know, if she were a teenager.”
She looked at me again, telling me everything I needed to know about that.
I scanned the shelves again. Suzanne Young… Steve Brezenoff… Kelly Barnhill… Jeff Hirsch… It was suddenly obvious that all of my writer friends are nothing if not fantastically unwholesome. And then it occurred to me. I was not looking far enough down the bookshelf.
I’m not sure if I would describe Sara as wholesome (this is not a sleight – Sara is awesome. I’m just not sure what it means to be wholesome. But I would learn…) I had just finished HOW TO SAVE A LIFE and it had blown me away. Here was a book that dealt with love – and not that sinful, fornicating type of love. No, this was real love. The love of friendship and family. The sort of love a good church-going woman could get behind with conviction normally reserved for Sunday morning.
In a word, wholesome.
She picked up the book, studied the cover. I could tell by the way her claws had retracted that her defenses were down. I made my pitch.
“It’s about a teenage girl who lost her father,” I started. “And another girl who is pregnant and…”
The woman’s eyes focused on me, then narrowed. “Teen… pregnancy?”
“Yeah, but it’s not what you’re thinking,” I said.
“They live together and the one girl’s mother becomes…”
I could tell this wasn’t going well. I changed course.
“She’s already pregnant when the book starts,” I offered. “So it’s not happening, you know, on the page or anything.”
“Unwholesome…” she muttered.
“Really – it is probably one of the best books I’ve read in the past five years. It deals with family and friendship and how love is bigger than–”
The employee stepped back. I tried one last time.
“I know Sara, and she is a really great–”
The woman showed me the book, as if to convict me, and said, “We do not allow our granddaughter to read about…” her voice dropped to a whisper, “…boinking.”
(Okay, she didn’t say boinking. But I really, really wish she had.)
“That’s not what the story’s about, though,” I said.
Despite everything, I wanted her to hear me. I wanted her granddaughter to get a book that would speak to her, and maybe even challenge her. But she wasn’t hearing it. She put the book back on the shelf and began picking up other books. (In case you’re wondering, THE BOOK THIEF is unwholesome, as well as THE HUNGER GAMES and – after trying a different tact and age level – WHEN YOU REACH ME.)
After multiple attempts, I gradually separated from the madness, occasionally picking up snippets of the conversation between the woman and the bookseller. As I was leaving to re-join my family, I saw the woman pick up a copy of John Green’s LOOKING FOR ALASKA. She studied the cover, then looked to the store’s employee.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “Totally wholesome.”