The drive to keep kids from seeing inappropriate books is bringing up memories.
When I was 12, my father tried to retire from the Army by living on consecutive six-month visas in Guadalajara. We tried to learn Spanish while we were there, of course, but it was a relief to find out there was a library in the city that catered to English readers.
I remember my first impression of the library’s holdings for kids my age. There was a huge collection of Boys’ Life magazines. I skimmed through about four or five issues, and then I decided I had to find something else — anything else. Gack.
Next, I found books on mammals. Big coffee table books with pages and pages of color photographs of all kinds of mammals from around the world. They kept me occupied for an hour or so, flipping through the pictures and trying to remember the names of all the animals.
I still wanted more. I followed my father into the stacks of books for grown-ups. I found a whole new range of books such as I’d never seen before. The books in my school libraries back in the States only had children’s books and some tame young adult fiction. This library let me browse books by James Michener, Camus and Gore Vidal. I picked a few for checkout.
When we got to the checkout counter, the librarian said I needed parental permission to check them out. I was worried for a moment but my father said, “Absolutely.” I had permission to read any book I wanted, and he signed a document to that effect, saying I had permission even if he wasn’t there for a future visit. I was pretty happy with the way that turned out, and, during that year, I got used to the idea that I could and should read whatever I wanted to.
Then my father quit the dream of living out his retirement in Mexico, as the economics of it became clear. He had been under the impression that the cost of living in Mexico was so low he could retire with ease on his military pension. I think he could have but for his definition of “ease.” He wanted to live there in the same style as he lived in the United States. For example, he wanted to keep and maintain the family station wagon and load it with groceries every week at one of the few modern supermarkets there. It turned out that if you didn’t adjust your lifestyle, the prices weren’t that much better.
I didn’t understand the problem. Buses were so incredibly inexpensive there. Bus fare cost the equivalent of two cents per ride at the time. Why not ditch the station wagon and embrace the bus? But to my father it was too much loss of luxury. So, we moved back home to Seattle.
I found myself at a local branch of the Seattle Public Library, again with my father. I quickly explored the adult holdings as before and noticed the stickers stating that I had to be, as I recall, 14 to check them out. I wasn’t quite 13 yet, but, I thought, my father was there with me, so he could just sign over permission again.
No, he couldn’t. The Seattle Public Library system wouldn’t let me check out adult books regardless of whether or not I had my father’s OK. He protested righteously, but the librarian wouldn’t budge. I would have to wait more than 14 months to be old enough to take home the books I wanted. All I could check out were Dr. Seuss books. I’d liked Dr Seuss books years earlier, but I thought I was ready to put “Green Eggs and Ham” behind me.
I should have seen it coming. Another thing I could do as a 12 year old in Guadalajara was walk unattended into a bar and order a Coca Cola from the bartender. I knew that wouldn’t fly in Seattle. I just thought, but, but, it’s not like my reading would expose me to drunks or — heaven forbid — drag queens.
It wasn’t so bad. I could browse my father’s home library all I wanted. I’d already started on Henry Miller’s The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, so I was placated.
That and his back collection of Playboys. I managed to keep busy for those 14 months.
Read more of the Mar. 22-28, 2023 issue.