When my daughter was a young reader, she had designs on reading books way above her Lexile level. It was hard for her to walk through the young adult section of the bookstore knowing that these books were out of her reach—she wanted to hold all those big thick books with fancy and provocative covers in her hands and read them on her own. She took her time becoming a full-fledged independent reader, and until she did, she relied on the context of a sentence and story to assist her in reading the words that eluded her. Rather than break words into discrete sounds to sound them out, she often inserted words that made sense but lacked phonemic connection to the words on the page. Pedagogists of reading know that a child’s ability to approximate meaningfully is part and parcel of learning how to read well, and we believed that she was developing the foundational skills and concepts of a good reader. We were hesitant to view her reading process as a problem—she had enough problems with a severely scoliotic spine that required yearly spinal surgeries beginning at three years old.
Bridie needed daily reminders to remain patient, that her reading will progress, and that all those vampire novels will be there when it does. And then one day she returned home from school with a book about fairies that she purchased at a school book sale. After showing us its shiny silver cover featuring a delicate winter fairy, she sat down on the sofa, kicked off her boots, ignoring the sand spilling onto the floor. She no longer needed us to sit next to her—she was off on her own. It was hard to ignore the grin on her face—some children experience this kind of thrill when they learn to ride a two-wheeler but my Bridie, who had her heart set on reading big thick books from the time she was five, had finally arrived. She will never fully master the two-wheeler because of the severity of her scoliosis, but her books will take her places a bicycle cannot.
As Bridie became a more accomplished reader, she read books that brought her to the place she loved most—inside the social worlds of young women. In the book world, Bridie’s favorite genre is sometimes called “chick lit” meaning books for girls, and she’s fine with calling her beloved books by that genre. She’s an emerging feminist who understands that books about boys are called fantasy, mystery, and every other genre under the sun and that the stories about young women are often marginalized. Bridie knows only too well what it means to inhabit a place in the world outside the mainstream as she has spent a good deal of her childhood inside of hospitals and doctor’s waiting rooms where she has encountered children like herself, whose life stories are mostly absent from the children’s literature that they are expected to read.
On our way to an appointment to see an oncologist for a second opinion about whether Bridie was to receive chemotherapy for her recently discovered optic tumors, my husband and I were nervous about how what to expect in the waiting room. We had no idea what a room of children receiving chemotherapy looked like—a room in which our daughter might very soon spend much of her time. When we arrived, we found children tucked in all corners of the room, building with blocks, doing puzzles; drawing, laughing, and things took off when the candy cart arrived. The children all seemed to know the procedure for selecting candy and what could have amounted to a chaotic experience, was orderly and fun. Seeing a room of relatively happy children put us all at ease.
While Bridie ate her chocolate, and read a book with my husband, I scanned the room and noticed a young woman sitting in her wheelchair reading. Her mother was sitting next to her, looking at her phone, occasionally looking over at her daughter. I recognized the young woman’s book; it was a “chick lit” book whose protagonist was about the same age as the young woman. She was about thirteen, with bright blue eyes, and light blonde hair that dipped just below the hat she wore to hide the effects of chemotherapy. Amidst all the energy and chatter of young children, she remained absorbed by the story of a thirteen-year-old girl. I know the book, and I know it is full of juicy problems about best friends, boyfriends, and there’s some kissing.
My first childhood encounter with “chick lit” was Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in fifth grade. Inside of Margaret’s first person account of her search for God and experiences of becoming a young woman, I discovered that reading could be intensely personal. Although I loved Stuart Little and other books written expressly for kids, for the first time, I consciously connected with a character—Blume’s Margaret who was smart, confused, and at times, alone in her pursuit of what it means to be a girl. Margaret’s direct and honest conversations with God about her changing body and frustration over religion enveloped me. While my classmates played games during choice time, I read on until the story reached its conclusion in Margaret getting her first period, and in her decision to leave religion, not God, to the world of adults. I was thoroughly absorbed and satisfied by my first experience with a book relegated to the genre of young women’s fiction or “chick lit,” and so when my daughter began reading almost exclusively within the genre, I understood wholeheartedly.
When Bridie’s name was announced in the waiting room, we followed the receptionist into a small examination room and were met by the doctor. He joked with Bridie for a couple of minutes, read her medical file and began his examination. We watched them—Bridie and the doctor, and smiled to communicate our approval of this man who is telling her to follow his fingers with her eyes. In minutes, he turned towards us to let us know that he felt chemotherapy was not warranted at present, and that although he couldn’t prove it, he believed that the tumors were near the end of their growth period. Bridie was to have regular MRI’s and eye exams, and we were to monitor them. He talked about his three young kids, and after exchanging parenting stories, he made sure to let us know how happy he was that could give us he had good news, and we let him know how happy we were to receive it.
On our way out of the office, we passed through the waiting area, now quiet and tidy because the kids who had occupied the room were receiving treatment inside the many small exam rooms. My husband and I made eye contact, and the worry that we lived with for weeks, flew from our faces. Inside my jumble of thoughts about our good news, I thought about all the children, especially the brown haired five-year-old boy whose mouth was full of tootsie rolls while talking to his brother, and the young woman with a book in the palms of her slender hands. I wonder about her experience of adolescence when chemotherapy and cancer are added to the already complex equation of becoming a woman. I hoped that the right books find their way into the hands of both the mother and daughter and reading offer them respite, hope, and the rare privilege of stumbling upon a character who will leap from the page into their minds and hearts.
In the span of weeks, we learned that as our daughter developed from a toddler to a young girl, tiny tumors emerged in her brain and wrapped themselves around both her optic nerves and our narrative of concern and worry would include her vision, always. There would be more spinal surgeries, more MRI’s to track these tumors, and despite this new chapter in our daughter’s medical history, we were just given good news, and we needed to enjoy the moment. All three of us are learning to carry the subtext of dissonance that characterizes living a happy life alongside regular medical procedures, trauma, and chronic worry. As we got in the car, our conversation shifted from chemotherapy to dinner, and we decided to go with Bridie’s suggestion of Italian food. We’ll enjoy our bowls of pasta, perhaps even have a couple of sodas to celebrate the good news, and our memory of this day will occupy a space somewhere inside of all of us. Mine will sit right next to the Margaret that I knew so well when I was eleven years old. “I know you’re there, God. I know you wouldn’t have missed this for anything. Thank you, God. Thanks an awful lot.”
Elizabeth Bertsch is a graduate of Bank Street College of Education and a teacher on the East End of Long Island. She has studied writing with David Rakoff and Roger Rosenblatt, and has published essays in arts and education journals.