Welcome to For Your Consideration, a new series about things we love and love to do — and we’d like to give you permission to embrace your authentic self and love them too.
I learned how to masturbate from a Meg Cabot novel. Specifically, it was Ready Or Not, the sequel to All-American Girl, a truly bonkers and perfect YA novel about a teen girl named Sam who saves the President from an assassin, becomes a celebrated national hero and teen ambassador to the UN, and falls for the President’s son. The fact that it has not yet been adapted as a film is one of life’s greatest mysteries. Hollywood, I’m available (but my version will obviously be queer).
In the sequel, the President’s son invites Sam to Camp David and mentions that maybe they can play the board game Parcheesi, which Sam takes to mean he wants to have sex with her. In the end, he really did just want to play Parcheesi, but Sam spends much of the book trying to decide if she’s ready for sex and also seeking advice from her older sister Lucy, who subsequently teaches her how to masturbate in the shower. My life was never the same!!!!!!!!
My parents never talked to me about sex — not queer sex, not heterosexual sex, none of it. I think the first time I became aware of sex as a concept was while watching Charmed reruns on TNT in fifth grade. Instead, I got my sex talks from Judy Blume and Meg Cabot. And yes, their books only really touched on straight sex, but that didn’t make them altogether irrelevant to a closeted middle school lesbian in suburban Virginia in the middle-aughts. Their books taught me that being ready to have sex was entirely up to me, that it didn’t need to happen by a certain age or in a certain way.
A few years after I read Ready Or Not the first time, my parents gave me two books for my birthday, one of them hilariously titled What’s Up With Boys?, intended to be a guide for (straight) adolescent girls to understanding “the male psyche.” Both books were written by the same author, an insidiously sexist and homophobic woman who framed her punitive and toxic views on sex as progressive sexual education for religious teens. Unlike Ready Or Not, her books were distinctly anti-masturbation. She tried to make abstinence-only sex education sound hip. I quickly became terrified that God was mad at me for touching myself. (I kept doing it anyway.)
Eventually, I pushed these books out of my memory. I have a freakishly detailed memory for every book I’ve ever read — when I read it, where I was. But those books faded away for a long time. I didn’t even think about them when I came out and was bombarded by questions about why I didn’t do so sooner, why it was so hard for me to come out to my family even though they were seemingly progressive and accepting and religious but not that kind of religious. I forgot about the books. I think they did, too.
Then, one day while sitting in a closed restaurant in West Village, a few glasses of wine deep, I read a random passage someone posted on Twitter from an evangelical’s text on sex that conflated masturbation, homosexuality, and sin. The words weren’t from the same writer as the books I was given on my birthday, but they still sounded familiar. It all came back, my parents’ misguided and ultimately harmful replacement for an actual sex talk — two books that, in their defense, were probably just recommended to them by their significantly more conservative friends and that they didn’t think to screen them themselves. I tried to tell my then-girlfriend about this life-changing realization I was experiencing at 3 a.m. in an empty restaurant. She didn’t quite get it.
I found excerpts of the books on Google and confirmed that they were just as bad as I suddenly remembered. I cried as I read. I still can’t remember the exact details of how I felt when I read them the first time or where I was. I know I never talked to my parents about them and still haven’t.
This past summer, one of my immediate reactions to sudden, intense turmoil in my personal life was to regress, to go far back enough in time that I could somewhat cordon myself off from what was happening in the present. This looked like briefly escaping to my parents’ house in suburban Virginia. There was almost nothing to do and I didn’t have any friends left there, so I tried to occupy my days alone in my room with my cat, who I’d impulsively brought along despite the fact that she had never left Brooklyn. Everything I tried to read or watch or do reminded me of the person I was trying so hard not to think about. So I started re-reading Meg Cabot’s prolific series The Princess Diaries.
Revisiting those books was one of the only times that this past summer felt like actual summer. I read those books for the first time during swim meets while awaiting my races, on the hammock in our backyard, late during summer nights when I could stay up reading without worrying about school the next morning. I intensely associated them with summer, and even when I returned to Brooklyn to my increasingly unstable life, I would go up to our apartment’s roof and tune into Princess Mia Thermopolis’ New York City. For the uninitiated, there are actually 16 of these books, including half-volumes and even a volume VII and ¾. Meg Cabot doesn’t fuck around.
It wasn’t the first time I’d re-read the books I loved in my youth. For Fourth of July in 2017, I went to my best friend’s parent’s new home in New Jersey and the grand tour included a bright reading nook where the built-in shelves had an entire section dedicated to Judy Blume’s greatest hits. I picked up Just As Long As We’re Together, a book that had once taught me about shifting friendship dynamics during a time when it felt like all of my friendships were changing at a pace I couldn’t keep up with. It held up, and let me tell ya, the queer subtext was fiery. I got my hands on the sequel, Here’s To You, Rachel Robinson the next time I was at my parents’.
That time, the time-traveling I was doing by picking up these books wasn’t necessarily a coping mechanism, but it did feel good, and it did give me access to an old version of myself, shedding light on a lot of the things that contributed to my young queer identity and on that strange paradox of both knowing and not knowing my queerness at the same time.
You can learn a lot about who you were when you go back to what you read during formative years. Sometimes, it’s unsettling. I’d rather never think about those stupid books my parents gave me, but in a way, I have to. On the other hand, with books tied to better memories, revisiting can be an exhale. There’s an intoxicating, instant warming feeling of settling back into a world like that of Harry Potter or Artemis Fowl, worlds I spent so much time in both while reading and in daydreams.
You’d be surprised the kind of memories that can be sparked by a simple phrase or even by the look and feel of a book. The tacky layout of those pages with quotes that separated the chapters in Anne Brashares’ The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants? Oh yeah, you better believe I was transported back to a particular house on a particular street with a particular girl when I recently laid eyes on those again. Even just the plasticky feel of the Princess Diaries books’ shiny hardcover jackets felt like summer.