By Genna Kohlhardt
1. For better or for worse, bribery was one of my parents’ most effective teaching tools. As an infant, I adamantly refused to be potty-trained. Apparently, after months of trying to encourage me to be a big girl, my mom finally told me she’d buy me a Big Bird VHS if I would just use the damn toilet. I doubt she actually said “damn.” Boom, potty-trained.
2. This carried on. In the summers, to keep us from watching The Price is Right and playing Sonic the Hedgehog on our Sega Genesis all day, my mom would bribe my sisters and me. Read a certain number of books over the summer and we could go to Chuck E. Cheese’s before school started. Now that I’ve been to a Chuck E. Cheese as an adult, I realize what a sacrifice this was on my parents’ part.
3. But the thing is, they didn’t really need to bribe me. I’ve always read and been a ravenous reader, but especially as a pre-teen. This is one of the things I miss about being a teenager, the swaths of open time and the crushing boredom that made tearing through piles of books completely possible. Before I was old enough to rollerblade to the Metrolux and see movies with my friends, the only thing to do in a summer day was read. I miss these open, wide hours. What I don’t miss about being a teenager? This haircut:
4. We lived on a lake at the time and had this raft my dad made out of 55-gallon drums, styrofoam, plywood, and that green, outdoor carpet that always gave me a little rash. I would paddle out there with a book on the front of a windsurfing board. Note: I never actual windsurfed. As my braver sisters practiced flips off the side of the raft, I’d lay on my stomach and read, my books eventually becoming waterlogged from my sisters’ splashing.
5. (All of my books show evidence of this dangerous, violent kind of reading. There is a curry thumbprint right in the center of the back cover of my copy of Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl. Otherwise the cover is completely white, but turmeric comes out of nothing. Sometimes I’ll forget about plums in my bag and only remember they are there when whatever book I’m reading has finally pierced the skin of the rotting fruit, saturating the pages in a brown-purple stick. My husband, also a reader, is a very forgiving man. I have ruined many of his books.)
6. I couldn’t get enough of sci-fi/fantasy series with strong female characters. The categories on my Netflix account show I haven’t changed much. Who knew that “TV Fantasy with Strong Female Lead” was a genre? Sometimes I’d pull these books from the YA shelves at the Barnes & Noble in Fort Collins. Anything with a short-haired girl and a dragon on the front had to be mine. Anything with strange creatures, young women, weird worlds.
7. This is how I discovered Philip Pullman‘s incredible YA series, His Dark Materials. I read these books almost every summer, to this day. Their commitment to defiance blows me away; they are about nothing short of taking down God. If I ever have a child, I hope it will be a daughter so I can call her Lyra, after the hero of the series. The YA shelf is also how I discovered Tamora Pierce‘s books. I loved those books and their hero, Alanna, who bound her breasts so she could be a knight when girls weren’t allowed. As an adult I realize how many of Pierce’s characters were queer, but back then I just thought they were badass.
8. Sometimes I’d pull my books from the adult shelves too, and I’m surprised my mom didn’t say no to those. I don’t know if you’ve been through the paperback sci-fi section recently, but if you’re looking for a heaving bosom, that’s the place to go. I’d read those books in the summers too, as I started to notice a warmth I wasn’t sure what to do with.
9. (When I got my first period, my mom presented me with an illustrated book called It’s Perfectly Normal. She must have done this when she found bloodied underwear in the trashcan. I didn’t initially tell her, even though I thought I might be dying. The book is narrated by a bird and a bee, but full of not-shy illustrations of human bodies. It’s startling in its diversity, considering this must have been the mid-’90s, and I’ve got to give major kudos to my mom for finding such a progressive book on puberty, sex, and sexuality. There was even a chapter on homosexuality that included the entomology of the word lesbian and an illustration of two women in togas. My previous introduction to any kind of sex had been my cousin mashing the crotches of her Ken and Barbie dolls together. The illustrations in the book made a lot more sense.)
10. At the end of each summer, I’d surpassed my mom’s bribery threshold, and my sisters, who’d spent most of their summers swimming and having actual outdoor adventures, managed to read their required books too. My parents would begrudgingly haul all of us in our Suburban up to Chuck E. Cheese where we’d devour all the fake cheese we could manage while exchanging quarters for tickets. The exchange rate wasn’t good, and after several hours and what I imagine was at least $50 each, all we’d leave with were some impressive skee-ball skills and a few Lisa Frank erasers. Regardless, I loved that swamp of entertainment.
11. But I didn’t need it. I didn’t need bribes and an animatronic band of rodents to make me a greedy reader. I’m sure it was important that I was able to find books whose characters reflected the kind of girl I was, or dreamed I’d be. But I’m not even sure I would have needed that either, though when I was teaching writing to teens I could have written tomes about how important it is to find those characters. I was a reader because books were pleasure. They ate the hours and they were pleasure.
This post is part of our annual Lit Counts series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop—is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 6 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
Genna Kohlhardt is a poet, publisher, and program assistant at Lighthouse. Her press, Goodmorning Menagerie, is currently hard at work producing a translation of the Dada poet Tristan Tzara’s Welcome to the Heartrail.