My ten-year-old daughter plucked the book off the library shelf because she liked the look of it. It had a hot-pink spine, a cover photo of a girl’s arms protectively clutching a stack of notebooks to her chest, and a catchy title: Jessica Darling’s IT LIST: THE (totally not) GUARANTEED GUIDE to POPULARITY, PRETTINESS & PERFECTION.
“Oh, ick” was my first response, though I kept my opinion to myself. Don’t girls get enough pressure to obsess about their appearances and social status? I silently groused. Do they have to be pelted with it in books, too?
As strong as my feelings were, I managed to stay off my soapbox and keep my mouth shut. I remember all too well the day my sophomore English teacher noticed me reading Flowers in the Attic. My teacher had always supported and encouraged my love of writing and my insatiable reading habit. But at the sight of V. C. Andrews’ notorious novel in my hands, she sighed, “Oh, you shouldn’t be reading garbage like that. It won’t do your writing any favors, reading something so poorly written.”
I know she meant well, but I felt mortified—caught in the act of gobbling down the literary equivalent of Ho-Hos cupcakes. That feeling of shame stuck with me a long time (though it didn’t stop me from sneak-reading the rest of the series). In that moment was born a vow: if I ever had kids, I wouldn’t shame them for what they liked to read.
Throughout my kids’ early years, we hauled a little red wagon down the block to our local library just about every week and came back loaded with books for what we called “reading jamborees”—us snuggled up on our cat-clawed beige couch with a teetering stack of picture books and comics collections. Our reading jamborees ranged from Greek mythology and modern classics like the Frog and Toad books to Garfield comics. We were indiscriminate and voracious, devouring gorgeous, artfully crafted picture books alongside merchandising tie-in books starring Dora the Explorer, Thomas the Tank Engine, and Barbie, reveling in all of it—no judgment. No shame.
Now that my daughter is ten and my son is thirteen, I’ve continued to follow a “no-judgment” policy when it comes to what they read (though I do tend to ask them to wait if a book seems too violent or sexy for their maturity level). I really can’t know how much my kids love or value a certain book, how much of their own emerging identity is connected to what they feel about a particular book. If I dismiss a book they love as trash, I suspect it’ll make them less likely to share with me about other things they love.
Do I want my kids to experience great literature? Of course! And perhaps in part because I’ve been open to what my kids like, they often give what I like a chance, too. Few things make me as happy as seeing my kid finish a book I admire and then declaring, “That was pretty good.” Or even better: “I’d like to read more books like that.” In turn, they sometimes recommend books to me that I never would have found on my own—and end up rocking my world.
Which brings me to Jessica Darling’s IT LIST. My daughter gulped up that first book, then discovered it was the first in a trilogy and read the other two. And then one day, she said, “I think we should read the first Jessica Darling book for our next mother-daughter read-aloud.”
I was not prepared for how much I loved this novel.
The trilogy’s protagonist Jessica is a smart, awkward girl starting junior high. Her older sister Bethany, now in college, was once a top junior-high “IT Girl,” a cheerleader with “infinity BFFs” and all the most popular boys vying for her attention. Bethany has never paid much attention to Jessica, so Jessica is thrilled when Bethany offers her “Bethany Darling’s IT List,” a “guaranteed” four-point guide to popularity, prettiness, and perfection.
Jessica dutifully tries to follow Bethany’s pointers. Naturally, chaos ensues.
This novel wasn’t trying to be a guide to popularity at all! It was using sly humor and great, relatable characters to demolish the idea of trying to be popular following someone else’s rules. It was about the lifelong task of letting go of worrying about how to be an “IT girl” and instead embracing who you really are. As I read, I became more and more convinced that the series’ author, a novelist named Megan McCafferty, must be a genius.
This book! It gave my daughter and me so much great fuel for discussions I wish I could have had with my mom when I was ten. Together, we mused over questions like “Why does Jessica hang out with girls she doesn’t actually enjoy or feel comfortable with?” and “Why is Jessica trying to follow her sister’s advice when it’s so clearly wrong for her?” We pondered what we’d do if we were in some of the predicaments that Jessica faces. I shared a few stories of my own and saw my daughter’s eyes light up with the recognition that I really had been a girl her age once, too.
We’re about to start Jessica Darling’s IT LIST 3: THE (totally not) GUARANTEED GUIDE TO STRESSING, OBSESSING, & SECOND-GUESSING. We’re also looking forward to the upcoming release of a movie based on the first book. Author Megan McCafferty has said she hopes to host some mother-daughter book club events in conjunction with the movie release. If she visits anywhere near us, I’ll definitely be there with stars in my eyes to thank her for what she does.
When I was a tween and teen, there were two things I remember craving most of all from the adults in my life. I wanted them to show some curiosity about who I really was (as opposed to who they thought I ought to be), and I wanted to feel that they accepted the real me. My no-judgment policy about my kids’ reading has been one way to cultivate that kind of curiosity and acceptance. And whether I’m laughing with my kids over the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid installment or talking with them about why they think one author’s handling of multiple points-of-view works beautifully while another author’s, well, doesn’t, I feel grateful to have had the reading experiences I’ve had with them. And it’s all because of a vow sparked back when I was sixteen, long before I ever became a mom.