August 11, 2022


As I remember it, our third grade teacher would assign a book to everyone to read and we’d talk about it in class. Now I liked this teacher because she was the first person in my life who explained to me that I was shy and that I didn’t have to be, so one day I bravely asked her if I could recommend a book for us to read. She said that if I lent her a copy, she’d definitely read it over to see if she thought it’d be the right kind of book for class.

That book was Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars. I’m not sure that, as a third grader, I could’ve explained why I liked it so much, except that it felt like a good way to live life: having weird adventures and caring a lot about the right things, like good friends and good snacks.

Well, she read it over. She said she appreciated how much I enjoyed it, but that it wasn’t the right sort of book to read as a class. “For example, there’s the part where underage kids have a great time smoking cigars,” she said. “I think the parents would riot.”

I was astonished. In my view, reading about kids smoking (a few cigars! to try it out! for fun!) was obviously about as harmless as it gets. In my astonishment, I got a sudden intuition. I felt very strongly that my teacher turning down the book was directly connected to the sort of vapid adult hysteria those cigars were about: didn’t Leonard and Alan smoke cigars partly because it can be good and instructive to break rules like that? Because adults tend to be very excitable and frivolous and hopelessly boring, which gets in the way of kids growing up properly? Adults tend to do things like turning down interesting books because of fictional cigars (Ceci n’est pas une pipe!) and making you ask to use the bathroom. A good lesson for life, and the book had already said so!  My teacher shocked me into noticing that. I learned that you might like a book because it has a Way of Looking at Things that shows you some potentially important and true ideas for your day to day life.

Even the best schools are a little like Bat Masterson. On the other hand, even the most mundane adventures with friends are a little like sneaking off to an alternate universe and saving the day. I was glad to have that pointed out early on. It’s been around twenty-five years since then and I am still Looking at Things, reading joyful transgressive books, and doing my best to live life in that good way.

Daniel replies:

I think you said it all. I didn't have any lofty ideas vis-a-vis cigars and freedom, I just wrote what seemed to fit. If I'd had the characters smoke cigarettes, that would have been different.