I certainly knew, by the time I turned 13 in 1950, that there were so-called "dirty books" out there. I had sneaked a peek at a popular English novel my mother was reading (one character's breasts were described as "ample" and "melon-shaped"), and there was a gritty street-gang book about Brooklyn that made the rounds among my peers, a book in which certain page numbers had become iconic, though I doubt if any of us read the book from start to finish for plot.
Aside from the pleasure of giggling with my friends over the racy passages, neither book interested me much. Restoration England was too busy and over-populated for my unformed taste, and Brooklyn street gangs were far removed from my adolescent concerns.
But Brooklyn itself interested me, because I had lived there as a young child — had gone to kindergarten in Brooklyn, in fact — and had fond memories of my playmates in our Bay Ridge neighborhood. That is why A Tree Grows in Brooklyn caught my eye in the library, why I picked it up, opened the book to enter the world of a girl named Francie Nolan, and found my life with literature changed.
It wasn't because I identified with the bookish, idealistic main character. I did, of course. But the books of my childhood had been filled with those spunky, literate girls: Jo March, for one. Or Anne Shirley. So Francie Nolan felt familiar and kindred, as they had.
It was her world that was new to me and caught me unaware. Francie's crowded tenement neighborhood was pulsating with sex. I was startled, at first, by Aunt Sissy: her unapologetic lifestyle (I think there were several husbands, with no widowhood or divorce in between), by the description of her bright red garter, by the voluminous breasts released from a pinching corset and falling forward, rosy and massive. None of that exuberant flesh in Concord or Avonlea! And it was cheerful— none of the wink-wink references. It was sex I was reading about — no question — but with a difference. It was part of life — not of my buttoned-up life, but of the noisy immigrant life made real in the pages of Betty Smith's novel — and it was sometimes a part that caused heartbreak or chaos. But it wasn't "dirty." I would not have known the word to put to it at 13; but it was earthy.
Lois Lowry is the author of more than 30 books for young adults.
Courtesy of Lois Lowry
And it was real.I read of the teenage girls forced from school by the necessity of earning a living, of their hasty hallway embraces with loutish boys, the early pregnancies that condemned them to bad marriages and a repeat of the stifled lives of their mothers. I read of the cruelty: the shouts of "Whore!" directed at the young unmarried girl who dared to take her baby for a walk on Francie's street. The brutality: the lurking pedophile who grabs 13-year-old Francie in a dark hallway; and maternal passion: her mother, Katie, with a gun behind her apron, who shoots him and saves her daughter.
It was raw and real and, to me at 13, often shocking. But I never confided in my friends with a giggle that I had found a new dirty book — it wasn't. It was a book about life that revealed more to me than my earlier loved books ever had. I treasured it, and Francie, and my new knowledge of her world, the same world of mingled flesh and feelings I would one day enter.
PG-13is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Annalisa Quinn.