Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

Twelve years old. Library card. Fringe.

Sarah led an aggressively sheltered life in a green English village. Her parents, a self-consciously counter-culture older couple, had done everything they could to give their only daughter a childhood free from any harmful influences, even going as far as to request that she not take part in the Year 6 production of My Fair Lady – they feared that the themes of poverty and class struggle would upset her.

Sarah had, at age ten-and-a-half, watched the first ten minutes of a South Park episode, glued with rubbernecking horror to the screen. Her dad, half-dressed for his cycle commute to work, overheard the set and, one arm in his anorak and wearing a single clip-on bike shoe, lurched into the room and tackled the TV.  Standing over its mangled remains, all sparking wires and broken glass, he bellowed in uncharacteristic rage about stiff letters to the people responsible and cartoons these days.

From then on, Sarah was not permitted to watch television. She was allowed to watch any of the dusty pile of kids’ VHS tapes, collected from years of car boot sales, stacked behind the hastily repaired set, but, after a year and a half of heavy use, they were badly warped; the characters jolted through their storylines like badly wound clockwork automatons. Before very long, Sarah had stopped watching the tapes chronologically, and instead would use the remote to make the characters zoom backwards and forwards, creating her own stories as she jabbed at the slightly sticky buttons.

The highlight of her week was her visit to the local library, accompanied either by her obstinately greying mother or her father in his purple and green anorak. Each week Sarah would return a finished book and, once her choice had been approved by her censor, take a new one to the front desk, where the librarian, whom Sarah felt deeply attached to, without ever knowing her name, would stamp the front page with a new date.

As though forgetting the thousands of times Sarah had already stood before her, the librarian would always spend long minutes scrutinising Sarah’s library card as though she suspected her of some kind of fraud. Each detail, from the signature on the back to the logo on the front, would be surveyed in turn, and every few seconds Sarah herself would be gazed at with unconcealed suspicion. Whilst her papers were being checked, Sarah always found herself staring at the librarian’s cold sores, which festered at the corners of her lips. Some weeks they would glisten like open wounds; other weeks they would have scabbed over and look as if they were beginning to heal.

It was November when the library, desperate for more custom, launched a new system: two tables, one for adults and one for children, were piled high with books wrapped in anonymous brown paper. A handwritten sign on the wall read, “Don’t judge a book by a cover.” Sarah approached the children’s table; she saw that the librarian had painstakingly written a short, purposefully vague description of each tome on a star shaped gift label – “boy wizard’s adventures at school“; “a teenage spy faces his toughest challenge yet“.

Even though she suspected it contained The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Sarah selected the package labelled with “four siblings discover a snowy land“. Having read it twice before, she was in no hurry to tear off the brown wrapping when she got home; she spent some time watching the Peak District rain beating at her bedroom window. Finally she slipped her finger into the badly selotaped fold and slit open this week’s entertainment.

But the book that fell onto her woolly blanket was not the one she had expected. Rather than a vintage drawing of two girls riding on the back of a giant lion, she was faced with a blank green cover, on which were the words, JAMES BALDWIN; ANOTHER COUNTRY. Intrigued, she flipped the book and read the blurb:

Education is indoctrination if you’re white – subjugation if you’re black.

This was definitely not one of the Chronicles of Narnia.

Heart hammering, feeling as though she was committing some dreadful crime, Sarah opened the book and started to read –

He was facing Seventh Avenue, at Times Square. It was past midnight and he had been sitting in the movies since two o’clock in the afternoon. Twice he had been awakened by the violent accents of the Italian film, once the usher had awakened him, and twice he had been awakened by caterpillar fingers between his thighs…

Eyes wide open, she read on, savouring every new word and new idea. There were many words she didn’t know (blow job, wop, nigger), but she didn’t dare look them up in the family’s Oxford Dictionary, sensing somehow that her parents would not approve.

By the next morning, she had read the entire book, and, without pausing, she flipped back to the front and started all over again:

He was facing Seventh Avenue, at Times Square. It was past midnight and he had been sitting in the movies since two o’clock in the afternoon. Twice he had been awakened by the violent accents of the Italian film, once the usher had awakened him, and twice he had been awakened by caterpillar fingers between his thighs…

Surely, she thought later that evening, quietly sipping her soup at the kitchen table, there had been some mistake at the library: there was no way that was a kids’ book. But she needed more; she knew she would never again be content with a book from the children’s section, with its papier-mache rainbow and tiny chairs. She began to wonder how she could slip away from her parents and grab armfuls of forbidden tomes to gorge on in the privacy of her bedroom.

Fate seemed to be smiling at her: on Monday morning, her teacher, already familiar with Sarah’s parents’ peculiarities, took her aside and explained that the class would be starting their sexual education in their biology classes. “But you can just go to the school library,” said the teacher, trying to preempt an inevitable meeting with the girl’s abrasive family.

“The school library?” Sarah had not even known that her school, a grey, Northern comp, had a library.

Sarah had a window of an opportunity: for an hour every week for however long sex ed could last, she rushed from shelf to shelf, grabbing A-Level texts and checking them out. She would take them home and hide them under her mattress and read them only in the deep of night, curled up under her unbearably hot blanket with a torch.

UlyssesThe Naked Luncheverything by D.H. Lawrence and Sylvia Plath’s anthology.

Her parents noticed her panda eyes and exhaustion, but they attributed it to puberty and a lack of iron and bought her supplements, never suspecting that under her covers she had access to a thousand foreign worlds they could never dream of. Sarah’s childhood, as they defined it, was over.

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