I was worried when my nine-year-old son began to read Living Treasures. “It’s inappropriate.” I tried to tear it out of his hands, but he held fast to the book.
“I don’t have other books to read.”
It was an excuse. He read at least three fantasy novels a week. I had asked him to try classics or non-fiction books. He showed little interest, until he laid his hands on my novel. It was both flattering and frightening.
During the next two days, he read Living Treasures in the after-school program. It was surreal to see him flip the pages while eating slices of apple, oblivious of the other children who played and chattered around him.
Several people commented on my book cover and said it looked like a children’s book. It was an adult story infused with a passionate quest for justice and romance. I enjoyed tackling difficult social issues with the energy and conviction of young reformers. A Chinese idiom says, “Newborn calves are not afraid of tigers.” My protagonists experience setbacks but are unfazed about the obstacles. Their optimism and can-do spirit sometimes make them martyrs in an indifferent society.
My young reader didn’t know the deep-rooted social injustices in China throughout her four thousand years of history. He was engaged by Bao’s perilous journey toward maturity. As a mother, I worried about the sex scene in chapter 3. A friend asked why I had gone into such details. If I had glossed over the lovemaking scene, the book would be squeaky clean and perfect even for middle school students. School Library Journal reviewed Living Treasures and recommended it for girls aged ten and above. However, some parents might want to read chapter 3 before letting their children, especially young daughters, read the book.
I hadn’t thought about its “marketability” during the ten drafts while I wrote the novel. Every time I came to the sex scene, I knew it was central for the plot for several reasons.
- Bao becomes pregnant. Since their lovemaking bears the fruit, it is significant. For them, sex is not gratuitous but a life-changing event. To hide this act or vaguely hint at it does disservice for the protagonists and misleads the readers.
- Bao is ignorant about the consequence. Her parents want to keep her heart “pure,” which ironically results in her downfall. By not giving their daughter a sex education, the parents risk having her seduced by her peers. This is the trap of a polite society, as overprotection makes a teenager naïve, vulnerable, and prone to uninformed decisions. Consequently for Bao, the error of a moment becomes the regret of a lifetime.
- Tong is ignorant about the consequence. A man and woman often blame each other for an unwanted pregnancy. It does not help anyone, least of all the woman, to play the unwitting victim and turn a love affair into a blame game. She robs her lover of the opportunity to support her during a difficult time. In a way, Tong’s failure is associated with Bao’s passivity.
- Bao begins to grow as she faces reality and gazes at her own body. She learns from Orchid the glory and perils of womanhood. By making a heroic sacrifice, she rises up from her victim role, takes control, and becomes a savior of the downtrodden.
- Tong no longer “desires” Bao after the abortion. He practices abstinence as self-discipline to demonstrate his true love for her. This brings their relationship to a new level of mutual respect. They both go through the soul searching journey to face their grief and failures. They almost break up, when Childless Du intrudes into their world. The crisis makes or breaks a couple. Love triumphs in the end, as they join forces to fight the injustice, heal and grow as a couple and as individuals.
I wrote the lovemaking scenes because they are functional and educational. Their love for each other is the driving force. Sex is the beginning of their journey into the real life—messy and fertile ground for growth, courage, kindness, and self-sacrifice.
Those were my designs. The real world reader experience trumps my concerns. My nine-year-old was at first surprised by the sex scene and giggled a few times. Soon he was drawn into the deeper family conflicts. He was mesmerized by the beekeeping scenes and asked me how I knew those details. He even looked forward to raising bees himself.
Parents often underestimate children’s ability to learn and discern. We fail to support them despite our best intentions. Like many of my schoolmates I had lived a sheltered life. I had learned about the mechanics of lovemaking from reading the bathroom graffiti as a college sophomore. Suddenly the sterile scientific terms took on the frightening human form. This brought shame and confusion to a young mind that cannot reconcile modesty and honor with romantic passion.
Yesterday I met a father during the author signing session. He bought Living Treasures for his thirteen-year-old daughter. I suggested that he should read chapter 3 and decide if he wanted to give it to his daughter now or a bit later. He thought for a moment and then answered me with a smile.
“It’s okay, just part of growing up.”
I saw a father’s confidence in his teenage daughter that is pure love. Too moved to speak, I nodded my thanks.