Watership Down was the only book I’ve ever read in secret.
In sixth grade, we spent a couple of really snowy days sitting inside during recess, watching movies. One of those movies was Watership down. At the time, I was really into cartooning, but most of my experience with the medium was Walt Disney movies and shorts and Don Bluth movies like The Secret of Nihm. This was a completely different animal from anything I’d seen before–violent and gory, with a bittersweet ending, and the story was compelling as all hell. I’d always thought of rabbits as cute, sweet little creatures that were fluffy and gentle (and if the Cadbury commercials were to be believed, they pooped those delicious Creme Eggs). The movie was an eye-opener to say the least. I wanted to check the book out from my elementary school library, but to my dismay, someone had lost it and the library had never replaced it.
So I casually mentioned at home that I was interested in it, and I was taken aback by the strongly negative reaction that drew. “It’s an awful book, so pointlessly violent!” I didn’t mention that we’d already seen the movie at school, afraid of getting my teacher in trouble (because I adored her), but it seemed quite clear to me that I wouldn’t be able to convince anyone to take me to the public library so I could check it out. No one explicitly told me that I couldn’t read it–the only time my parents plainly stated they didn’t want me reading something, it was Stephen King’s work, though even then it was couched as “I’d rather you wait until you’re 14 to start reading those. They have a lot of adult content in them.”–but I read the conversation to mean that I wasn’t allowed.
Seemingly shut down at home, I enlisted a friend to help me procure a copy . She checked it out from the public library for me (oh the trust that entailed…or the youthful foolishness we can sometimes display), and she became my Watership Down dealer. I was astonished the first time I saw the hardcover; it was monstrous, the biggest book I’d ever seen. But I wasn’t deterred. I read it when I wouldn’t get caught, keeping it hidden under my mattress when I wasn’t alone, and taking it to school with me to read during recess. It was the perfect plan….
Except sometimes I wasn’t the brightest kid. I casually mentioned to my teacher that I wasn’t supposed to be reading the book, and following her teacherly obligations, she phoned my mom and told her what I was up to. When mom came home that night, she came to my room (just seconds before I’d managed to tuck the book under my comforter) and I fully expected to be in serious trouble. To my relief though, she gave me permission to go ahead and read it, but warned me, “You probably won’t like it. It will give you nightmares.” I considered putting it aside at that point, even though I was really getting into it, but since I no longer felt the need to read it clandestinely, it seemed a waste to give up. So I continued reading it, searching for the terrible things that were going to give me nightmares.
I never did find what was so vile and scary about Watership Down; in fact, the more I read, the more I liked it, and the more I fell in love with the characters, especially Bigwig. The book became a minor obsession of mine for a couple years in middle school (and I habitually checked it out from middle school library–which did have a copy–until Mom bought me a copy of my own). In the end, it became one of my favorite books and I’ve read it numerous times over the years, always marveling how my eleven-year-old self managed to not only make it through such a huge, poetically-written book but fall in love with it too. I spent hours drawing the characters and plastering my bedroom walls with scenes from the book, like the one to the right; though they were often in full color, complete with the blood and gore. When my mother would ask me about all the blood, I’d tell her, “It’s art, Mom!” She still gets a chuckle out of that.