BBW: The Surprise Banned Book

Anita Silvey likes to give the same presentation for her book Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book. She asks the audience to submit the title of what book they’ve learned the most from. I usually say Madeline. Other times, it’s The Giver.

Like Jonas, I learned the importance of love, the nature of love, the dignity and value of personhood. More importantly, I learned that adults can be massively wrong and the right thing to do is to challenge their ways and that not every ending is tied up in a happy, clear bow. It was the first book to upset me, and I love it fiercely.But I had no idea what could cause it to be banned. There was no foul language. Jonas and The Giver are clearly good and what the fauxtopia does is clearly bad. Maybe if the narrator explained how the pregnant girls got pregnant (since men are chemically neutered at the onset of puberty), then I could see it possibly having a content issue. But that story hole was not filled.

So why is it banned? The appalling topics of euthanasia, pill-popping (to suppress normal sexual urges), and apparently for being lewd. Uh, conservatives…it can’t go both ways.Or you were never a teenage boy nor lived with one nor read about human development and hormones. Some argue that Lowry didn’t go far enough. I think those people don’t give kids enough credit.

Here’s the thing if you read Lowry’s book and have half a brain, you get that readers are supposed to find these societal behaviors as appalling! Children will hear about these topics on the nightly news, read about them on the Internet, and encounter much worse in video games. But that’s all at home.

The underlying issue of this week is that people don’t want certain books talked about at school. School is a place of learning, but not of real life, apparently. How many parents (including the ones who challenge books) actually have conversations with their children about the good and the bad of the human experience? Do they have the vocabulary and structure with which to inspire independent thought and discernment about the topics?  How are children supposed to learn to think critically if they’re never given anything that demands a critique!

If the only problem with these books is that they’re talked about at school, then parents need to seriously question whether they want their children reading the books outside of any context with no adult guidance and then not come to you because they’re afraid you will punish them for reading that “bad” book instead of getting a loving conversation. Because that’s what happens. Kids will get exposed to bad stuff…don’t you want to be there, and if you can’t, a trained professional – like a teacher?

Here’s what should happen: At the beginning of the year, teachers send out the curriculum outlining the books the kids will read, what’s in them, and WHY they’re reading them. Parents will be strongly encouraged to read the books ahead of time or as a family during the unit. Parents shall be allowed to ask for a substitute book for their children only after having proven that they’ve read the book (and not just because Fox News said so) AND have personally selected a suitable alternative (to be judged by the teacher) that fits the curriculum for that unit. Too much work, you say, parent? Well, that’s your job. Who knows – you might learn something.


BBW: Book Facing a New Challenge, Part 2

Full disclosure: Jo Knowles was my writing instructor at Simmons College’s MFA program in Fall 2007.

Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles is featured on ALA’s Challenged or Banned List for 2009-2010. It’s wonderful that Jo’s poignant novel about overcoming peer sexual abuse is finally getting country-wide exposure, but depressing that it had to come about because a group of adults found its content “unsuited for discussion in coed high school classes” and not providing “intellectual challenge and rigor.”

Problems abound with this mindset:

1) If teenagers can’t communicate about issues in a safe, controlled environment, how will they grow up to interact with the opposite gender in other contexts?

2) Foul language, sex, abuse, drug use, etc. are parts of many teenagers’ realities, unfortunately. Withdrawing the opportunity to analyze the novel and the author’s choices may only push teenagers’ problems deeper underground.

3) The AP Literature and Language Composition exams give a suggested list of titles from which to choose in answering generic analysis questions. Students may select books off the list. Speak would be fabulous to write about in tandem with The Scarlett Letter (undoubtedly on the suggested lists). Lessons from a Dead Girl has character development, themes, and literary devices also ready for analysis.

4) I once had a friend say any middle schooler could write Ernest Hemingway books, presumably due to the simple sentence construction and “easy” diction. Actually, Hemingway, Knowles, and other modern writers’ styles are more approachable for the college-bound than Henry James or translated Russian authors. Seriously, Henry James writes in such a way that one sentence is an entire page long. Further, the themes, characters, and plots bear little meaning to teenagers’ realities. Wouldn’t it be an intellectual exercise to approach modern fiction with the same critical background?

Thankfully, the book is still available in the library and the school’s book club.

BBW: New Books Facing Challenges, Part 1

Last week, the book blogosphere was in a tizzy over a Missouri editorialist’s condemnation of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson due to two rape scenes. We all know (1) rape does not equal pornography. Pornography is sexual in nature; rape is a violent crime. And (2) the second scene was not a rape.  It was a fully clothed attempt at assault. Main character Melinda’s voice and the female lacrosse team awesomely prevented things from getting worse. Read the book more closely, WS.

Many people came to the book’s defense and the reasons why this book should be allowed in curricula. So I wanted to tackle something different: banning political ideologies.

This person in Missouri (WS) must have thought that his role as John Q. Public was to act in the public’s best interest. After all, he is a taxpayer and his dollars are funding the school program that includes this book in the curriculum. His children are home-schooled.  What we really have here is an adult with his own ideology and presuming that exercising his rights as a free citizen means to ban everyone from things that go against his ideology. The problem with that – unilaterally making a decision from an unqualified position  – that’s not democracy. That’s dictatorship.

Has WS thought of the precedent he’s trying to set? If he, just anybody, can ban a book, so can someone else.  What if a high school library had the religious texts and someone wanted to ban the one he reads because of the content in the book of Song of Songs? He had the freedom to make his choice about how his children were educated, and he acted according to what was right for his family. He is not in the position to decide what is right for other families. Has he thought about the fact he is taking away rights? I thought his kind were against that. If you want your own freedoms, you have to let others have them, too.

Banned Book Week: List Maker?

Happy Banned Book Week! Are you reading something challenged?

So often, books that are challenged are done so because the content is challenging. Something about the plot, the characters, or the diction challenges someone’s notions. That person then decides that such a book should not be made accessible to any child/teen reader. What often gets lost in the discussion is the difference between access and appropriateness. A parent deciding that because Xavier got nightmares after watching 28 Days Later, Xavier should not read The Hunger Games is valid. Parents are gatekeepers of their families to an extent. What they are not is the moral police for everyone else’s children. Some parents pre-screen books. Others read with the child and have discussions about the challenging content. These are parents acting appropriately and responsibly. To deprive a whole population of a meaningful text because the word “scrotum” (The Higher Power of Lucky) makes you personally uncomfortable is not.

I am going to guess that Girl Parts by John M. Cusick will make it on some lists. I think writers and their editors have to have some inkling that the challenging content will ruffle a few feathers. Why? It opens with a teenager committing suicide on the Internet and a Joe McFrat Jr.-type character who could care less. That apathy propels the plot to his needing companionship in the form of Rose. Rose, a robot, then challenges notions of humanity. As she explores her burgeoning sentience, she, well, explores her sentience.   The novel Deenie first dealt with that topic. Deenie has also been put on banned and challenge lists.

If Girl Parts does get challenged because of that scene, teen readers will miss out on an engaging, realistic, to-the-moment read on tehcnology’s effect on human psychology. The Metro newspapers ran an article recently about people who use the Internet in their suicide plans. It’s a timely topic, especially given the latest Japanese trends of virtual girlfriends and techno rehab camps in China. Rose’s moment is just one strand in the larger web defining the human construct.

Don’t force ideas out of the classroom or libraries. School and new ideas are supposed to be challenging.

Banned Book Week 2010 Preview

One of my fondest memories as a teen volunteer at the West Regional Library in Plantation, Florida, was spending half of my shift on display. In the front check-out lobby, the librarians had erected a tiny makeshift room for a teenager. Very few mothers would have allowed the strewn popcorn, empty soda can, and ratty pillow-rocker chair thing. At least, my mother didn’t. That was not my room. But for an evening, this haz-mat area was my refuge and the symbol of refuge for all teens and children. Refuge from the arguing.

You see, it was Banned Books Week. Each day, the librarians had us volunteers sit and read a book that had appeared on a “banned” list. I can’t remember the title I chose, but I can remember feeling exhilarated. Screw adults! I’m going to have access to this book and – gasp! – enjoy it!

Over the years I have reduced my participation in this fun protest against censorship and pointless idealogue bickering to the point of thinking to myself, “It’s Fall…isn’t Banned Book Week sometime soon?”

This year, it changes. Why do I care so much? Well, obviously as a writer, I have to confront the notion that these words I’m composing may very well be banned themselves. Recently, I wrote a chapter set in a public school’s sex education class. As my character is in religious ed, too, she got the Catholicized version. I can just tell one side will get angry I dared characterize 13-year-olds talking and thinking about sex. Then the other will argue that the chapter’s final scene is a critique of the glorified liberal “comprehensive” program. To a point it is. Because nothing is perfect or the right answer.

But just because a solitary adult is uncomfortable because someone doesn’t share your opinion doesn’t mean a child/teen will be. Do not deprive the youth of fresh perspective just because you have a psychological need to be right/to control.

Each day next week it is my goal to highlight first a couple of books that could be banned in the future due to content, books facing new challenges, and a classic book frequently challenged that might surprise you.

To be discussed! And please add your own in the comments!

Girl Parts by John M. Cusick (Candlewick 2010), Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (Farrar Straus Giroux 1999), Lessons From a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles (Candlewick 2007), The Giver by Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin 1993), and the “Friday  Fun” post (including brief snippets on such gems as the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary).


Young Adult Lit = Profitable Movie

Let’s not touch the T-word. Instead, let’s talk about the hauntingly and beautifully sad Never Let Me Go (2005) getting released this fortnight. It’s one of those Brit indies and stars such talent as Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield (the new new Spiderman). Oscar bait? Perhaps. Three-hankie evening? Most definitely.

Oh, and Gary Ross quite possibly will helm The Hunger Games movie. Not till 2013 will we see the powerful series on the big screen. Post in the comments your wish list for actors. Right now, I just know I want an incredible visual experience and a not-starlet to play Katniss.

The Busyness of Being a Writer

It’s not all cups of tea and scribbling sentences in the park. I feel I must blog. I must enter blog contests to get my name and stories out there. I must read others’ blogs. I must read, read, read. I must review. I must support other writers with critiques (Go you!).  I love it, but I must not get paid for it, apparently.

New Addition

Check out the link “My Other Blogger Life.” I am contributing reviews and musings for Catholic women ages 11-30. If that is not you or anyone you know, forward it along to someone who is.