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.

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