In all my years as a student, I was never aware of any controversy around banned books in my schools. Maybe I was lucky. Maybe I just didn’t know what was going on around me.
Now that I’m a parent with kids of my own in elementary and middle school – I’m appalled by the idea that there are small groups of adults who think they can control what every child in their community has access to in the library or classroom.
Appalled. Disappointed. Frightened. Sickened. Every year, these stories hit me anew and make me angrier and more frustrated than I was the year before. I think the fact that I’m a writer in addition to being a parent makes me that much more frustrated.
Laurie Halse Anderson, one of my favorite YA writers, has a post about how her award-winning novel Speak was called “soft core pornography” by a professor at Missouri State University.
A PROFESSOR. A man who has dedicated his life, supposedly, to learning. Yikes. Makes me nauseous.
Plus – if you’ve ever read Speak, you know that the idea that this man would categorize the main character’s rape (or any rape!) as pornography is simply disgusting.
I first encountered Speak not as a teenager, but as an adult in a class taught by author Lisa Klein about writing for young adults. It sparked conversation and discussion in our classroom about literature and how powerful it can be for the reader. We talked about how beautifully written Speak is, how well drawn the symbolism is, and how inspirational it is not only to writers, but – we were certain – to kids who read it and experience the moment when great stories touch your heart.
This book deals with issues and events that would not come up in daily classroom conversation. And for that alone, it is to be commended. Enabling our young people to confront violence of any kind, but especially violence against girls and women, is heroic on the part of the storyteller. Halse Anderson should be congratulated for allowing groups of kids to talk about the events in Speak.
Another book I’ve written about here on Carpe Keyboard, Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, has also been in the news as banned already this year.
Here’s the thing: I’m convinced that these people who make a big noise over banning books – any books, not just these two – are really out for something completely different. They are all about drawing attention to themselves, not about protecting anyone. And even more disturbing…I usually find that their comments expose the fact that they HAVEN’T EVEN READ THE BOOKS they are trying to ban in the name of morality and religion. And if they have read them, they certainly missed the point of the stories entirely.
Shame on them.
Since these bans usually come packaged up with religious indignation, I asked myself “What would Jesus do?” In the case of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak – the Jesus I know in my heart (and I believe in with all of my soul) would want to sit down with the readers and talk about her character’s pain. Feel her pain along with her. Because He would certainly understand that not only is the character in crisis, but that there are REAL GIRLS AND BOYS who are also in crisis and are alone in their suffering.
I’m sure in my heart of hearts that Jesus would NOT bury her story where no one could ever hear it. Where it would be ignored and her pain and the pain of others like her would go unnoticed and unrecognized.
If you haven’t read Speak or the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, go get a copy. Read them in support of the kids who are being kept from the art. Being denied valuable literary experiences. And being “protected” by unreasonable control-freaks.
Speak out. Pay attention to what people are trying to do in your own community. And just as importantly – talk to your kids about what they are reading. Let conversation be the centerpiece at dinner or take the place of TV in your living room. Read the books they like (or dislike) and talk about why. Great books teach great lessons. Stories help us learn and heal and explore events we hope to never experience in real life.
Stories make us better people. But only if we allow each other the freedom to read them.