Welcome to my blog about books and the classroom.
A teacher's opinions on YA literature and the state of public education in America.

Ban This Blog

Ban This Blog, a guest post
by Tom Leveen
I read the most deplorable collection of stories the other day.
In one, the protagonist, Dave, is a peeping tom who, in a fit of immature jealousy, secretly arranges for a girl’s husband to get killed so he can move in on her. This, after having essentially spied on her in the bathroom. Another story is about one brother who kills another out of nothing more than jealousy because his brother is better at his job.
Since that’s not the kind of thing I’d want my own kid to read, I picked up another YA story instead. Lo and behold, in that one, I swear to you: the group of boys in the story couldn’t stop talking about sex, the parents were riotous, bloodthirsty lawbreakers, and the whole story culminated in the suicide of a fourteen year old girl and her boyfriend/secret husband. (Yeah, a priest actually consented to marry two underage teens! Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!)
Undeterred in my quest to find good, clean, pure YA literature, I finally stumbled onto a priceless little gem of a novel wherein the protagonist, a fifteen-year-old girl, struggles to overcome depression through art. Ah, finally. A story no good parent could possibly have a problem with.
Now, let’s back up:
Parents, I presume you know which two stories I’m referring to at the top. Yes? They are King David (2 Samuel, chapter 11), Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) and Romeo and Juliet by some British dude named Bill Shakespeare. Immoral drivel, all of these stories, correct? I mean, you have to agree with that if you’re going to challenge stories like those found in any given R.L. Stine novel. Or, heaven help us, A Wrinkle in Time.
(Yeah. A Wrinkle in Time. I know, right?)
“But that’s not the whole story!” I can hear someone shouting, firebrand in hand.
Neither is date rape the whole story of Speak—a story about a girl who uses art to combat depression. Neither is gang violence the whole story of The Outsiders, or boobs the whole story of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Why…why on earth would Bridge to Terabithia land on the ALA Top 100 Banned/Challenged books (http://www.ala.org/advocacy/banned/frequentlychallenged/challengedbydecade/2000_2009) two full decades running? Or one of my other personal favorites, Cut, by Patricia McCormick? Books that openly and honestly discuss extraordinarily difficult situations that real kids have real problems with seem first to get challenged, and for the life of me, I don’t know why.
Or maybe I do:
Challenging a book is easier.
Challenging a book reveals laziness. How? Because it’s easier to shove a book off a shelf than to have not one, not two, but as many conversations as needed with one’s own children.
Isn’t it.
Frankly, I sincerely doubt that most people signing on to book challenges have fully read the book in question. In fact, a wonderful (possibly out of print) middle grade novel calledMaudie and Me and the Dirty Book by Betty Miles illustrates this truism perfectly. (Well worth picking up. And challenging. It says PENIS!)
I can tell you right now as a parent, I’ve read a couple of YA novels that I’d just as soon my son never read, because yes: they trivialized important topics like sex, drugs, or drinking. But, so help me, if my kid reads a book and decides afterward to do any of those things as a result…who’s “bad” is that?
Uh, mine.
For too many adolescents, books are the only friends or confidantes they have. You take a novel like Cut, which as I recall contains no: profanity, drug use, sex, or law breaking of any kind. It’s a revealing look at self-injury, a symptom of much greater issues that many, many adolescents struggle with. I challenge anyone to show me the passages in which McCormick is somehow encouraging self-abuse. It’s not there! It’s a book about a girl who’s hurting and who ultimately seeks help.
I think a lot of challenged books are challenged because they hold the mirror up to nature. Those who don’t like what they see reach for the school board’s email addresses rather than assessing what the author was actually conveying, and—again—talking about those issues with their kids.
My god, people…we are giving you a perfect chance to talk with your adolescents! Take it!
Listen: I am friends with quite a few young adult authors. Some are “edgy” like myself, whatever that means…although why the story of a boy who learns how to trust in himself and his friends is edgy, I don’t know (Out of the Pocket by Bill Konigsberg). Some of their books more “tame,” with fantastic writing, characters, and plots, but without any sex, drugs, or rock and roll.
Every single one of us takes what we do very seriously.
Every one of us respects and admires teens. Some are parents of teens. Some will be soon, or eventually. But I have not yet met a YA author who fills a book with “gratuitous” anything. It all has meaning, it all has purpose, and none of it is designed or intended to encourage behaviors in teens that could hurt them. None. (Are there gratuitous authors out there? Yes. One scene in one book comes to mind that I feel, as an author and a parent, had no real redeeming value whatsoever. But once again, it’s on me to talk to my kid about it.)
Instead of rushing to ban a book, use it to open a door maybe you thought was long closed. It’s not. There are countless resources out there to help you out. Start by asking the English teachers. I promise they’ll bend over backwards to get you the resources you need. How much trouble might we all save if all us parents were to ask our kids, “What do you think about this book?”
I dunno. Let’s find out.
Finally, I have one request of those who would challenge and ban books: Don’t stop! As a purveyor of smut myself, I can tell you right now, it would be a total boon to my career if you’d raise a stink over my books. Nothing guarantees books sales like a good banning. Please, go read my novel Party: Teens scream racial epithets and have sex and drink! ReadZero: Teens have sex in cars and reference gay make-outs! Read manicpixiedreamgirl: More sex! Ban, ban, ban! And just wait till Sick comes out in October 2013: Riots, cussing, and death, death, DEATH!
Or, if you really want these books to disappear off shelves, keep mum. Let the market decide. Because the instant a book banner starts making a fuss, you can guarantee those grubby little teen fingers will be all over it.

YA in AP?

This post has been running laps around my brain since the end of March, when I was forwarded an email from an out-of-state friend which said, basically, that the use of any books labeled Young Adult would not be approved in that particular state because “dumbing down” the AP curriculum was not the way to raise test scores. I understand, and agree, that AP should be rigorous and should include diverse reading materials that challenge students, but I also know, from the remnants of my years of fighting to prove the worth of YA, that all over the United States schools have YA titles listed online as part of required or optional AP reading. I actually have copies of more than fifty schools–public and parochial–that have such works on college-bound and AP lists. Just in flipping through those copies, I found these YA titles on AP and pre-AP, lists alone:

13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Blood Brothers by SA Harazin
Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson
Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah
Copper Sun by Sharon Draper
Deadline by Chris Crutcher
Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
Generation Dead by Daniel Waters
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Sweethearts by Sara Zarr
The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
Unwind by Neal Schusterman
Wake by Lisa McMann

This may seem like a lot, but of the lists I have, there are way more canonical or otherwise non-YA reads than strictly YA, and I think that is fine. But does an anti-YA generalization, as above, seem harsh, and just maybe elitist, to anyone but me?

Top 10 Classroom Picks of 2010

As the year dwindles to a close, I’m reflecting on the successes students have had with books in my English II/ English IV classroom this year. Every three weeks (see my “Integrated Literacy in the Interactive Classroom” post from 10/2010) they chose a new literature circle text to read and discuss in groups. But many students read much faster than the three-week mark; some of them read two books a week, which means, all-in-all, my students read a whole lot of books this year. And I got to hear about all of them (♥ it!) They loved a lot and hated a few, but here are the ten books they pined over (not in order of said pining).

And please please please leave some of your favorite YA titles of 2010. It may be too late for holiday gifts (unless you’re a procrastinator like me), but it’s never to late to give someone a book or a polite shove to go buy one. 😉

YA Recommendations

A fellow English teacher asked me today if I knew of any YA complements to To Kill a Mockingbird for ninth graders. She says her students hate it until the trial scene and she’d like something on the side to keep the discussion (and heads) up.

Thanks for helping.

What’s Good for the Goose

Photo courtesy of alardus.co.uk

Right now I’m teaching analytical writing, in my senior classes, using Dante’s Inferno and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. For cycle four’s literature circle, students could either read Inferno or six of Chaucer’s tales in the medieval vernacular (which took much independent sparknotesing and the buying of modern translations as supplemental reading, they tell me). Their circles today–no pun intended–were amazing; and for those who read the latter, guess which characters’ tales were discussed the most? You got it: the miller, the reeve, the wife of Bath, the cook, and the friar. (These groups were hilarious juxtaposed to one another, by the way: The Dour Dantes and The Chuckling Chaucers.) And I thought, boy wouldn’t this raise some eyebrows if parents looked farther than the archaic language before deciding canonical literature is so much more “appropriate” than young adult literature. But here’s what really chafes my bottom, though fortunately not Absolon-style: even though books like Dante’s and Chaucer’s (and numerous YA titles frequently censored in some way) are available free-of-parental-permission in the school library, a parent could say his child wasn’t allowed to read it in class.  This didn’t happen today, and I’m thankful it didn’t, but the students’ involvement with both texts really got me thinking about how easily those experiences–you know, actually enjoying literature, much less ancient literature–could be taken away.

Recently, an intelligent person in my administration said this (paraphrased): “If it’s good enough to be in our library, it’s good enough for any kid in our school.”

Theoretically, this would mean that a teacher who wants to teach a book, or include it as an option for a particular unit, shouldn’t need to notify parents. So, the question is this: is the goose, who willingly goes to the library for a book, more entitled to read works like The Canterbury Tales than the gander, who only chooses to read it because a choice must be made? Or should all books in the school library be safe in any classroom, any time, for any student?