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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.
Right?
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.
True.
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.