Monday, October 25, 2010

I'm tired.

Okay, this is just the kind of thing that I was referring to in my previous post about book challenges. You don't think a certain assigned book is appropriate for your teenager, then you can ask for another selection. But stop, please stop, calling the books "porn" simply because you don't like them.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Every Week is Banned Books Week

Banned Books Week has come and gone, but it’s not as if the book banners have packed up their outrage and gone home. While my friend Tanya Lee Stone is enjoying the launch of her newest book , she’s also dealing with a challenge to her YA novel: A BAD BOY CAN BE GOOD FOR A GIRL. Apparently, she told me, a few parents think that this spare and elegant verse novel is nothing but a “how-to,” and want it removed from a high school library.

“I’m assuming they didn’t mean that the novel is a ‘how-to’ on making good choices, surviving betrayal and being true to yourself,” I said.

Tanya said, “Uh, no.”

After I had gotten all my sighing and sputtering and snarling out of the way, we spoke about how horrible* it is to have your work called inappropriate and your intentions deemed suspect. But of all the frightening things that can affect teens—crime, poverty, hunger, bullying, drunk driving, suicide, drug abuse, date rape — I have to wonder why certain people are so determined to be terrified of books.

Not all books, though. While sexuality in teen books drives some people nuts, we don’t seem nearly as disturbed by violence. Where are the ardent challengers of THE HUNGER GAMES**, for example? Is it because we believe that any book honestly dealing with war must contain some violent content? Is it because all the adults are too busy devouring MOCKINGJAY to complain? Or is it because we can see more perverse brutality on a single episode of Criminal Minds? Why are we so much more freaked out by a naked guy than a guy with an ax?

Tanya’s situation reminded of that man who wrote to his local newspaper to call Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK “filth” and “pornography.” In his letter, he said, “This is a book about a very dysfunctional family. Schoolteachers are losers, adults are losers, and the cheerleading squad scores more than the football team. The cheer squad also gets their group rate abortions at prom time. As the main character is alone with a boy who is touching her female parts, she makes the statement that this is what high school is supposed to feel like.” Female parts? Really? If this man actually read the whole book, he didn’t understand a word of it. He couldn’t recognize the deep pain and suffering underneath the layers of irony, and took the narrator’s acid sarcasm literally. (Actually, the sarcasm seems to have gone entirely over his head, a problem more commonly experienced by eight-year-olds). He missed the entire point of the novel, which was the main character’s hard-won battle with depression in the aftermath of a crime. If teens have no trouble getting this book***, why was this grown man so scared and confused? Was he conflating his horror over the crimes depicted in the book with the book itself? Or is he just crazy?****

Book challenges are usually classified as battles between conservatives and liberals: “You conservatives just want to deny the reality of teens’ lives,” vs. “You liberals just want teens to read smut and learn how to be ho’s.” But I wonder if this is not so much a fight between conservatives and liberals as it is an argument over the purpose of reading. That is, people who view stories as a way to experience different perspectives and think through problems versus people who view stories, even fictional ones, as lists of “facts” or “instructions.”***** (Or worse, lots of boring, useless stuff punctuated by naughty bits that can be read aloud at school board meetings.)

Like all authors I’ve talked to, I believe that parents have a right to tell their own teens which books they can and can’t read. It’s only when one or two parents try to decide for everyone else’s kids that I get frustrated and sad. I have an in-law whose religious beliefs make a lot of books — including almost all of mine — off limits for her kids. When her son was young, she would request a different selection if she found an assigned novel objectionable. Some of the books she objected to were favorites of mine; A WRINKLE IN TIME was one, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was another. It was hard to hear that her son wouldn’t be allowed to read books that had meant a lot to me when I was his age. Then again, I had to admire the lack of drama with which she asked for another choice. There were no letters to the paper, no press conferences, no self-righteous speeches, just: “Can he read something else, please?”

I think this lack of drama showed her kids that though she believed they weren’t ready for some of these books, she wasn’t freaking out over the books, she wasn’t scared of them. So, neither were they. They were curious about the books, maybe, but not scared. I believe it was Chris Crutcher who said that people who go ballistic over books dealing with sex or homosexuality or suicide or violence ensure that if/when their own children have to deal with these issues, their parents will be the last people they’ll ask for help. Why would they, when their parents are clearly so very frightened already?

And raising teenagers is frightening sometimes. But I believe you can be frightened and still act bravely. That means that you don’t start screaming porn! porn! porn! simply because you don’t like what a book has to say. If pornography can be defined as sex without context or redeeming social value, than books like A BAD BOY CAN BE GOOD FOR A GIRL and SPEAK are anti-porn, that is, they are powerful and empowering stories that put issues of sexuality, betrayal, rape, and depression in meaningful context. They help teenagers think through these issues without having to experience them themselves, yet offer solace to teens who have. To turn these books into examples of porn, you must become a pornographer, you must strip away the context, strip out the characters, the plot, the poetry, the pain, the irony, the intelligence, the heartbeat, the story. You must slice up the pages, dice up the paragraphs and the sentences until all you have left are a few words or phrases -- Underwear! Backside! -- you can use to titillate your friends.

You can do this to every book. You can do this to any book. (Clifford the Big Red Dog? Well, what do you mean by “big”? What do you mean by “dog”?)

I lurk on a listserv for YA librarians.****** Something written by one of these librarians – forgive me, I forget his name — has stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like: “every day kids are living the kinds of lives we wouldn’t want them reading about.” We’ve watched the news, we’ve seen the reports of teens committing suicide after being brutalized or bullied or betrayed or outed, unable to envision a better future for themselves, or any future, for that matter. Do we really want take away stories of survival from teenagers struggling to survive?

Uh, no.

* It sucks. I don’t know any author who delights in a book challenge, or sells more books because of one. Unfortunately, I speak from experience; challenges are humiliating and depressing.

**Not hating on HUNGER GAMES, I like HG.

***Here’s a link to Laurie HA reading her poem called “Listen” that includes actual teen reader responses to SPEAK. Scroll down for the video.

**** Let's go with crazy .

***** Or maybe they assume that all people under the age of eighteen view books this way, which is just annoying. If teens read BAD BOY like a “how-to” then they read everything like a “how-to,” no? So why am I not seeing legions of girls perched in the oak trees around my neighborhood, picking off other kids with their homemade bows like Katniss Everdeen?

******No matter what some people would have you believe, librarians take into account the needs and wishes of their individual schools and communities when they purchase books for their collections. And every day librarians knock themselves out helping parents find books for their teens, no matter what kinds of requirements/restrictions those parents have. “I’m looking for adult novels for my 7th grader, but we don’t want sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, historical fiction or novels with bad language or bad behavior or cats or kissing. Must be between 272 and 365 pages. Blue covers only.”

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Five in Focus

So some guys at the Focus Features website asked me -- and four other YA authors -- what our favorite teen movies are and why. This was a stupidly hard question to answer, almost as hard as trying to pick my top five favorite books. But after much thought -- probably too much -- I came up with these . I'm sure if you asked me the same question tomorrow, I'd have five other picks. Because I'm like that.