Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"love a lot, laugh a lot, don't ban books"

The title of this post is taken from an essay by Lauren Myracle, author of ttyl and Luv Ya Bunches, two young adult novels that are frequently challenged due to their content (gay marriage, teenage lesbians, tampons, etc).  They're #1 on the American Library Association's most challenged book list for 2009.  In the essay, which you can read here, Myracle talks about intellectual freedom at its most basic and personal level: living authentically.

Last week was Banned Books Week in the U.S.  The freedom to read is celebrated every year during the last week of September.  In Canada they celebrate Freedom to Read week in February.  The purpose of these events is to celebrate the freedom to read and to shed light on the fact that attempts at censorship do exist and that we must be vigilant against such efforts to restrict our freedom and control our knowledge when others try to limit or prevent access to ideas and facts, as well as to the experiences of others.  I strongly believe that democracy cannot flourish when ideas and information are censored.

These days I am particularly concerned about attempts to censor books that contain positive depictions of gay or lesbian characters.  It has long been known that gay teens commit suicide at a rate higher than straight teens, but last month's epidemic of gay teen suicides in the news has been extraordinarily shocking and heart breaking.

Teens--indeed, all of us--need access to books about the issues that they're currently dealing with and that includes issues of sexuality as well as rape, drug/alcohol abuse, and violence.  Censoring books that honestly explore what its like when you're questioning your sexuality or dealing with drug addiction or the after-affects of rape are important to help teens sort out and understand their own experiences or those of their friends.  At least they'll know they're not alone. 

I remember hiding a copy of Rita Mae Brown's Sudden Death in my desk as an 18 year old in the Marines in 1984.  It was the first lesbian novel that I read and I could only read it when my roommates weren't around.  A girl who lived in my barracks loaned it to me after being brave enough to come out to me.  Had the book been found, there's a strong chance I'd have been discharged from the Marines.  A "witch hunt" may have ensued.  (Witch hunts are what we called the investigations that were conducted by the Naval Investigative Service to weed out gays and lesbians.)  My friend certainly took a huge risk in coming out to me.  This was before Clinton's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, which was considered enlightened at the time.

Did the book change my life?  No, but it was really cool to read a book with lesbian characters at a time in my life when I was in the closet to practically the entire world.  And, more importantly, I made a friend over that book and we ended up joining the battalion softball team together where I made even more friends who loved and supported me.  So maybe it did change my life after all.

The American Library Association's website (click here) explains the ins-and-outs of banning, challenging, and who does it most often and why, but here's some quick terminology:
  • Banned Books: are those books that have actually been removed from a school or library's holdings in an attempt to ensure that no one, regardless of age appropriateness, may read them. 
  • Challenged Books: when a person or group of people attempt to have a book removed from a library or school.
Challenging a book or banning a book is not simply voicing one's opinion, it is an attempt to make a book unavailable to others.  It is often a knee-jerk response to something someone doesn't understand, agree with, or fears.

I completely support intellectual freedom and freedom of speech and have wondered on occasion where the line should be drawn between hate speech or "harmful" speech and freedom of speech.  I always end up thinking that drawing lines is tricky and what's to stop a lines from inching up or down or sideways over ideas that I cherish?  So no lines or boxes around speech for me.

For this year's Banned Books Week I started reading Every Man Dies Alone (1947) by Hans Fallada, a novel based on a true story about a couple who tries in their small way to sabotage the Nazi propaganda machine in Hitler's Germany.  You can read the first chapter here.  I'm a little more than half way into it and it is an excellent read so far, full of details about how people tried to survive in Nazi Germany, be they non-political, party members, or Jews. 

This fall I plan on reading two young adult novels that recently have been attacked by those who wish their content didn't exist or at least wasn't available to the teens: Ellen Hopkins's Crank and Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak.

Ellen Hopkins was in the news this summer because she was "uninvited" to a young adult literary festival in Texas after a librarian riled up some parents about her books who in turn complained to the superintendent who told the festival organizers to uninvite Hopkins.  You can read an article from the School Library Journal here.  Dozens of book blogs had posts about the controversy in August.  Hopkins's fellow writers pulled out and the festival has been canceled (for now, anyway).

Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak has often been challenged and was in the news again a couple weeks ago after an associate professor of management at a university in Missouri called the book filthy and immoral and referred to it as "soft porn" in an op ed piece for his local newspaper.  His editorial caused a stir in freedom loving circles and some have been taken aback by his referring to rape scenes as "soft porn."  If you'd like to read about it here's an article and Q&A with the author to get you started.

I'll write a post on each book after I finish them.

Here's a list of the top ten most challenged books in 2009 as reported by the American Library Association:
1. ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle
Reasons: drugs, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
2. And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
Reasons: homosexuality
3. The Perks of Being A Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
Reasons: anti-family, drugs, homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited to age group
4. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Reasons: offensive language, racism, unsuited to age group
5. Twilight (series) by Stephenie Meyer
Reasons: religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
6. Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
7. My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult
Reasons: homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence
8. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things, by Carolyn Mackler
Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
9. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
10. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
Reasons: nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group

I've added the The Chocolate War to my reading list, too.  It was first published in 1974 and several customers and employees at the bookstore where I work have said it's one of their favorite books from their earlier reading years.

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