Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Banned books seem to be the topic of the month--just in time for Banned Book Week. (Banned Book Week is September 25th to October 2nd, but I'm sure you already knew that.)

Books are challenged and banned in schools all the time. Usually it doesn't get much publicity, because the banning happens in a place where censorship is, at least to some extent, accepted, but every so often an author chooses to make it known that she does not accept or appreciate that her voice has been silenced in that community.

Ellen Hopkins is one such author. This summer she was invited to speak at a Young Adult book festival outside of Houston, Texas. A librarian and some parents did not feel that Ellen's books were appropriate for teens and made enough of a stir that Ellen was uninvited from the festival. Of the other seven authors invited, six withdrew and the festival was canceled. Hundreds of voices were raised in protest of censorship, and I started to pay attention to the controversy.

Next, Sherman Alexie's book The Mostly True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was challenged in a Washington school. Last week it was removed from the shelves. Then came the #SpeakLoudly movement, which is still going strong. For anyone who hasn't encountered it yet, this is a campaign--mostly online--to protest Wesley Scroggins' assertion that books such as Slaughterhouse 5, Twenty Boy Summer, and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson are detrimental to young adults' moral and intellectual education.

As I follow the various controversies, I feel the need to share my personal experiences with banned books. Some of them have changed my life, and I think it's a terrible shame that others like me might not have the chance to have their lives changed by these and similar books.

When I was in Junior High, I encountered a book called Smack by Melvin Burgess. Like Crank by Ellen Hopkins, Smack tells the story of a slow descent into drug addiction. At the time I was reading it, my friends in sixth and seventh grade were experimenting with cocaine, ecstasy, and prescription drugs. Smack scared me so much that, to this day, I haven't touched an illegal drug. Are there descriptions of teenagers shooting up and having the time of their lives? Yes. Is there teen sex, drinking, and pregnancy? Yes, yes, and yes. Did the book make me more likely to engage in any of those? Absolutely not. In fact, the opposite happened--the book scared me straight at a time in my life when my family was falling apart and it would have been easy to fall into bad habits and addiction without immediate repercussions.

As for Speak, I am appalled that anyone could call this book "pornographic" or "filthy" or "demeaning." Speak is about a girl, Melinda, who survives a sexual assault but feels too ashamed to tell anyone about it. Instead she becomes withdrawn and silent, cutting school and alienating the few people at her school who will still talk to her. Melinda's sense of shame comes from people like Wesley Scroggins who consider rape to be pornographic and filthy. Speak tells us that it's not.

If I had read this book before I myself was raped, maybe I wouldn't have spent a year hiding from the world--but I did. I didn't speak.

If I could say one thing to Wesley Scroggins and other book banners, it would be this: Please don't take away our voices. When you limit a person's learning to things that you believe in, you don't prepare her for things that exist outside of your bubble.

As a teacher, I understand that it doesn't make sense to have a book like Smack in a third grade classroom library--because it isn't DEVELOPMENTALLY APPROPRIATE. But when Smack is removed from a middle school, that is censorship. And it's wrong.


Natalie (Mindful Musings) said...

Thanks for having the courage to speak out about your own experiences. You're so brave for doing that!

Sandy said...

Great post :) thanks for sharing and speaking out against censorship.