Saturday, October 6, 2012

Sneaky Little Things That Happen -- Banned Books Week

It’s the last day of Banned Book Week. So I guess I’m late. But in a way, this whole blog post is late. I’m not someone who reacts all that quickly to negative things, and I guess it took me a while to know what to say. Or, maybe because this type of censorship is sneaky in itself, it took me a while to call it what it really is.

This probably happens a lot more than we all know.

Sometimes a book can get censored without anyone hearing about it. The incident doesn’t land on any report. No one includes it on a list. The public isn’t notified of the decision. There are no newspaper articles or special meetings. It gets swept under the rug as if it didn't ever exist. It happens, and it’s a lot more common than we think.

Part One—Say What Now?

So I was visiting this school.

After my presentation, I was signing the library’s copies of my books and one was missing—my most popular thanks to the Printz Honor—Please Ignore Vera Dietz. I asked the librarian if her copy was checked out, but the answer I got surprised me.

“I’m not allowed to buy it,” the librarian told me.
I looked at the other titles in front of me. “But you could buy these?”
She said yes.
I asked why she couldn’t buy Vera Dietz.
“The principal read a review online,” she said. 

She looked utterly mortified—as if I would judge her for her principal’s actions. She kept talking about how important Please Ignore Vera Dietz is and how the kids in her school really could use the book in their library. Her library has all my other books. Frankly, I feel the content of The Dust of 100 Dogs is far more bawdy than the content of Please Ignore Vera Dietz. But anyway, it didn’t matter. The book had been quietly censored. No board meeting, no voting, no nothing. Just a big X on the list from the boss man…who had never even read the book in question.

I asked the librarian how often the principal came into her library. She said never. I told her I’d be happy to send her a copy of the book with its shiny Printz silver medal and that the principal could call me if ever he found the book—but only after he read the whole thing first. We laughed, but she didn’t take me up on my offer because she was afraid for her job. I can understand that.

Part Two—Back up for a Minute.

A few weeks earlier, I had been uninvited to a high school. Quietly. Very quietly. I wasn’t actually traditionally uninvited. I wasn’t told not to come. No. I was told I could still come to the school, but I was not allowed to talk about my books. If I came, I could talk about other things.

See, after a teacher from the math department complained that a completely different YA book in the library offended her religious ideals a year previous…and expressed that my book might offend her in the same way (if she read it), the principal took one of my books home and did something with it. I don’t know if he read it, read part of it, read up until the first F-word. I’m not sure. I just know that this was two weeks before my scheduled visit…and the librarian at that school had worked for nine months to get me there. He came back with that verdict. The author can only come to our school if she doesn’t talk about her books. I still wanted to go, but I wasn’t quite sure how to not talk about my books while talking about writing.

I didn’t know what to do, so I contacted my library guru and shared all of the correspondence and asked for guidance. She told me that there was no way I could go to that school. I had clearly been unofficially uninvited and the administration  didn’t want me there.

It was awful. For me, a little. But mostly for the librarian because she’d worked so hard for this visit. She’d been getting her students excited, too. I think that hurt us both the most. But we had to do what the administration wanted us to do. I didn’t go. It sucked.

How I feel about the whole thing over a year later

I have a very logical view on book banning. It goes kinda like this: You can tell your kids what to read. You can’t tell my kids what to read. I don’t care if you’re a principal or a board member or a fellow parent, if you disallow a book, challenge a book, ban a book from the library shelves, you are deciding what books are available to my family based on your own views. (I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want me to do the same for your kids, right? So this is a pretty simple and easy-to-grasp concept, I think.)

Some would argue that it’s a school’s choice, and I agree—it is the school’s choice what goes into their library, but as a taxpayer, I’m now curious who chooses the books for the school library. I for one trust my high school media specialist and English department because these professionals have been trained and continue to train in the field of literature in education. But how often are collection lists checked by the principal or other untrained-in-library-science individuals? If so, what is that individual’s method for checking? Reading the actual books or reading a few reviews online?

As for Part Two…I still feel awful about that situation. It was so bizarre to be half-kinda-sorta-definitely-awkwardly disinvited to a school based on a math teacher’s religious issues with someone else’s book, I’m still not sure what to say. I just feel bad for the librarian and the students who were psyched for my visit.

Either way, these things happen, and they happen often. And during Banned Books Week, we need to remember to think about who chooses the books that land on our library shelves, and how to protect and support our local and school librarians and media specialists.

My books are on many school reading lists. Today at a book festival, I met a teacher who assigned  Everybody Sees the Ants (among others) for summer reading and she said the book prompted many great discussions. And then I arrived home to an envelope full of notes from kids in another school who’d read the book for summer reading. The last note in the envelope had a most important closing. It said, “I’ve seen the ants.”

I reckon if those sneaky book-hiders out there would read the entire books they disallow, they might recognize the ants, too. And maybe they might understand why teenagers don’t need to be protected from literature. And maybe they might understand that books start conversations about reality. And maybe they would notice there are real dangers they can police that don’t come between two covers.

Random list of my favorite banned books

Mother Night
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Satanic Verses
Cat’s Cradle
Rabbit, Run
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Catcher in the Rye
The Pigman
Lord of the Flies
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
The Color Purple
A Farewell to Arms
The Great Gatsby
A Light in the Attic
Of Mice and Men
The Perks of Being a Wallflower


K. M. Walton said...

Both situations you shared do indeed suck, no question. I've heard you speak, and what you have to say needs to be heard.

My agent recently made this point on twitter - banned books deal with reality, and reality scares people.

Power onward and keep writing masterpieces.

Unknown said...

Katherine Paterson, one of my alltime heroes, wrote a book some 25 years ago that was banned. It was "The Bridge to Terabithia," and it dealt with the accidental death of a child. The Morals Squad deemed that subject unsuitable for children. Maybe, unlike me, they never had to explain to their then-5-year-old why her kindergarten classmate had died suddenly. History has proved many times over that the Morals Squad has been wrong in banning books. Please keep helping to lead us forward.