September 18, 2022 03:31 PM Posted by juliannadouglas
Every year at this time, I join with the American Library Association (ALA) in celebrating Banned Books Week. This year, the actual celebration takes place September 18-24, so this post will be right on time for that. I come to the celebration this year, both angered and with a heavy heart, because 2021 (the most recent year for which we have data) has been the worst year for book bans/challenges on record since the ALA started tracking this data. During 2021, book bans/challenges increased exponentially over the previous year. In 2020, the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 156 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services, during which 273 books were targeted. In 2021, those number alarmingly jumped to 729 challenges with 1597 books being targeted. That’s a 367% increase in challenges and a 485% increase in books being targeted, which is staggering. And that’s just the ones that are reported. In fact, surveys indicate that 82%-97% of book challenges remain unreported and receive no media attention. All this means that there could be thousands more books being challenged or banned that we don’t even know about, which saddens, angers, and appalls a book-lover like myself.
Often these challenges are being brought in the name of “protecting children” or “public decency,” which quite frankly is often nothing more than a cover for trying to silence perspectives with which the person bringing the challenge doesn’t agree or maintaining control over the status quo. There are a number of books I can think of with which I don’t agree and would find the content of those books offensive to my personal beliefs and values. However, I choose not to pursue bans or challenges of those books, partly because I deeply respect freedom of speech, even that with which I disagree, and partly because I understand what a slippery slope it is. If I started trying to ban books I dislike or disagree with, soon others would follow, trying to ban books I love. I’m also keenly aware, as a writer, of the absolute necessity of the freedom to write what I want to. Being forced to write only what certain others deem “decent” or “appropriate” would stifle my creativity and my right to expression. Therefore I will always stand on the side of intellectual freedom.
I know some of you may be asking “What about the kids?” and as far as I’m concerned that’s simply where hands-on parenting comes in. When my kids were school-age, I went with them to the library and monitored the materials they were checking out to make sure they were age appropriate. We always loved when the Scholastic Book Fair came to school, and during that week, I did the same, helping them pick out books that were the best fit for them. I also recall a time when my son’s teacher notified parents of her plan to read a certain book aloud to the class. After checking it out, I had some concerns, so I politely emailed her, expressing that while I didn’t support book banning and I wasn’t saying that the book was inappropriate for the entire class, I did question the appropriateness of it for my child and expressed in more detail what those concerns were. She kindly offered to switch to a different book that would still meet her objectives. It was a classic from my own childhood with which I had no problem, and it had similar themes to the originally planned book but expressed them in a gentler way. So I know from my own experience that when handled properly accommodations can be made address parental concerns without all the vitriol that’s being hurled at educators and librarians these days.
If you don’t want your child to read certain things, then make that clear to them and stay on top of what they’re checking out of the library. Or if you don’t want them to read a particular book that’s on a required reading list for school, then respectfully ask for an alternative assignment. But please don’t try to make decisions about what’s right and wrong for all kids/teens to read. Many kids and teens are more mature and can handle difficult subjects better than others, and reading books with these themes can open the path for discussion of hard topics. Also, the very book that you might deem “inappropriate” might be exactly the book that another parent needs to help their child feel normal or welcome or give them comfort. It may also contain subjects that they actually want their kids/teens to learn about and that’s okay. I believe that we all need to be cognizant that everyone has different values, and trying to force our own values on others isn’t appropriate. So I’d ask that if you know you won’t like a certain book or don’t want your children to read it, simply leave it on the shelf. It’s not harming anyone there, and that way it will still be accessible to those who might find value in it.
I would also like to point out that books are valuable tools for teaching everyone, both kids and adults, about people who are different than they are. There are far too many people in the world who are afraid of—or even hostile toward—people whose experiences are different than their own and I find this extremely sad and frustrating. I was just watching an episode of Marvel’s 616 in which one of the people being interviewed said that storytelling is “empathy technology.” I immediately liked that term, because it’s so true. Storytelling builds empathy—something we desperately need more of in today’s society—through the safe lens of a book that expresses what it’s like to live a different life, whether it’s with a different color of skin, or practicing a different religion, or having a different sexual orientation or gender identity, or having a disability, or any one of thousands of varying ways in which we might be distinctive from one another. Learning about others in this way can demystify those dissimilarities so that we can understand each other better, which in turn, can help dispel much of the hatred and vitriol that seems to be spreading in our society nowadays. Books can also educate us on a myriad of topics, thereby helping us to expand our minds in ways we might never have thought possible.
Books and libraries are powerful tools to help us think more critically, build empathy, combat ignorance, and shed light on the dark places. I encourage you to stand with me and the ALA, and pick up a banned book this month (or any time of the year) and see if you can find ways to use it to engage with other like-minded readers. To help you get started, check out my social media feeds during Banned Books Week for more insights on banned/challenged books as well as a countdown of the top ten banned/challenged books of 2021.
If you’d like to join me in promoting banned books, here are a few ideas for ways to get more involved:
Now as part of my celebration I’m going to highlight and give away one of my favorite banned/challenged books, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. This book ranked fourth among the top 10 banned/challenged books of 2020. It also made the top 100 banned/challenged books for the decades, 2000-2009 and 2010-2019, as well as being on the ALA’s list of most frequently banned/challenged young adult books. My research turned up a few different reasons why this book has been challenged or banned, so here’s where I’ll offer my opinions on these reasons.
1. Pornographic – When I read this was a reason that several people cited for banning this book, all I could do was sigh and think, “really, this again?” Some people simply throw around the term pornography far too casually with no real concept of how it’s defined. The definition I found in a legal dictionary is: “pictures and/or writings of sexual activity intended solely to excite lascivious feelings of a particularly blatant and aberrational kind.” Anyone who levels a pornography allegation against this book has either never read it or seriously needs to adjust their thinking, because that’s not what this book is about at all. It concerns a high school freshman who is trying to process being raped at a party over the summer, how it’s affecting her in her daily life, and how she finally recovers the voice that her rapist stole from her. The flashback rape scene is written in such a way that it’s clear what’s happening but there are very few details. Other than this, there is no other sexual content at all, not even any kissing. To equate rape and pornography in this way is a thoughtless slap in the face to actual survivors of sexual assault, including the author herself who experienced rape at the same age as her character. It’s as though it’s nothing more to these people than a dirty thing that needs to be swept under the rug and hidden so that they don’t have to feel uncomfortable, which is quite frankly the entire reason that most sexual assaults never get reported, and even when they are, often aren’t taken seriously.
2. Inclusion of Rape – Well, duh! This book has been around long enough and has received so much flack that anyone doing even a modicum of research can easily discover that this is a significant piece of the story. However, to imply that’s all the story is about does it a grave disservice. The majority of the book regards Melinda grappling with her mental health as she struggles to get through this ordeal on her own with no real help from either her peers or the adults around her. She suffers from the classic signs of depression, anxiety, and PTSD with her only real outlet being her art. My other beef with this complaint about the book is that rape is a serious issue that genuinely needs to be discussed with teens. According to RAINN statistics “Females ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.” Therefore, trying to ban this book simply because it includes discussion of rape takes away what could be a valuable tool for teaching high schoolers about this very important topic.
3. Biased Against Male Students – I have no idea where this ludicrous charge came from. Yes, a male student committed a rape, and as a result, our protagonist has bad feelings toward him. There’s no question that anyone in her shoes would. But to say that the book is entirely biased against male students is ridiculous. Melinda’s lab partner is a guy and she gets along with him just fine and has no real issue with him. In fact, she arguably has a better relationship with him than most of the other students in her class.
4. “Glorifies drinking, cursing, and premarital sex” – At the party where Melinda was raped, we discover that she had a few beers, but it only warranted a couple of lines in the entire book. There’s little in the way of language. I noted only a few mild swear words, so few in fact, that I could probably count them on one hand. As far as the premarital sex thing, the only thing remotely close to this is the rape itself, and for anyone who would equate the two, I’d say please refer back to my comments on pornography. Rape and premarital sex are, without question, not the same thing! So I’d hardly say that any of these things are in any way being “glorified.”
5. Political Viewpoint – Melinda’s lab partner calls out a racist teacher and takes him to task for his views. He also helps Melinda with a report on the suffragettes, and in doing so, the two were taking a stand of a different sort against this same teacher. I don’t really see a problem with either of these things. Sometimes it’s good for kids to learn that they can stand up for what they believe in and exercise their freedom of speech. Not to mention, this was a relatively small part of the story. Again, if this is a person’s main takeaway from the book, they’ve entirely missed the point and are throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater.
While there are a few potential negatives for some people in this story, I feel that the importance of its main themes should make it required reading for the high school level, rather than being banished to the book dungeon like so many seem to want to do. The book is pretty realistic in the way that it handles the topic of sexual assault and how many survivors often do go through it alone, feeling ashamed or fearing being ostracized or not believed or worse if they do speak up. Because of this, I think this book could be a valuable tool for helping victims find their voices or at least not feel quite so alone. I think it can also be a tool for teaching consent, which is something that all teens should be learning, as they’re starting to navigate sexual feelings. Laurie Halse Anderson is very good at capturing the teen mindset, so I think that most teens would find the story relatable in some way. My assessment of the book is that parents and others who are trying to ban/challenge it are way overreacting. I believe that high schoolers could definitely handle the subject matter, especially with parental or educator guidance, and it’s an important topic to be discussing given that many sexual assaults happen during the teen years. I know not everyone is going to be persuaded by my arguments, and if this is a book that you know will trouble you, then simply don’t read it. Or if it’s something you genuinely don’t want your child to read, then request that their teacher offer an alternative assignment, but please don’t try to take it out of the hands of teens who might learn something or find comfort from its pages.
I'd also like to add this Time magazine article written by Laurie Halse Anderson on exactly why books like hers are so important for teens to have access to. She's correct in her assessment that boys need something like this to springboard discussion perhaps even more so than girls, because they need to understand what enthusiastic consent is, as well as the repercussions their actions could have. I'm, by no means, trying to single out males as the only perpetrators of sexual assault, but statistics show that they do, by far, make up the majority. Books like this can really help to open the lines of communication for both sexes on this difficult but extremely important topic.
So there you have it, my two cents on why Speak is a great story that has found its way onto my keeper shelf (BTW, the movie version was well-done, too), as well as my counter-arguments against the allegations made by those who wish to censor, challenge, and/or ban this book. For anyone who wants to read a well-written story that deftly handles a difficult subject with grace, respect, and dignity, I would encourage those people—mature teens and up—to give it a try if you haven’t already. And to help you achieve that, I’m giving away a copy. Keep reading to learn how you can win it for your own library.
The first ten lies they tell you in high school.
In Laurie Halse Anderson's powerful novel, an utterly believable heroine with a bitterly ironic voice delivers a blow to the hypocritical world of high school. She speaks for many a disenfranchised teenager while demonstrating the importance of speaking up for oneself.
Speak was a 1999 National Book Award Finalist for Young People's Literature.
Read my complete reviews of Speak.
If you would like to win a copy of Speak to see how wonderful it is for yourself, just enter the Rafflecopter giveaway below. One lucky winner will receive their choice of an eBook or print copy of the book. If the winner chooses an eBook, I will gift it to them via the eBook retailer of their choice (Amazon or B & N). If the winner chooses a print copy, I will have it mailed directly to them via Amazon. Good luck!
International Entrants: You are welcome to enter my contest, but please note that not all eBooks are available in all countries due to copyright restrictions. If this is the case, Amazon offers an option to trade for a gift card (I'm not sure about B & N). If you choose print, I can mail it to you via the Amazon website that services your country, pending availability and cost. Otherwise I will mail it to you via U. S. Amazon's standard international shipping, but it may take up to 6-8 weeks to arrive, and I may not have the capability of tracking the package.