Lying to Children: A Meditation on Banned YA Fiction

At the end of the day, censorship of children’s books is almost always about one--or all--of four things: Sex. Religion. Language. Violence. That’s basically what it comes down to. (Note that I put violence last. That’s because people complain about the least, which is its own story for another day). For librarians and teachers, it can be a complex issue to keep books on shelves, to support and encourage free speech and sharing of ideas while at the same time respecting the standards of the community, whatever that means to those who use the phrase. Tricky business, this attempt to avoid censorship. Who reads what and why and at what age and reading level and what about that pesky freedom of choice? What about this thing called an open society? How, the middle school librarian asks herself, do I present the wide, wide world to my patrons when some of those patrons’ parents don’t want them exposed to anything that might conflict with the generally perfect and sanitized world they’d prefer for their child--the one that doesn’t include the f-word or its milder cousins, has endings that are clear cut and unambiguous and main characters who are equally on one side or the other the moral code, who--if under sixteen--don’t know about drugs or masturbation or all those other evils. In short, the world that doesn’t really exist. The one we don’t really live in and never have. To quote one of my favorite fictional librarians, Rupert Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when asked by Buffy to tell her that the world couldn’t possibly be such a morally complex quilt of gray areas: “Yes. It's terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies and...everybody lives happily ever after.”

So yeah. A lie. Even the Harry Potter books got progressively darker in the end. Because you know, they kinda had to.

Still, we lie about stuff to kids all the time, right? “Everything will be okay” we say.

And we lie about them, too: “My kid would never…”

And they lie, too: “I wasn’t there.” “No, I didn’t do that.” “I never said that. I wouldn’t ever say that.” “No, I didn’t use a time turner.” (Okay, maybe that one is just Hermione Granger.)

We don’t like the scary truths much. Because they’re scary. And true. And disruptive, subversive and all the other ‘ives.’ In the realm of school and public libraries, sometimes this extrapolates into patrons/parents insisting a book be removed from the shelf. Or an author not be invited to speak or uninvited from an already planned event. Two notable examples have happened to two authors I admire deeply: Kate Messner, who talks about it here. And Ellen Hopkins who was once famously uninvited from a local teen book festival in Humble, which resulted in all the other YA authors cancelling in support. Read about it here.

And those are just two of many, many examples.

When my first YA novel, DREAMING ANASTASIA came out, I was teaching in a public school and had been asked to speak at another local teen book festival. But it almost didn’t happen because the librarian in charge took umbrage that one of my characters (an immortal Russian magician) smoked cigarettes. “Do you feel that sets the right example?” she asked me more than once, implying that I had some sort of tobacco agenda that I was foisting on the youth of America. I thought she was joking. She wasn’t.

Of course all readers and all parents and guardians of readers have the right to refuse to read things. And all teachers and school districts need to put careful thought into what fits where. But when that discussion becomes book banning, well, that’s another story.

And when statistics clearly indicate that, as shown through the research of YA author Malinda Lo, “It is estimated that over half of all banned books are by authors of color, or contain events and issues concerning diverse communities, according to ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom,” well, that’s a problem.

And so, to quote from the Banned Books Week folks, “This year’s Banned Books Week will celebrate literature written by diverse writers that has been banned or challenged, as well as explore why diverse books are being disproportionately singled out in the first place.”

And we here at Brazos are joining that celebration in many ways, including:

* Our inaugural YA for Adults Book Club, which will be reading the most frequently banned and challenged YA book in recent history, Sherman Alexie’s brilliant and moving THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN. The book is available for purchase at Brazos and the meeting/discussion will be on Wednesday 9/28 at 7PM.

* On Friday, 9/30, we will continue our celebration with BANNED BOOKS/BANNED LIVES: A CELEBRATION OF ALL VOICES, with six local authors and librarians reading from their favorite banned books and a brief discussion of those books and why they are important.

* We will also be featuring numerous challenged books for you to add to your own reading collections!

Come join us.

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