Freedom to Read Week is coming up, and although book-banning zealots are out there every day of the year, they seem to work up to a frenzy in September. This time a man by the name of Wesley Scroggins is attacking another piece of amazing YA fiction that I just finished reading the other day: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. This is the story of a young teenage girl who is raped at an end-of-summer party but cannot bring herself to tell anyone what happened. She ends up in a downward spiral of depression until she is able to find the words to tell the truth. What an excellent opportunity to open discussion with our sons and daughters, but others like Mr. Scroggins want to decide for you, me and our children which books are acceptable to read. In an opinion letter to the Springfield, MO News-Leader, he condemns Speak as soft pornography. Pornography, by definition, is intended to arouse sexual excitement. I think his choice of words is highly inflammatory and completely out in left field. This novel is meant to enlighten, not arouse. This is a story that must be told, to give voice to the girls and women who have been victimized and haven’t been able to make themselves heard. It is meant to promote discussion between teens and their peers, and hopefully between teens and their parents – more on that later.
Mr. Scroggins not only attacks these books in his opinion piece, he went to a Republic, MO school board meeting to try and get this and other books removed from the classrooms and libraries. If you read to the end of the article, it is reported by the editor that another book that Mr. Scroggins found questionable, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, was actually removed from schools. This might be an American school board, but what saddens me is that it is just as likely to happen up here. How is it that the voices of the few can speak for the many? How is it that great works of literature continue to be banned, burned and buried?
I am a school librarian, and a parent of two teenage daughters. Because of my job, I am more likely to read material for young people, which puts me in a fortunate position in that I can discuss these books with my kids. And this is why I am constantly telling parents to read what their children read — because it opens the doors to discussion and offers parents teachable moments. Even if you disagree with the content of the book, you can share that opinion with your child. Case in point: I had a parent request that I restrict her daughter from taking out a picture book because one character referred to another character as “stupid.” I explained to her that the book actually provided her with a great opportunity to discuss why name-calling is hurtful and wrong. She still insisted that her daughter never check it out again. What a shame! She just passed up a teachable moment with her daughter.
Thankfully, she didn’t demand that I remove the book from the library shelf – and a good thing, too, because I would have refused. Making a decision about what her child can read and process is her right, but making a decision about what other parents’ children can read is not.
Every year, there are books for young people that cause a whirlwind of controversy. Words are taken out of context, and messages are twisted to fuel public outrage against the books in question. I’ve seen well-intentioned parents jump on the banned-wagon (pun intended), never actually taking the time to read the book, never actually using the book as a teaching tool. As I said before, even if you disagree with the message, you have a chance to sit down with your child and explain why that particular book had a negative impact on you. And if you found the book carried a powerful message worth sharing with your child, you have the catalyst for a discussion you might never have had if it weren’t for that wonderful book.
I believe in talking about issues with my children, but every now and then, even I don’t know how or where to begin. Thank heavens for books! My 14 year-old daughter brought home Go Ask Alice (another book that continues to be challenged and banned because of the subject of drug abuse) from the public library, and I told her it was a very intense book and to come and talk to me about it if she wants. I received the typical teen eye-roll as she headed up the stairs to read it. But amazingly, we had not one, but two terrific discussions about drugs because she WANTED to discuss the book with me later. I was able to share my opinions and values with her, and she was ready to listen. I don’t think it would have happened as easily if I just sat her down at the table and started rambling on about the evils of drug abuse. She had an opportunity to safely experience the destructive nature of drug abuse, and sought me out to discuss it and help her process what she just read.
Parents, I urge you to read what your child is reading. Some books might be out of your comfort zone, but they can help you and your child navigate the ups and downs of adolescence together in the safe environment of the printed page. Books can open the doors to discussion. Books can help you share your thoughts and ideas. Moreover, books can help you build your relationship with your child because they provide bonding moments that might not have happened otherwise. So read those books!
And if you still believe a particular book is not meant for your child, that’s entirely up to you. But please don’t make that decision for the rest of us.
If you want to read Wesley Scroggins’ op-ed piece, and author Laurie Halse Anderson’s response in her blog, here are the links: