Banned Books: Message Rewind

Posted March 21st, 2022

Bronx Masquerade

A teacher reached out to me, recently, with a story that I found chilling. He had done a series of fundraisers in order to purchase 200 copies of Bronx Masquerade for a unit with his 8th grade students. However, after successfully acquiring the books, his school’s leadership informed him that he could not teach this book at his school.

I share this story because it’s at the heart of the problem with current messaging about banned books.

For some years, there’s been an attitude in the general public, and amid many authors, that book bans are a badge of honor, and are ultimately a good thing because the banned book garners more attention and sales than it might otherwise. And it may be true that, at least in some instances, said book does enjoy additional, possibly even more robust sales. However, as the story above demonstrates so painfully, a book’s purchase does not guarantee that book’s accessibility to the readers for whom it was intended.

Ordinary Hazards

Ordinary Hazards, first removed from school library shelves in Leander ISD Texas, is one of the books consistently being challenged across the country.

To be sure, there are cases in which a challenged book remains on library shelves while said book is being reviewed for possible removal. However, students who have not been introduced to that book by teachers, in the classroom, are not likely to be aware of that book’s existence. Hence, they are less likely to request that book for checkout. In other words, one must not only ask whether a book is being challenged, but whether or not educators are allowed to teach that book, or to have it available on their classroom bookshelves. This is key.

A parent or other adult in the young person’s life may purchase a copy of said book for the reader’s personal, home library. However, not every child or young adult is privileged to have a home library. Those readers rely entirely upon school and public libraries for their access to books, as I did, growing up. Without such access, I’ve no idea what would have become of me. I shudder to think.

The issue of book bans is serious business, and when any of us laughs it off, or suggests that a book’s sale is the beginning and end of the subject, this hurts everyone. That messaging obfuscates what’s really going on, and we can’t afford that. Our children can’t afford that.

We’re in a war, and it’s time to rally the troops. No one will enlist in the battle, though, if we repeatedly send out the message that book bans are a joke. I guarantee you, there’s little laughter among the weary teachers and librarians who are being publicly shouted-down and maligned by book banners who are calling them pedophiles, pornographers—and worse—for daring to fight to maintain their diverse book collections.

Teachers and librarians across the country are suffering metaphorical bloody noses from fighting to protect our children’s right to have access to the wide range of books we create for them, books they need. These are books in which young readers see themselves represented, books that make them feel less alone in the world, books that inspire, books laced with hope, books that nurture the dreamer in each of them. Let’s be clear about what we’re fighting for, and what a deadly serious battle we’re in. There’s a lot more to be concerned with, here, than the dollar signs at the end of our royalty checks. Let’s please, all of us, authors and publishers alike, get on the same page for our readers’ sakes. There’s a lot at stake here, people.

Banned Books Resource List from Nikki Grimes

What Makes a Book “Appropriate” for School?

Posted August 31st, 2021

Ordinary HazardsWhen I was a teen, I’d have given anything for a book like Ordinary Hazards. Of course, it hadn’t yet been written. What I did discover back then was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. In her novel, I found Francie, a character I resonated with deeply. We weren’t of the same race, nor were our lives a perfect replica, by any stretch. Still, Smith’s character and I both faced tough challenges in our young lives, and like me, Francie knew the color of hell by heart. Because of her story, I knew that I wasn’t alone in the world, and knowing that gave me strength for my own journey. This is the power of story. This is why I became a purveyor of story, myself.

Over the course of my long career, I’ve written fiction, nonfiction, historical fiction, and poetry on a wide variety of subjects, but the one thing I’ve always believed is that the single most important story I have to tell is my own. Ordinary Hazards, my memoir in verse, is that story. It is a story of darkness and childhood trauma, of a parent’s alcoholism and mental illness, of the seamy side of foster care, and of sexual assault. But it is also a story of love and light, of faith and grace, and of a young girl’s discovery of the power of the written word.

Mine is a story of triumph over darkness, and, as such, is ultimately a story of hope. The possibility of planting seeds of hope in the hearts and minds of young readers is why I wrote Ordinary Hazards. As agonizing as it was to rip open the wounds of memory, I knew there were young people who needed a story like mine—and a true story, at that. And thousands of readers across the country have already been inspired by it. This is why I was stunned when I learned that a school district in Leander, Texas, had elected to remove my award-winning memoir from their curriculum.

What???

It is one thing to rip a book from your own teen’s personal library, but to interfere with every other teen’s access to that book throughout your school district goes beyond the pale.

Leander’s issue with Ordinary Hazards—and Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone, and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Shout, among other titles recently removed—is that these titles are considered to have “inappropriate content.” I’m assuming the content in question in Ordinary Hazards is difficult subject matter, namely alcoholism, sexual assault, and mental illness. Difficulty, though, is no reason to remove a book from an age-appropriate reader’s easy reach.

The truth is, the lives of many teens are difficult. Some are homeless, or have parents in prison, or have been bounced from one foster home to another—or all of the above. Other teens live, as I did, in homes where a parent wrestles with mental illness or alcoholism, or may struggle with these issues themselves. Finally, though you may be unaware, countless teens of every gender, sitting in high school classrooms right now, have been sexually assaulted. Is this subject uncomfortable? Absolutely. But writing about the topic is hardly inappropriate, especially when it’s handled delicately.

Censors will find nothing salacious, graphic, or gratuitous in Ordinary Hazards. I specifically chose to write my memoir in poetry because the form allows for the delicate treatment of difficult content. As such, no one can reasonably charge the writing itself of being inappropriate. When it comes to sexual abuse, what is inappropriate—not to mention criminal—is the abuse itself. Writing about that abuse is both appropriate and necessary. Teens need to know that sexual assault is not a secret to keep.

For readers who come to this memoir having had any of the particular tough experiences I write about, this story lets them know they are not alone. Other readers encountering Ordinary Hazards come away with something equally valuable: the knowledge that, whatever challenges they may face in life, they can come out on the other side, and not only survive, but thrive—just as I did. Do we really want to restrict young people’s access to a story that holds out that kind of hope?

Perhaps some have forgotten the purpose and power of Story. Story is more than repository of fact and fiction. Story is poultice, is salve designed to mitigate pain and stimulate the healing of wounds, especially those festering beneath the surface unseen. But this meticulously crafted treatment only works when applied.

Not every story is dark or difficult, nor should it be, but those that most often inspire are hard stories in which the protagonist triumphs at the end. Ordinary Hazards: A Memoir is such a story, and there’s nothing inappropriate about that.

__________________

First published in the 8/30/21 edition of Publishers Weekly as “Appropriately Yours,” as well as the 8/27/21 online edition of Publishers Weekly under the title of this article.

Censorship

Posted July 10th, 2012

censorshipBanning books, ripping them from classroom shelves, de-facto censorship at the point of publication—what the bleep is going on, here?

Okay. I’ll try to calm down, but the effort required is tremendous.

Deep breaths. Let me begin, again.

When I was a little girl, I was an avid reader. The library was my sanctuary, and story was my safe place. I lived between the pages of a book. That said, the books of my childhood let me down in one respect. Too few of them featured characters who looked like me, or who shared my life experience. Reading book after book after book without seeing my face reflected began to make me feel invisible.  No child should ever feel that way between the pages of a book.

As an author of books for children and young adults, I have devoted more than 30 years to addressing that imbalance, by creating literature featuring children of color, primarily African American and Hispanic. The impact of that work, and the work of other authors of color—Latin, Asian, Native American, as well as African American—has already been felt in the generation that followed ours. But we’re still playing catch-up, in many ways. There remain genres in which our voices have been too seldom heard, fantasy and science fiction among them.

Now, just when our children are finally beginning to feel a sense of inclusion and empowerment, our books our being banned from school classrooms. And, yes, I said our because I align myself with any ethnic group targeted for censorship. There is no Latin children’s book community, or Asian children’s book community, or Native American children’s book community. There is only the children’s book community, and what affects one member affects all.

Censorship harms all children, not only the targeted ethnic group du jour. A book is the safe place for a child to learn about another culture. It is there that children come to understand that all humans are more alike than different. I was reminded of that in a letter I received from a reader who wrote: “I learned that no matter how different we are on the outside, we’re all pretty much the same on the inside.” That is one of the great lessons to be learned from books featuring Latin, Asian, Native American, Middle Eastern, African, and African American characters. Only someone, or some state, that wants to perpetuate the racial divide would take issue with that.

Are you listening, Arizona?

Of course, race-related censorship is not the only kind out there.

Today, I’ve got another itch to scratch.

What set me off more recently? An attack on author Rachel Held Evans for her blog about the stranglehold Christian bookstores have on the Christian publishing industry. She wrote about the frustrations felt by many believing authors who find themselves creatively straight-jacketed by a marketplace that prefers its literature sanitized, and a little left of reality. I resonated with much of what she had to say, and felt pressed to add my voice to the argument.

I’m livid about people trying to dictate what a Christian writer can, and should, write.  Or, for that matter, trying to dictate what can and should constitute “Christian fiction.” Let me explain.

I’m something of a rarity. I’m an author who publishes on both sides of the aisle, namely with both Christian and secular publishers. Over the years, I’ve noticed that as long as I’m focused on picture books, the problems are, for the most part, slight. However, the minute middle grade and YA fiction is the genre, hold your horses. “Language” suddenly becomes an issue. And by “language” I mean so-called edgy words like “damn” or “hell.” (“Shit” is completely out of the question.) As for subject matter, let’s not mention witches, or prostitutes, or—gasp—homosexuals. Mind you, I’ve never featured gay characters in any of my fiction, nor used the word “shit,” but I most certainly object to the idea of being told that I can’t.

Here’s my problem. I’ve been a student of the Bible since 1974 and, in all that time, I’ve noticed the following: stories in the Holy Bible include passages on witches, sorcerers, mediums, prostitutes, pimps, racists, adulterers, despots, and homosexuals, among others. These stories do not suggest that one should become a pimp, witch, prostitute, etc. But the Word of God does not shy away from their mention, or instruct readers to ignore the reality of their existence.

Some of the stories we find in scripture are cautionary tales, some are tales of redemption, while others focus on transformation. Instead of pushing for a literature that is “safe”—something the Bible never was—why not allow the creators of Christian fiction the freedom to follow the models found in scripture?

Consider this: Father Abraham pimps out his wife, Sarah, not once, but twice. The prophet Hosea married a whore, and did so on God’s instruction. Rahab, a prostitute, became a hero of the faith, and an ancestor of King David and, through him, an ancestor of Jesus Christ. What, exactly, do Christian booksellers do with those stories? Are you going to tell me that such stories are good enough for the Holy Bible, but not good enough for contemporary Christian authors?  Really?

I realize nothing I say here is going to convince these booksellers to take off their blinders, but still. One must speak out. Thank you, Rachel Held Evans, for taking the lead.

I’m not sure I know how to take on the censors. I only know that silence won’t work.

The Lord never neglected to call a spade a spade. Neither will I.