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.

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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.

The Social Dilemma

Posted September 29th, 2020

selectric typewriterI am, by nature, a self-confessed Luddite. I write the early drafts of all of my books on yellow lined pads, and only turn to the computer when it’s time to input the finished draft. I then print out the draft, and write my revisions and editorial notes on the hardcopy. Writing and/or editing on the computer is simply not a thing in my world. If it weren’t for the groundbreaking, time-saving function of digital copy and paste, I doubt I’d have ever turned my IBM Selectric® in for a personal computer at all.

It should come as no surprise that it took another 10 years or more before I was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the world of electronic mail. For years, I had an assistant operate an email address on my behalf, and only took over those duties when she neared the due-date for her first child. I knew what she didn’t: her new baby was going to require all of her attention for quite some time.

Once I was on email, my publishers began nudging me to set up a website, which of course I resisted. I eventually caved, and my site went live the day Bronx Masquerade won the Coretta Scott King Award, at which point fans were starting to search for my online presence. Fine, I thought. But a website was absolutely, positively as far down the digital rabbit hole as I intended to go.

Next, I was drawn onto Facebook which those in the biz touted as a primary tool for promoting books. With marketing departments pushing authors in this direction, this seemed worth a try. Facebook, though, was as far as I was going to go into the world of tech and social media. And I stuck to that, too—right up until I took a second look at Twitter and the impact it seemed to be having on author exposure and book sales. Now, here I am, locked in hook, line, and Twitter handle.

Turns out, there were some excellent reasons for me to avoid the digital rabbit hole, if only I’d known.

I came to understand, fairly early on, how addictive social media can be, but that wasn’t especially worrying. It meant that I needed to be fairly disciplined about my use of it, and I’m a fairly disciplined individual, so that was okay. Then, gradually, I became aware of some of the negative aspects on the vulnerable who were being bullied online by bad actors taking advantage of their anonymity to say and do things, they would never say or do to a person’s face. That was troubling. Then it became apparent that young people were either losing, or deriving their sense of worth from social media likes or responses to their selfies, with or without the use of new-fangled filters. Not good. Social media’s downward slide started picking up speed.

More recently, the toxic environment of Facebook in particular, and social media in general, started getting to everyone. Some folks simply decided to get out of Dodge. I hung in, though, but I became increasingly frustrated when attempts to engage in polite discussions with people of a different political persuasion became impossible. Conversation was being replaced by verbal combat.

Alarm bells didn’t sound off in my head fully until I watched a little documentary called The Social Dilemma. And by little, I mean a bombshell.

Among my takeaways: social media has, by design, worked to eliminate our shared reality. It has, by design, created addiction to itself that’s so strong, even its designers have a difficult time disengaging. This, of course, serves advertisers who want our attention, and need us to be on social media for as long as possible, each and every day. They are the customers, and we are the products the tech companies are selling to them.

Social media has aided the growing division in our nation. The use of this media has ratcheted up a young person’s sense of loneliness, isolation, and ultimately, a sense of worthlessness that has wildly increased the percentage of teens and pre-teens suffering from depression and committing suicide (up by as much as 187%). And, bad as that all is, it’s only part of the story.

Some of you reading this will, no doubt, say “well, duh!” But I wonder how many understand to what extent social media plays into the havoc we’re currently experiencing in our lives and the lives of our children, and how much this media is contributing to the breakdown of our democracy.

young boy with smartphone

Like most, I have been painfully aware of the negative impact this media has been having on relationships with friends and family, and have been grieving it. However, I didn’t fully understand the insidious ways social media has undermined us all, not by working poorly, but by working as it was designed to. The documentary, The Social Dilemma, was a giant wake up call. The media’s very designers broke it all down, in great detail.

Once I picked my jaw up off the floor after viewing this film, I reached out to a circle of friends, urged them to watch it, then arranged a virtual group discussion, shortly thereafter. By the end of our talk, we all felt it vital that we broaden the conversation, urge others to watch this film, especially with their families, and to have necessary conversations of their own. This blog is one of my attempts to move that forward.

Please watch this film. Watch it with friends. Watch it with your colleagues, your students. Most of all, watch it with your children. Follow the viewing with a conversation about what surprised you, and what didn’t, what frightened you or gave you pause, and what steps you think you might want to take in response to it.

This is not a call to close your accounts or abandon the media, altogether, although some may. As an author, I’m part of an industry that’s locked into this media, so I see myself altering how I engage with it— and how often—but don’t see myself leaving it entirely, at this point. I do find it telling, though, that the very creators of this media forbid their own children to engage with it. Think about that.

girl mesmerized by screenSome designers suggest demanding legislation that sets controls on the media where there currently are none. Others propose that an age-limit be applied to the use of social media, in much the same way as we put age-limits on drinking, and on driving. After viewing this film, you might find this worth considering. Whether you do or not, this is a clarion call to take a sober account of social media. We all understand what’s good about it, but we need to confront what isn’t. We need to fully comprehend its harmful, and dangerous, impact on our lives, and especially on the lives of our most vulnerable.

I rarely recommend films. It’s even rarer that I recommend a documentary. I have never urged everyone to watch a particular film. I am doing so now.

Please make the time to watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix. We all need to understand the mechanisms of this creature we’ve invited into our homes, into our lives, and into our brainstems. What we do with this information is up to each of us.

This one thing I know: knowledge is power.

MORE ON THE SUBJECT

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts by Jaron Lanier

The Dangers of Social Media by Paul Otway

Tristan Harris—US Senate June 25, 2019

How a Handful of Tech Companies control Billions of Minds Everyday, TED Talk by Tristan Harris

How Your Brain is Getting HackedTED Talk by Tristan Harris

Your Phone is Trying to Control Your Life, by Tristan Harris, YouTube

Can Truth Survive Big Tech? Tristan Harris, YouTube

Owning Our Words

Posted July 29th, 2019

The person currently occupying the White House has a penchant for spewing hate speech, as we have been reminded with his racist tweets suggesting that four outspoken Congresswomen, who happen to be people of color, should “go back to where they came from,” never mind that three of the four were, in fact, born right here in the U.S. of A, while the fourth, born in Somalia, has been an American citizen since the age of seventeen. POTUS’s racist comments, while familiar, are nevertheless disturbing. Worse yet, this particular speaker often refuses to own the words that have spilled from his lips five minutes after they’ve hit the air—unless, as in this case, he decides to double-down, which is a subject for another day.

As an author, I’m acutely aware of the power of words to heal or harm, to build up or tear down. I believe it’s imperative to choose our words carefully, and to own the words we choose, as well as the intention with which we use them. POTUS rarely does, of course. I wonder, though, how many others of us consider the words we use.

I’m particularly sensitive to the word “abandon,” or any of its derivations. I see it thrown around a good deal, these days, in connection with children forcibly separated from their parents at the border. To be clear, when a child is ripped from a parent’s arms, the parent can hardly be said to have “abandoned” that child. Yet, this is the language being bandied about.

I’ve noticed how frequently the word “abandoned” is attached to the commonly held narrative of the black father, and I wince every time. A man’s absence from a home is usually far more complex than that word would connote, especially if that man is black. His absence might be due to military assignment, work out of state, balancing multiple jobs, incarceration, or a contentious divorce. None of the above constitutes “abandonment.” No matter the reason for a man’s absence, he may, in fact, remain active in the life of his child without sharing the child’s home.          

While writing my memoir, Ordinary Hazards, I had to address my own father’s periodic absence from my life. There were certainly moments, as a child, when I might have felt abandoned. But looking back, I know the label does not apply. My father’s absences were more complicated than that. He never gave me up, blocked me from his life, or left me with the intention of never returning. Nor was he ever emotionally unavailable. On the contrary, over the course of my childhood, he was quite present, and in critical ways. I would not be the person I am otherwise.

James Grimes, Jimmy to his friends.
I called him Daddy.

It was my father who gave me my early arts education. He introduced me to the ballet, theater, and classical music. He escorted me to my first art exhibit, featuring artist Tom Feelings with whom I would one day collaborate on a book. My father signed me up for, and attended, my first poetry reading at thirteen. He was the person who exposed me to literature by and about writers of the African Diaspora. He took me for weekend jaunts to New Jersey and Washington D.C. He took me shopping for school clothes. We hit the occasional movie theater together and went for pizza runs during my weekend visits. Does any of this sound like abandonment? And yet, the casual observer, falling back on the common narrative of the absent black father would look at my story, note my father’s periodic absences and would say two+two = abandonment. Wrong.

We must carefully weigh our words and own them, whether we’re talking about absent African American fathers, or immigrant parents detained at our borders, weeping for the return of their children, or the Congresswomen of color who are full citizens with the right to serve their beloved country, regardless of the dark complexions and surnames that mark them to some as “other.”

It’s too easy for our narratives to casually be reduced to a few handy catch-words and phrases. When they are, we need to reclaim and reframe those narratives using language that encompasses the nuances of our truth. And we must do so over, and over again. It’s not a one-time proposition. Just ask the four Democratic Representatives targeted by the racist tweets from POTUS. This isn’t the first time someone has told them to go back where they came from and, sadly, it won’t be the last. Others will make false assumptions about them, and they will have to reclaim their narratives afresh, choose their own words and descriptors to set the record straight. And when they do, something tells me they will own their carefully chosen words, every single time.