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.

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.