I don’t shock easily, but two recent incidents had me reeling.
The first happened during a creative writing workshop I ran for kids in Grades 4-6. At the start of the workshop, several kids mentioned which of my books they’d read. Then one girl raised her hand and shyly announced that she wanted to read my books, but her mom wouldn’t allow her. “She says they have bad words,” the girl reported.
I tried to seem blase. “Has your mom read any of my books?” I asked her.
“No,” the girl admitted. “But she’s seen the covers.”
I assured her that I was always careful not to use “bad words”–and that it wasn’t fair to judge a book by its cover. But how a parent viewed any of my covers and decided the text contained inappropriate language was a mystery to me. And the sad thing was, this girl was an enthusiastic writer who clearly craved access to all sorts of books.
The other incident occurred at the start of an elementary school’s Read Aloud Day. Because my books fall into the upper elementary/ middle school category, I was assigned a fourth grade class, as was the local middle school principal. As the two of us chatted before the program, he asked what books I had on the horizon.
I told him about my upcoming middle grade novels: TRUTH OR DARE (Aladdin, S&S/Sept. 20, 2016), which is about a mom-less girl’s experience of puberty, and STAR-CROSSED (Aladdin/S&S, March 2017), which is about a girl who has a crush on the girl playing Juliet in the middle school production of Shakespeare’s play.
The principal’s face turned pink. He laughed nervously. “Oh,” he said. “Do you think the world is ready?”
I explained that all my books were wholesome, completely appropriate for tweens. I hoped he’d express enthusiasm, maybe even extend an invitation to the middle school, or say he’d mention the books to the school librarian. But he didn’t do either. Instead, he changed the subject.
I’ve been thinking about both of these incidents a lot lately, in light of Kate Messner’s recent dis-invitation from a school uncomfortable with her newest MG, THE SEVENTH WISH. That book, which I deeply admire, is about a girl whose older sister has a heroin addiction– a topic the school decided was inappropriate for its students .
What scares me is not so much outright book-banning, because that happens in the bright light of day, and often leads to heightened interest in the banned book, anyway. What I find even more troubling is “quiet censorship,” the sort of thing that happens when an adult decides the world, or a school, or a classroom, or a particular kid “isn’t ready” to read about certain topics. And so he doesn’t extend the invitation, or order the book–not because the book isn’t good, or isn’t written at the right level, but because the subject makes him nervous. It’s a type of book-banning–but because it happens under the radar, it’s difficult to detect.
When Kate Messner was disinvited from a school, she had an overt act, the revoked invitation, to react to, and she did so eloquently and effectively, both on her blog and behind a podium at ALA 2016. But many authors who tackle challenging subjects just won’t get the initial invitation, or their book simply won’t get ordered by the library. So how do they even know they’ve been “quietly censored”? And how can they–or their readers–protest? After all, schools and libraries are free to make their own choices, as they should be. If they choose not to order a certain book, who’s to say the choice was motivated by the book’s challenging or controversial subject, and not by the author’s writing style?
I keep coming back to the realization that kids are older than we think they are, older than we were when we were their age. Girls are menstruating at younger ages, getting eating disorders at younger ages (this is the subject of my upcoming eighth novel STUFF I KNOW ABOUT YOU (Aladdin/S&S Sept. 2017). The internet has exposed all of our kids to a cruel, violent, judgmental world. If we don’t allow kids to read MG novels that reflect the world they live in, one of two things will happen. Either kids will turn off reading realistic fiction altogether (and with the internet constantly beckoning, that’s a real concern)– or they will crash the gate, choosing, and perhaps sneaking, YAs that are too explicit and dark for their years. As any parent of a teen knows, once a kid starts reading YA fiction, he/she seldom wants to discuss the edgier content with an adult. Isn’t it better to allow access to books specifically geared toward a MG sensibility–the way THE SEVENTH WISH is? And shouldn’t we as adults want to stay in the conversation–even when (or especially when) the conversation makes us nervous?
We can’t be in favor of diversity in kidlit without welcoming books that include all sorts of previously ignored characters: kids of color, LGBT kids, kids in nontraditional families, kids coping with a family member’s addiction, kids coping with mental illness (like Dunkin in Donna Gephart’s beautiful LILY AND DUNKIN). There’s nothing inherently “wrong” or “inappropriate” about these characters–they’re just kids on the basketball team, kids on the school bus, kids in the play. And they deserve to be represented, read about, identified with, empathized with.
The world is ready.
Barbara Dee’s next book, TRUTH OR DARE, will be published on September 20, 2016.