Saturday, October 3, 2009

Book banning is alive and well

When the American Library Association's Banned Books Week came around again this year (September 26-October 3), I realized I'd missed an opportunity in my YA lit class. During one of my last years as a high school English teacher, I invited Eva Davis, then our community teen services librarian, to visit my ninth grade English classes during Banned Books Week. Students reacted with disbelief as Eva held up book after book that had come under recent attack somewhere in the U.S. Though I can't remember the particular titles Eva held up that year, I do recall students' indignation and disbelief as they learned how many of their current and childhood favorites had stirred up controversy. When Eva listed the most common reasons for book challenges (1. the material was considered to be "sexually explicit" 2. the material contained "offensive language" 3. the materials was "unsuited to any age group"), my 14- and 15-year-old students got even more fired up.

Thanks to the news that gets shared through the kidlitosphere, Banned Books Week took on renewed poignancy for me this year. Laurie Halse Anderson's posts this past week reminded me that book banning attempts in American public schools are alive and well, and that once a challenge is raised, the wait for resolution can sometimes stretch on for months.

Just this fall in my home state of Kentucky, a teacher at Montgomery High School in Mt. Sterling has come under fire for offering YA titles (including Anderson's Twisted, Chris Crutcher's Deadline, Jo Knowles' Lessons from a Dead Girl, and Sonya Sones' What My Mother Doesn't Know, and Neal Shusterman's Unwind) as literature circle selections in her sophomore English classes. While Laurie reported that six lit circle titles were pulled from the teacher's classroom on August 24th in response to a parent's complaint (with a seventh book added a week later), that official paperwork was only filed to challenge three of the titles (Twisted, Unwind, and Lessons from a Dead Girl), and that the challenge committee voted to keep all three titles, as of this week, none of the original seven books has been returned to the classroom. Apparently the school superintendent has overruled the challenge committee's vote.

What is inspiring about cases like these is how often authors and their allies do rally in support of teachers who face book challenges. This week Laurie used her blog to call on teachers, college professors, and students to send her testimonials about the classroom use of any of the three challenged titles. I was proud to speak as a new college professor who could highlight the testimony of a current student who read and blogged about Twisted during the first month of my YA lit class.

Of course the issue is never just the merits or liabilities of a single book. While challenges such as this one drag out, teachers and students are left in freefall, unable to proceed with literature circles, and unable to know how many hoops they will have to jump through before they can get back to reading and discussing the books originally selected for classroom use. Meanwhile other teachers may take a chilling message from the proceedings: be careful of the books you choose for classroom use, or you may be the next teacher under the censors' spotlight.

One of the most sobering aspects of the American Library Association's work is that reported challenges only represent about 20% of the actual number of challenges lodged each year. Even more sobering is the number of individuals who quietly choose not to introduce potentially controversial materials into their classrooms or after-school book clubs for fear of a potential challenge. These acts of self-censorship, and the underlying fear they represent, should be seen as the most damaging consequence of censorship.

Of course, it's important to remember that fear motivates the would-be censors as well: fear of a book's power to alarm, disturb, excite, incite, or in some other way harm young people. I and so many others argue that far greater harm occurs through the stifling of ideas and the erosion of trust among members of the communities where book challenges have been fought.

You can do something about censorship. Be a voice for our collective right to read. And next year, be sure to celebrate Banned Books Week.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Old school teen reading obsessions

Every once in a while when I go out to do workshops on YA lit for teachers or for college students in teacher education classes--usually lugging more books than I could possibly introduce in the allotted 45 minute time slot--someone will ask, "Have you actually read all these books?"

And the answer, of course, is yes. It seems so obvious and so natural, but maybe that's because I've been reading voraciously my whole life. Plowing through series books like B is for Betsy, Little House on the Prairie, The Black Stallion, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Sitting back in stunned shock at the end of Searching for Shona. Wanting to know if tesseracts were real after reading A Wrinkle in Time. Sobbing over Bridge to Terabithia. Being riveted by Blubber. Yearning to swim with the dolphins like Vicky in A Ring of Endless Light. And hiding the ratty copies of Forever and Wifey that made the rounds during sixth grade until I could read them in private.

Being this kind of reader may be great preparation for a career as an English educator, but even now, as an adult talking to other adults about reading, I still occasionally feel the same twinges of self-consciousness about my lifelong book obsession that I felt as a 15-year-old. Only now they combine with defensiveness. Yes, I've read all these books, I want to say. And your point is?

So when I heard about Lizzie Skurnick's new collection of essays, Shelf Discovery: Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading, it sounded like a book I should check out. And what I found was -- a kindred spirit. Lizzie's essays chronicle her life as a chronic re-reader of books for girls and teens with wit, snark, and unabashed love. Her choice of books is broad and undiscriminating: both Newbery winners and skeezy 70s paperbacks appear here. Title by title, Lizzie recalls not just what these books were about, but how and why they resonated.

What a pleasure it is to encounter a fellow reader who grew up reading the same books as me but who now reminds me of things I might have otherwise forgotten, like the radicalism of The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, the class-consciousness of Then Again, Maybe I Won't, and the family drama of Tiger Eyes. Not to mention the gross titillation of The Grounding of Group Six, the porn-like lure of Flowers in the Attic, and the feminist subtext of Clan of the Cave Bear. And how affirming to hear that the very same things I loved in a particular childhood favorite (Claudia and Jamie bathing in the fountain at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and paying for food with coins they found there in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler!) were the very things Lizzie loved, too.

For those in the know, these essays will bring back memories and inspire re-readings. For those who have always wondered what the fuss is all about, these essays will shed some serious light on what YA books have always had to offer and why they keep speaking to their devoted readers years, even decades later.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

How to Say Goodbye in Robot

I almost never read a book twice. But over the past two weeks I have been obsessed with Natalie Standiford's new book, How to Say Goodbye in Robot, due out next week on October 1st. I finished reading it and then immediately started it over again--that's how much the story captivated me. Several days have passed since I finished the book for the second time, and still I'm thinking about it. It's like I just can't let go and move on.

So what's this book about? Two quirky teenagers, Robot Girl and Ghost Boy. A friendship forged through shared love of a late-night Baltimore radio call-in show called Night Lights. And John Waters films. And musty old bookstores. And Icelandic hairdressers. An ancient Pontiac named Gertie. Senior year, seen from the social margins of high school. An anti-prom night spent on the Ocean City boardwalk. The lure of the future and the pull of the past. Art school. Family secrets. Loneliness. Being haunted by the people you love, just out of reach.

I could say more about the plot of this passionate and intense little book, but what I keep thinking about is my love for these characters and the bonds they form. How Bea and Jonah find each other at the start of senior year when she's yet again the new student and he's the resident social outcast. How Bea takes up her stance by Jonah's side on the periphery of things, and how comfortable she finds it there. How tuning in to the same late-night radio call-in show provides the two of them with such a powerful sense of connection to each other and to a strangely intimate community of lonely souls. How a person can let you into their life, only to push you out, and then let you in again. How everyone is in some way a robot, a ghost.

I grew up listening to a local talk radio show every night when I was a teenager. I kept listening to that show for over ten years after I grew up and left home, tuning in to my old 50,000 watt station from 300 miles away. That local call-in show doesn't exist anymore, but reading Natalie's book has made me yearn for it. Tonight once again I'll lie in bed and scroll up and down the AM radio dial, trying to find a show like Bea and Jonah's Night Lights, trying to stay connected to their story.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Looking for Alaska, once again

My students are reading John Green's Looking for Alaska this week. In anticipation of class on Tuesday, I just turned the last page a few hours ago. Even though it's my third reading of the book, I can feel myself trying to get my bearings as a reader and a teacher as I search for words to explain what the story means to me. It's a dance I'm doing between public and private now, and it's a shift in my YA work.

I originally went in search of Looking for Alaska at the bookstore because in the summer of 2005, a librarian on the YALSA-BK listserv said something about how refreshing it was to read a book about smart kids, and how she wished there had been books like this when she was a teen. Then I heard that there was some controversy about the content of the book, and of course that was another great motivator for me to read it.

What I discovered when I read Alaska was a group of boarding school kids who were smart as well as subversive. That alone would have been enough to win me over, but the before-and-after structure of the novel suggested that something monumental was going to happen in their lives. In another thematic layer, much of the set-up of the story comes in the form of quotes from literature, world religions, and famous last words of the dying. In fact, famous last words begin the story. Having read the last words of the poet Rabelais, main character Miles Halter goes off to boarding school at Culver Creek to find his "Great Perhaps." But it's Alaska--the moody and seductive girl who reads Gabriel Garcia Marquez and who befriends Miles--whose questions about the labyrinth of suffering provide the crux of the story.

Because of these layers, a book about friendship and booze and smoking and mischief becomes a book that poses existential questions about living, dying, and suffering. Looking for Alaska won the Printz award in 2006 for exceptional literary merit, and when I try to sort out why, I keep coming back to this notion of layers. Alaska is a boarding school story. It's a story about the brilliance of a well-timed prank, and it's a story about first love. But it's also a story of teens trying to use their intellect--all their reading and writing and thinking and talking and being--to make sense of unanswerable questions. To quote Alaska herself, "How do we get out of this labyrinth of suffering?" I'm still thinking about her question at the end of yet another reading of this book.

I assigned Looking for Alaska to my students because I wanted to see how the book's questions would resonate with an audience beyond myself. I wanted to see if newcomers to YA could see the book's ambition, and by extension, some of the ambition in the field of YA more broadly. In an interview I conducted with John Green last fall, he talked about how reading books is a way of entering into an ancient conversation, and how writing for teens is a way of making sure he has a seat at the table with them. I want to remember that as I go out into the world with this book, trying to explain for myself and others what it means and why it matters, as I too take a seat at the table.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

What YA is and isn't

I'm so pleased that Liz Burns shared YA author Mary Pearson's* recent essay "What YA is and isn't" over at the Tor books website. Like Mary, any time I talk about YA books to people who are unfamiliar with the field, I feel like there are layers and layers of misconceptions to cut through. YA lit cannot summed up by its most well-known commercial products, such as the Sweet Valley High and Fear Street series in the 1980s or the Twilight and Gossip Girl books of today. Nor is it fair to view YA as nothing more than a stepping stone that teens may or may not touch on their way to "better" books. And yet so many who haven't read YA do dismiss the field with these kinds of judgments.

I like how Mary ties the denigration of YA books to our culture's tendency to denigrate adolescence. She writes:

I wonder if everyone’s very strong opinions about this one segment of literature comes from our attitudes about the teen years? We fear them. We want teens to "get over it" quickly, and heck, let’s not mess with books that just dwell more on the teen years! Move on!
Perhaps for some teens and young adults, adolescence was/is so excruciating that the thought of revisiting or delving into that time of life through fiction is just too much. For me, reading YA has been a decades-long process of reflecting on the teen years--my own and those of teens whose lives are completely different from mine. The books I read present teens who I wish I'd known when I was growing up. They are smart and worldly. Through their heartfelt efforts to make sense of a complex world, they actually show me the best of adolescence.

*If you haven't read Mary's novels A Room on Lorelei Street (Henry Holt, 2005) and The Adoration of Jenna Fox (Henry Holt, 2008), you should do so right now.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Going public with talk about books for teens

When my friend Jennifer Walsh first told me about the kidlitosphere, I really didn't understand what she was talking about. I got my YA news by subscribing to the YALSA-BK listserv, and that made me feel pretty connected to news and happenings in the YA world.

Only when I started following a few specific blogs did I realize what a world I was missing. On blogs like Professor Nana's, I get almost daily reviews of brand new books that I frequently request and read myself. I know I trust Professor Nana's taste in books, and she reads so widely that I'm always discovering new things through her that I might not hear about otherwise. A real treasure trove, her blog. I feel the same way about Jen Hubert's Reading Rants reviews.

More recently I've begun following Liz Burns on A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy, and I've got a whole new appreciation for what blogs can do and be. Liz does plenty of reviews of new novels, and they are great reviews of great books, but she also covers a lot of the goings-on in the world of YA. By scrolling back through her posts over the summer, I learned so much and found so much to think about: like what makes a good review compared to a bad review (illustrated by a really awful and pathetic review of Catching Fire in Entertainment Weekly by someone who appears not to have read the book); and the fact that there is going to be a kidlitosphere conference in D.C. this fall organized solely by volunteers; and that Liz herself served on the Printz Committee this year and got her picture taken with the entire committee and four of the winning authors; and the story behind the story of the debate this summer within YALSA about possibly eliminating the Best Books for Young Adults list (Liz reports that no action is going to be taken at this time to dump BBYA, thank goodness).

Being a regular visitor to the blogs of people who are connected and embedded in the world of YA makes that world come alive for me in a whole different way than when I'm just sharing books with students and friends. Through blogs I start to see that there is breaking news in that world (witness the controversy over the cover of Liar), that blog posts can sometimes make things happen in that world (Bloomsbury ultimately changed the cover!), and how individuals bloggers do work through their posts. They make me want to be part of their conversations. So here I am.