Yesterday I drove out to Hiram College to be on a panel called What Should Teens Read? I mean, not to play God or anything, but could you pass up a chance to answer that question?
Tiny little Hiram is one of a very few Ohio colleges to offer an actual major in creative writing, with creative nonfiction its specialty. The panel was sponsored by the Lindsay-Crane Center for Writing and Literature, housed in a story-book cottage on the edge of campus. Our panel was the second half a of two-day symposium. The night before, Chris Crutcher, whose books are among the most frequently banned in the country, gave what everyone lucky enough to attend said was an amazing, moving, hilarious and inspiring speech on censorship.
The temperature was in the 70’s and the stars were out, but a crowd of students resisted the lure of a perfect spring evening to sit in the library and listen to: me; Mara Purnhagen, author of the Past Midnight series; J.T. Dutton, author of Freaked and Stranded; and Angela Johnson, author of way too many award-winning books to begin to list (though I especially love The First Part Last).
Our jumping off place was responding to that by now infamous article in the June 4, 2011 Wall Street Journal, “Darkness Too Visible” in which Meghan Cox Gurdon deplored some current trends in YA lit and wrote, “No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children’s lives” (which pretty much makes families sound squishy and vulnerable as mud or marshmallows).
It’s funny because, when I published my two YA novels, back in the early 80’s, “problem novel” was what it was all about—Judy Blume, that fearless leader, had taken the genre into territory that alarmed/ thrilled lots of people. Back then, I worried that my books—which as always were kind of quiet and language-y—were not controversial enough! But they found their audience, the way any story told from the heart always does, and ever since, whether writing for four year olds or middle schoolers or adults, it’s the story that has guided me. It’s the story itself that dictates how it’s told and who the readers will eventually be. And maybe because I’m a squeamish person, not to mention a lunatic optimist, no story I’ve ever written, no matter who it’s for, has featured dis-membering or the triumph of evil. While we write in hopes of telling the best story we can, and in hopes of surprising ourselves, we also write out of a personal, intimate, inherent view of the world.
It was a great discussion. Angela said that her editor claims there are only two taboos left: cannibalism and beastiality. Mara talked about recommending The Chocolate Wars to her students, only to arouse horror in the school’s administration. Her solution: tell her students never, ever, no matter what they did, pick up that book. You can guess the result! Jen talked about how her favorite book as a teen was Huckleberry Finn, which she read over and over, blissfully unaware of the controvery its language sparks.
I paid tribute to all the librarians I know who would throw themselves under a bus to defend a child’s right to read any books she wants. But since I was the oldest, fogiest member of the panel, I also talked about how fiercely I once wanted to protect my own three children from anything that might scare or hurt them. A futile wish, for sure, yet at the root of a lot of censorship, I think, is fear. Granted, much of it is the “moral outrage” of people sure they own “the truth”, but some of it is also genuine concern for our kids’ innocence being snatched from them too early. In this society, it’s insane to pin the blame on books. And yet, as parents, I think we have responsbility for all aspects the lives of our own (no one else’s) children, and so my favorite audience comment of the night came from a mother who described how she reads what her kids read, as much as she can, and is always there to discuss or be a sounding board. By the way, this mother told me afterwards that she was a reluctant reader as a child, and can’t believe how many terrific books she’s now discovering, thanks to her avid reader kids. Amen!