Following homBannedtwo young adult authors discuss being banned & liberating literature
by Susan Henninger
"If you can't talk about puberty in a book for middle schoolers, when can you talk about it?" asks young adult author Adam Selzer.
Selzer has published numerous books, but it was his first novel, How to Get Suspended and Influence People, that was challenged by an Idaho woman who objected to its being on the shelves of the Napa Public Library.
Facing the Ban
Selzer's novel is a story about an eighth grade boy who makes a sex education film, La Dolce Pubert, to reassure younger middle school students that the emotional and physical changes they're experiencing are completely normal.What puzzles Selzer about the woman's attempt to ban his book is that she didn't live in the township the library was located in and didn't seem to have read the book.
The incident made an impression on Selzer, who has a history of First Amendment activism himself. His Georgia high school tried to ban the book Basketball Diaries from the school library, a move that was strongly opposed by the Greater Atlanta Interfaith Alliance, a group Selzer belonged to. "We knew they were using this challenge as a way to open the door to controlling what went into the library and what didn't," he asserts.
According to The American Library Association's (ALA) website, a challenge is defined as the attempt to remove or restrict reading materials from a school curriculum or a public library. If a challenge is deemed valid, it becomes a ban, meaning the reading material is physically removed from the library or classroom or is placed on a restricted list where it can no longer be freely accessed by readers.
Many Americans believe banning books is an archaic practice, from a time when Americans were less tolerant and enlightened than we are today.Unfortunately this is a misconception and Selzer isn't the only Young Adult author who's had a book challenged. Matt de la Peña has written four novels for young people. His second book, Mexican WhiteBoy, was removed from the Tucson, Arizona high school curriculum for "promoting racial resentment." Currently the novel can no longer be taught in the classroom but can still be read during students' leisure time. De la Peña explains that Mexican WhiteBoy was "boxed," a new variation of banning.Students in the Tucson High School were actually reading the novel as a class when the school administration came in, took the books from the kids, put them in boxes, and carried them away. In theory, students can still go to the school library and ask to check out Mexican WhiteBoy but since no copies of it are on the shelves, they can't actually read it.
Like Selzer, de la Peña contends that the people who most want to take books away from kids often don't seem to have even read the novels in question. Mexican WhiteBoy's title must have looked bad to them, he surmises, when, in reality, it's a story about two teens, Uno and Danny, trying to come to terms with their mixed-race backgrounds, an issue he, himsel,f dealt with and one that's also familiar to many of today's adolescents.
This year, Banned Books Week (September 30- October 6) will celebrate thirty years of advocating for citizen's freedom to choose what they read with the theme "30 years of Liberating Literature." De la Peña says the week is an essential reminder that every story has an author behind it, someone who can offer their perspective on why they felt it was important to write it. He and other "urban fiction" authors often wish their novels were more accessible to a wider variety of teens. "In my Mexican community we were given white books by white authors to read and I learned a lot about the white culture from them," he notes. Some of his favorite emails are from middle and upper class kids who have identified with his books from a different perspective than his urban audience.
For Selzer, Banned Book Week's message is trifold.It's an important reminder: to authors that they need to advocate for each other's right to communicate freely; to young people that it's normal and healthy to read books about what's on their minds; and to the public that what makes our country strong is its ability to tolerate different points of view. "My book has a right to be in every library," he asserts. "Choosing not to read my book is fine but where you cross the line is when you say that no one else can choose it either."
Feeling the Pressure
Authors who write for young adults frequently face a lot of pressure from the publishing industry to "keep things clean" so school and public librarians will continue to purchase the book. Selzer says that when he wrote The Smart Aleck's Guide to American History his publisher made him fight for every "damn, hell, and ass, even when it was George Washington saying it," a practice he sees as comical. "Some people truly believe that there was no swearing, no premarital sex, and that everyone went to church on Sunday, except for the town atheist before the Beatles played on Ed Sullivan," he says.
A search of the literature from previous centuries shows just how false this supposition is, Selzer elaborates, describing the books of the 1800's (many of which are labeled "classics") as "rowdy and bawdy." Paradoxically, the very mention of "inappropriate content" will have teens lining up at the bookstore to purchase the forbidden fruit. There's something about adults trying to ban a book that instantly gives it "street cred" Selzer says, adding that the week the potential banning of his book made the news, his Amazon ratings soared.
De la Peña points out that once an author has become more established, the realization hits that there are some decisions to be made. "If I take out all of the swearing in my stories then I could be in the Scholastic Book Club," he says. But for him, telling the truth in the form of a good story that resonates with his readers is more important than the money he could make from increased book sales. "Right now I'm lucky because I grew up without a lot so I'm used to the simple life," he notes. "My biggest hope is that a kid going through tough times will find my books helpful. Kids read to find ways to understand their world."
Not surprisingly, many of the characters and situations in books that distress certain adults are the ones teens seem to identify most strongly with."Parents who think they won't have to discuss things like sex with their kids are only fooling themselves," says Selzer."You need to be realistic. Even if you live in a cave, kids are going to notice that their bodies are changing and want some answers." Though he bemoans the fact that much of young adult literature seems to be increasingly whitewashed, he says he's not deliberately writing to provoke challenges. "I'm not setting out to offend. I try to be fair-minded in whatever I write."
Sue Henninger is an avid reader, the parent of three teenage boys, and a regular contributor to Rochester Area & Genesee Valley Parent Magazine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.fingerlakeswriter. com