FREE PEOPLE READ FREELY

“Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”
—Benjamin Franklin

“God forbid that any book should be banned. The practice is as indefensible as infanticide.”
—Dame Rebecca West

“If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
—Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989)

According to the ACLU’s 13th Annual Report on Challenged and Banned Books in Texas Public Schools (http://aclutx.org/files/FREE%20PEOPLE%20READ%20FREELY%202009.pdf), House of Night is the most banned series in the state of Texas. Hum. Makes me even prouder to be an Okie! And, wow! I’ve joined some prestigious company: Harper Lee, Ray Bradbury, John Steinbeck, Judy Blume, Salman Rushdie, Bram Stoker, and Cormac McCarthy (to name just a few authors who have been banned).

I really love the irony that one of the school systems banned my entire series. Yep. Even the books I haven’t written or published yet. As Aphrodite would say, “Crazy much?”

The fight against banning books is nothing new to me. As many of you know, I taught high school for fifteen years before I retired to write full time. During those years I stood my ground against tunnel-visioned, overbearing, smug parents/administrators/school board members as I insisted that one person or group of people do not have the right to choose for the rest of us what we read. No, please understand that I have always supported the parental right to excuse his or her child from reading, say, To Kill a Mockingbird (yes, this really did happen) because they didn’t want their kid “reading about rape and the N word.” But no parent has the right to decide for a school system, or a library, whether Harper Lee’s genius of a book should or shouldn’t be shelved.

Recently I was interviewed for a writer’s magazine and one of the questions was about advice I would give aspiring young adult authors and how they can get the tone of their YA books right. I said, basically, that an author has to really “get” teenagers to be able to write for them, and that often means an author needs to press the perceived envelope about what's "acceptable" to many adults, and instead write about what's real to teens today. The interviewer came back to me with this follow-up question:
By 'acceptable to adults,' do you mean sex, drugs and other behaviors that adults would rather not think of their teens as doing? And the case for writing about these behaviors in YA is that that's what teens face in their lives?

Here is my answer:
The case for writing realistically for teens is many faceted. First, there is the credibility issue. As I've said before, kids know whether you get them or not, and that's regardless of if we're talking about standing before hundreds of them in the classroom or writing for them. Also, I always write what I'd like to read, and I know teenagers too well to want to read/write Pollyanna stuff about them. And then it comes down to the fact that ignorance is not bliss. Avoiding subjects that are uncomfortable doesn't work for me on lots of different levels: I believe in sex ed. I believe in talking to my daughter honestly about life's unpleasantness. I believe in facing issues head-on with teens, even if it means I write the most banned series of books in Texas. Let's just be honest about what our kids are dealing with on a daily basis and open communication lines with them so that they don't have to face those things alone!

The ACLU said something very similar in their report:
“Once kids outgrow carpooling, perhaps parents should grow up, too.
Instead of trying to prevent pre-teens and teens from reading about what they already know, parents should consider reading to find out what’s going on in the lives of kids the same age as theirs. Carpooling by reading, so to speak. Then parents can use the books as starting points with their kids for heart-to-heart conversations about values and behavior. That way everyone might learn something. Instead of banning juvenile literature, let’s all read some and talk about it.”

It’s the truth: FREE PEOPLE READ FREELY. Just because someone disagrees with something, doesn’t give them the right to censure it from the rest of us.

I’ve been quietly checking out some of the stuff blogs have been saying about my series being banned. One blog group actually said that they could understand it because my books were basically about lots of oral sex. What? See, this highlights one of the most nauseating things about people who like to decide what others should or should not read: most of them don’t actually read the works they’re slandering. One of my favorite examples of this happened a couple of years ago in my sophomore English class. I was teaching a unit on Les Miserables, and used the 10th anniversary PBS musical special wherein famous actors/actresses from the London stage sang the score from the play. I gave my students a copy of the lyrics, so that they could follow along (and quote from the songs later in the papers I had them write). So a kid took home the lyrics. Her mom opened it to the Lovely Ladies song, read a couple of lines (literally – two or three), then skipped ahead and found Javert’s Stars, which is the song he sings to God before he commits suicide. She promptly called Spineless Principal and insisted I be forced to stop teaching Les Miserables because it was “about nothing but whores and suicide.” I refused to stop teaching a classic I’d been teaching for a decade because of one parent, and went on about the business of educating young minds. Next time I heard from Spineless Principal he was telling me not to worry about cutting Les Miserables from my lesson plans (which I hadn’t been doing anyway) because the parent had called and retracted her demand. Seems someone at church had told her that the play really was okay, so she guessed it must be all right. No, she never bothered to read any more of the lyrics, watch the PBS special, or read Victor Hugo’s book.

Here’s the bottom line: READ SOME BANNED BOOKS. Talk about them. Share them. Get vocal about your right as an American to exercise your freedom of speech. Start with Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. And, like Juan Ramon Jimenez said, “If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.”

Happy reading!
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