Wednesday, September 30, 2009

So Your Book Has Been Challenged: Ellen Hopkins, E.Lockhart, Jo Knowles, Jacqui Robbins, Sarah Brannen and Frank Portman Tell It Like It Is! (part 1)

With all these books being challenged, pulled from collections, banned, threatened with burning (I wish I was kidding about that) ...with author visits being canceled and seemingly everyone up in arms during this year's observance/celebration/banging-our-collective-heads-against-the-wall for Banned Books Week, I thought it would be fascinating to have a virtual sit-down and talk with six authors who have had their books challenged this year.

Ellen Hopkins, who is this very week in a firestorm of controversy about one of her school visits being cancelled at the last minute due to a parent complaint about the content of one of her books, E. Lockhart, Jo Knowles, Jacqui Robbins, Sarah Brannen and Frank Portman were all kind enough to tell it to me like it is, so I could share it with you.

Here's part one of our two part Roundtable:

Lee: Hi Everyone! Please tell me about the recent challenges to your books.

Ellen Hopkins: The challenge was for GLASS, by a middle school parent. Challenged for language and sexual content.

The parent went on to say that NO kids should read my books, or hear me speak at a school visit.

E. Lockhart: The Boy Book, book 2 in the Ruby Oliver series, was challenged in April in Keller, TX. Here's a link to the news story.

I only found out about it this September. A parent wanted to pull the book from the shelves of a middle school library because it talks about the possibility of people touching other people's boobs (on page one) and because of drinking in chapter three. It looks like the school board kept the book in the school, but the parent threatened to file for a formal review. I do not know any more, but my publisher is investigating the end of the story.

Jo Knowles: Lessons From A Dead Girl is being challenged at a school in Kentucky.

The teacher gave me the following list of objections the parent provided in her filed complaint:

homosexual relations
co-ed sleep-overs
drug usage

Jacqui Robbins: My picture book, The New Girl...And Me, was challenged as part of an anti-bullying curriculum that also includes books that support tolerance for a wide variety of family structures, including gay marriage.

Sarah Brannen: UNCLE BOBBY'S WEDDING, a picture book I wrote and illustrated, was published in March, 2008. It tells the story of a little girl (well, guinea pig) and her feelings about her favorite uncle getting married to his boyfriend. The story treats the wedding in a totally matter-of-fact way and focuses on the girl's relationship with her uncle.

The first challenge I heard about was in Parker, Colorado, where there was also a big letters-to-the-editor "war" in the local paper about the book. The Douglas County Libraries head librarian wrote this impressive response

The book was also challenged in Gainesville, Florida; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and at a school outside Washington DC, I think in Maryland. Those are the ones I know about, but I think there were more. All the challenges I heard about felt that the depiction of a wedding between two men (guinea pigs) was inappropriate for young children.

Frank Portman: Most recently, one of my school visits in the Portland, OR area was cancelled due to parental complaints -- my understanding is that it concerned the occultism in my new book Andromeda Klein,

as well as more general worries about high school speakers sparked by the Barack Obama school speech controversy. It was a real week for complaining about high school guest speakers, so maybe they were just joining in the fun, not wanting to be left out.

Also just the other day I came across a blog post from a school librarian in Hong Kong who was dealing with complaints about my other book, King Dork.

Things like this happen all the time, but I was impressed that it was Hong Kong. Because that's far away.

Lee: Were your feelings hurt when you found out your work was being challenged?

Ellen Hopkins: It is a person's right to challenge and place books into the review process. I understand that so no, my feelings weren't hurt about that. HOWEVER, I was incensed that this parent managed to cancel a school visit from me. I've done hundreds of school visits without corrupting anyone or "indoctrinating children," except to make them think about their own choices.

E. Lockhart: No. My feelings don't get involved with the reception of my books. They do sometimes get hurt when people write me unkind emails. That seems personal. But the book is not me.

Jo Knowles: You know, I’ve been struggling with exactly how I feel about all this and Tanya Lee Stone summed it up perfectly. She said that it’s hard to hear that someone thinks your book could hurt kids when your intention was to do the exact opposite. She’s right. It’s a terrible feeling. I think the last thing any author wants to do is put a child in danger in some way, but that’s what it feels like you’re being accused of.

What saddens me the most is thinking about how the kids in that district who are gay, or who’ve been abused, must feel when they find out books in their school are being challenged because a group of people think it’s inappropriate to read about or discuss these very topics. What kind of message does that send them? That they should keep quiet? Be ashamed? Blame themselves? I don’t know. But I think it is a far more harmful message than it would be to keep these books available to the kids who need them.

Jacqui Robbins: Actually, I found it kind of hilarious because it reflected such ignorance (both of my book and of the world).

Sarah Brannen: It's not exactly a pleasant feeling, but I expected it and I wasn't surprised.

Frank Portman: No, that's not the sort of thing that would hurt my feelings. Now, if one of my books got "challenged" by a group with a name like Concerned Parents Against Books with Weak Narrative Voices and Plots that Just Go Nowhere and Are Really Annoying, well, that would probably sting a little.

Lee: Why do you think people want to stop others from reading something they don't like?

Ellen Hopkins: I think some of them have the purest of motives... maybe we can make "those bad people" become "good people like me." Or, they think they can protect kids by not letting them read about the bad things in life. Uh, seriously? Get real. As I say in my Manifesto poem, "ignorance is no armor" against the things kids see/face/deal with/ choose to do or not to do every day.

E. Lockhart: I think they are afraid. The things teenagers are confronting and discovering are terrifying to parents. We want so desperately to keep our kids safe. I think these people genuinely don't know how to talk to their teens about these subjects (and granted, that is a very hard thing to do) and they are perceiving themselves as community activists for the safety of young people, while that activism is actually masking a deep fear and confusion when faced with the difficulty of having a conversation with a teen about a difficult topic.
Either that, or they're undereducated and enjoy attention.

Jo Knowles: I don’t think it’s a matter of whether or not they like something. I think it has a lot more to do with fear and discomfort. Maybe they don’t want to have certain discussions with their kids, and they think that by keeping books about these topics out of their kids’ hands, they won’t have to. Maybe they think their kids just aren’t ready to read about a certain topic yet. But while these may be legitimate reasons to keep a book from your own child, I don’t think they are legitimate reasons to try to ban a book and thus keep it from all children.

Jacqui Robbins: I think some people feel threatened when faced with choices or circumstances that throw the supreme "rightness" of their own lives into question. They don't want their children to read about those things because -- gasp! -- then they'd have to talk about them.

Sarah Brannen: That's an interesting question. I think that the parents who don't want their children to see my book should be aware that there are other children with same-sex, married parents who might love it. My impression of the challenges to my book is that they are part of a campaign to wipe out homosexuality from America. They don't admit this, but it's what it looks like to me.

In general, you'd think that people wouldn't try to take books off the shelves so no one can see them. They must be really afraid that some books will influence other people to think and behave in a way that will change the world we live in.

Frank Portman: I honestly find it unfathomable.

I suppose that there is an assumption in some quarters, particularly when it comes to teen fiction, that the proper role of novels is to instill good values and train good citizens and discourage bad behavior and so forth. If you think of literature primarily as a kind of social work or therapy, then I guess you'd tend to find books that don't advance your agenda to be useless or counter-productive, or even dangerous. But of course, I'm not writing Social Work Novels. They're meant to be real novels. And they're meant to challenge people, like all novels attempt to do on some level. Maybe it shouldn't be too surprising that people challenge them right back after all. It's still a state of mind I can't quite grasp, however.

Fascinating answers, aren't they? Click back tomorrow for part 2, the conclusion of this amazing Challenged Authors Roundtable!



J.H. Trumble said...

Jo Knowles ... that looks looks like the plot to my new book LOL!! I'm a junior high librarian. If I'm going to get a challenge it's usually early in the year. After a while, kids know their parents aren't paying that much attention and they start reading what they really want to read! I have a darling 8th grader who reads all the controversial books for me and weighs in. Believe me, most kids aren't shocked by controversial subjects. If they're not living it, they know someone who is. The ignorance, even among teachers, is amazing. I READ BANNED BOOKS!! Lee, check out the article in the current NEA Today: The Power of One: You might be all that's preventing your gay student from dropping out. Great article. If you can't locate it, I'll send you a copy.

annawritedraw said...

Fabulous roundtable, can't wait for the next installment!
I think that when Democrats are in power the conservative right is especially activated. Consider the Newt Gingrich years and the "Moral Majority". The thing is that these folks are a vocal minority that are well organized. Those of us who trust teachers (read NCLB and over-testing does not educate our children), and trust children and teens to be critical thinkers and readers need to be louder and more organized. Again. Thanks.

ivanova said...

This was really interesting. I liked what Jo Knowles said about how the kids must feel when the "forbidden" topics are part of their lives, that they would feel silenced and shame. If you're a kid and it's your school or town that's having this controversy, that's basically your whole world.

I also liked how some writers had a very compassionate attitude towards the parents who wanted to suppress their books and thought they were probably well-intentioned, and others had no time for those nutjobs. It seems like the simpler the book, the easier it is to understand the motivation of the "banners." A book like Lessons From A Dead Girl, maybe some parents were triggered because (um, SPOILER?) they had experienced abuse like the character in the book, or they didn't understand the book (especially if they didn't read it!) So I feel some empathy for them even though trying to suppress a book that disturbs you is still a terrible idea. But with a light-hearted picture book like Uncle Bobby's Wedding, there's nothing to misunderstand. There's no explanation except that the "banners" hate gay people.

Keep up the good work, writers! Keep stirring things up!

Someone should write a fictional panel of dead authors who have been banned, like Agatha Christie, Mark Twain, Herge, etc.

Greg Pincus said...

Thanks, Lee, for organizing the roundtable (or cleaning your table?), and thanks to the authors for sharing. I just read And Tango Makes Three (the most challenged book in America three years running) to six classes of kids today, so the topic strikes close home. Looking forward to part two!

Angela said...

Lee, thanks for hosting these writers. I can't wait to read more tomorrow & to see Ellen in Bologna in March.

Arce said...

Hi, Lee,
great as always.
Can I ask a question to the authors?
If I can, here it is:
Did they notice any increase in interest in their book and/or the book's sales during or after the controversy?
One of my picture books "The Many-Colored Love", that features a two-mom family, was the object of a campaing by Catholic extreme-rightist here in Spain. They wanted to bann it from schools (one "state" in Spain had bought one copy for every public school). Not only the books did not get banned, but I was asked to many events and there was an increase in interest in all my books and increased sales of that one. On ewoman actually said "If this [rightist] radio station does not like your book, I'm sure I will".


Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

Fantastic panel Lee. And I find it interesting that almost everybody mentioned "Fear" as the motivator for banning books.

Anonymous said...

I was abused as a kid and ran in some questionable circles, so I understand the inside of some of these issues. I also have a gay father and loads of drug abuse and alcoholism in my family. My problem with some of these books is they sensationalize - they don't really provide a lifeline to the kids who need it. Kids may feel like someone out there hears them, but often the books don't provide any tools the kids can grab hold of. So while they may feel heard, that only lasts so long, and they're still stuck with their problem in the end. I get tired of the excuse being that kids are going through these things and so the subject needs to be covered. Teen prostitution and girl on girl sexual abuse just isn't happening around every corner. I'm not saying the subject isn't worthy, it's just that you can't blame parents for having the same reaction to it as they would the Jerry Springer Show. So while I would always respect an author's rights, I think it's unfair to categorize everyone who doesn't like their subject matter as afraid, uneducated or bigoted. It could just be that some of us don't feel the subject matter is being dealt the proper respect or understanding it should. When you don't know your subject from the inside out, you run the risk of harming more than you've helped.

Jeanne said...

Excellent post. Excellent responses and now off to learn more about the books!
When I was in HS I wanted to be a linbrarian. I volunteered at the HS library three years straight. I thought it would be a nifty career choice because I love books so much and I'd have so much time to read anything I wanted.
Now, with all the crap going on, I'm glad I changed to music and writing!

Nina Berry said...

Fascinating and informative roundtable. Can't wait to read the next installment. The more I read about the banning of books, the more impressed I am by librarians and the challenges they face.

Anonymous said...

As a parent of four teenage daughters (and a 7th grade Language Arts teacher)I appreciate Ellen Hopkins ability to see the "flip" side. I agree with her that most of those parents are probably well intentioned. I consider myself pretty open-minded but even I will admit that the first time I flipped through the pages of "Crank" that my oldest daughter was reading, I was a little worried. However, once she and I discussed it I realized how much better off she was for reading it. She was thinking of my childhood best friend who used to be like her second mom before..well if you've read the book you can fill in the blanks. The book is fresh and honest-kids are exposed to horrible things all the time. As parents we can't shelter them from them. It is exactly these types of soul-shaking novels that open the door to real and rich dialogue with our kids. It can help us find a way to address things that don't just come up naturally over the dinner table.