Monday, April 24, 2006

Tomorrow is the National Day of Silence

Tomorrow is the National Day of Silence, a protest designed to call attention to the "silence" that most gay and lesbian students must endure in high school, and the fact the contributions of gays and lesbians are often censored from classrooms and libraries (as evidenced by my post below).

Read all about it in an essay I wrote in today's newspaper:

Gay Teens Break Their Silence

People joke these days that the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name has become The Love That Won't Shut Up. Gay and lesbian Americans and their allies are finally making themselves heard. Even in some high schools.

It wasn't always this way. I first joined the gay youth movement back in 1989, when I helped establish Oasis, a Tacoma [Washington] support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered youths. Only one of our 150 members was "out" at school, and he was receiving death threats.

I knew of no openly gay teachers or administrators. But even then, the teenagers I worked with yearned to be open and honest about who they were. Heterosexuals often ask me why gay teenagers would want to talk about their sexuality in the first place. "Their wanting to talk about sex is just another form of rebellion, right?"

But being openly gay doesn't mean rebellion, and it isn't talking about sex. It just means no longer maintaining the elaborate ruse of pretending to be straight.

I always ask heterosexuals to imagine their teen years if they had had to hide the fact that they were straight. That means no talking about which pop star you thought was cute and definitely no idealized night at the prom. You might have had to date someone you're not emotionally attracted to, even becoming sexuality active in order to keep your lie intact.

In other words, being a closeted gay or lesbian teenager means being silent. And for someone who is itching to forge a self-identity, as all teenagers are, this is a very frustrating way to live.

In 1996, some gay and straight students at the University of Virginia created the Day of Silence, going a whole school day without speaking to protest the silence of most gay students and teachers and the fact that most school curriculums ignored the contributions of gays and lesbians in history and literature.

Since then, the protest has mushroomed. This year, on Wednesday, an estimated 500,000 gay and straight students from at least 4,000 schools, some in the Tacoma area, will participate what is now called the National Day of Silence. In the history of the civil rights movement, there have been few protests this dignified and this exactly appropriate.

American schools have changed a lot since I joined the gay youth movement. Openly gay students are common, at least in urban areas. And many schools now have after-school clubs called gay-straight alliances, where gay and lesbian students and their allies get together with a faculty adviser for support, to socialize or to sponsor events such as the National Day of Silence.

But if some gay students are no longer quite as silent, neither are their opponents. Republican legislators across the country have even tried to ban the existence of gay-straight alliances.

But the federal Equal Access Act, ironically championed by conservatives to ensure that religious clubs have access to school facilities, makes it illegal for schools to favor one club over another. To comply with the law, some school boards have gone so far as to ban all extracurricular clubs rather than allow gay students to meet.

It's hard for me to understand how anyone could be so petty. But then again, such pettiness fits perfectly in the history of the civil rights movement.

Needless to say, the National Day of Silence itself has also been controversial. In 2002, 350 students at Puyallup's Emerald Ridge High School stayed home to protest the event.

The day after this year's event, on Thursday, a conservative Christian group will sponsor the second annual Day of Truth, which, unlike the National Day of Silence, encourages its participants to vocally confront gay students and their supporters in order to "counter the promotion of the homosexual agenda."

It will be difficult for religious conservatives to win their fight against equal access. The tide of history is strongly against them. But they're extremely motivated and very well-financed, and they're supported by a right-wing media and a network of conservative churches that proclaim outrageously misleading jeremiads on gay teen issues.

Part of speaking up is knowing when to remain silent; gay and lesbian teenagers are learning to do both. But for those adults who agree with their goals, this is no time for silence. It's about time we joined our voices with theirs.

Conservatives: Gay-Themed Picture Book = "Sex Education"

Ohhh...kaaaay, this is another new one. A Massachusettes elementary school teacher was teaching a lesson on the different kinds of weddings, and he read the gay-themed picture book King & King to a bunch of seven year-olds. Now a conservative group is threatening to sue because--get this--the teacher didn't notify parents, as required by law, that he was teaching "sex education."
"It's just so heinous and objectionable that they would do this," said Brian Camenker, president of the Parents Rights Coalition, a conservative Massachusetts-based advocacy group.

Camenker said he believes the school, Joseph Estabrook Elementary, broke a 1996 Massachusetts law requiring schools to notify parents of sex-education lessons. "There is no question in my mind that the law is being abused here," he said.

"I wouldn't be surprised if in the next couple of weeks there was some kind of (legal) action taken," he said.
Heinous and objectionable? They can't have read King & King, which I loved, and which, more importantly, is completely age-appropriate. But apparently these conservatives don't agree. They're arguing that merely mentioning anything "gay" in a classroom in Massachusettes (where, of course, same-sex marriage is legal) is "sex education."

But if that's true, wouldn't any book that portrays any heterosexual relationship or heterosexual marriage also be sex education? Wouldn't a teacher calling herself "Mrs.", which indicates that she is married and heterosexual, be sex ed?

I've reported on a lot of book challenges lately, but I think this may be the most ridiculous one yet (and yes, that includes my previous post where people were arguing that Harry Potter was turning children into witches).

Friday, April 21, 2006

Harry Potter on Trial

As we blogged earlier, a school district in Atlanta is debating whether or not to ban the Harry Potter books:
[The would-be book banner] admits she has not read any of the books in their entirety. She, and others who spoke against the books, said the stories glorify witchcraft and offend their Christian beliefs.

One girl, Jordan Fuchs, said she became fascinated with witchcraft after reading the first Potter book. Jordan said she and friends used to cast spells. Once, she said, they performed a seance during gym class. Jordan said she became angry and depressed as she became more enthralled with witchcraft. Jordan said she considered killing herself.

Jordan, now 15, said she has since turned her life around. But she said the books are dangerous.

"I truly believe the Harry Potter books should be banned," she said.
The more I follow these censorship issues, the more I think the people who would ban books have a fundamentally different relationship with literature than the rest of us do: that they see books as scary and corruptive, sometimes forcing their passive recipients to do terrible actions they wouldn't otherwise do.

The reality, of course, is that a book is nothing until it interacts with the person reading it. If a person has a psychological problem, as Fuchs clearly did, her relationship with a book may be disturbed, just as a football player with a psychological problem may have a disturbed relationship with football. But no one would ever consider banning football as a result of one player's actions.

The last word must go to one of the librarians defending Harry Potter:
But Lisa Eickholdt, a reading specialist at Freeman Mills Elementary, said the books encouraged many children — especially those who struggle in school — to read. Children enjoy the books' central themes of friendship, courage and good fighting evil, she said.

"The Harry Potter series of books are not the kinds of books that need to be removed," Eickholdt said. "If anything, they are the kinds of books we need more of."

Monday, April 17, 2006

I Wish Naomi Wolf Would Stop.

Just stop. Take a breath. Yes, yes, we know Gossip Girls are trashy novels with two-dimensional characters and sometimes graphic (but flat, uninspired, not-the-least bit erotic if you ask me) sex. We knew it before she did.

Wolf was on Oprah last Monday, once again warning parents about dangerous books. "These books basically tell our daughters that their value comes from how high they are in the pecking order in their high school, whether they can afford all of the fabulous designer goods, and provide a hot sexual experience for the boys in their lives."

Shouldn't Wolf at least make an effort to sit down with girls who read these books and, oh I don't know, maybe ask them why they read them before making these claims? Or at least read what teen readers themselves have to say about these books on Amazon? There are 259 reviews over there ranging from one to five stars, with titles ranging from variations on "one of the best books I ever read!" and "awesome book if you like short beach reads," to "same old," "ridiculous," "guilty pleasure," "waste of paper!" "No Morals, No Plot, No Brains in the Character."

And maybe she could read around just a little bit more in the genre before presenting herself as the go-to gal on contemporary YA lit? Again, reading through those Amazon reviews, it's clear that girls who read Gossip Girls are reading a lot more as well. Many of the negative reviews offer alternatives--Cathy Hopkins' Dates, Mates series, The Traveling Pants books, Louise Rennison's Georgia Nicolson books.

But here's why I'm so bothered. Wolf's warning to parents--first in the New York Times Book Review, now on Oprah--is going to inspire book challenges at schools and libraries across the country. And it won't just be the Gossip Girls that people will want off the shelves or segregated or tagged with an astrobrite warning label. It'll be books like this year's Printz winner, Looking for Alaska, Golden Kite and ALAN Award winner A Room on Lorelei Street, Printz Honor books The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things, and Fat Kid Rules the World, Brent Hartinger's Geography Club (which has weathered several challenges already) or David Levithan's Boy Meets Boy.

They might even come after this:

Sunday, April 16, 2006

And Then There's Manga

Lately, I've had a number of interesting conversations with librarians on the whole "Manga" phenomenon. Manga is a style of Japanese animation, currently wildly popular with teenagers. But some of the comics, which are not written for children, contain very graphic sex and violence. (The librarians I've talked to do generally stock the less graphic Manga comics in the "teen" section, while reserving the explicit stuff for the "adult" collection.)

But here's this story, where all copies of a Manga anthology have been ordered removed from the whole library system:
Bill Postmus, Chairman of the Board of Supervisors of suburban San Bernadino County, California, has ordered the county's libraries to remove the scholarly text Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics from circulation. He proudly announced the move, calling the book "obscene comics," on the county's Website, saying, "That book is absolutely inappropriate for a public library and as soon as I was made aware of it yesterday, I ordered it to be removed immediately."
Okay, this is really creeping me out. I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around the phrase, "That book is absolutely inappropriate for a public library."

Libraries are about knowledge; is there any book, or at least any scholarly text about a world-wide cultural phenomenon, that is not "appropriate" for a public library?

UPSTATE Under Fire

Here's a classic example of the subjective, and evolving, nature of contemporary literature: a high school student's grandmother wanted to read the book he was reading in class, Upstate by Kalisha Buckhanon. But when she did, she was "shocked" by the profanity and sexual situations, and she now wants the book banned.
"That was like a slap in the face to me," Harris, 65, said. "There are loads of good books out there. Our kids don't need more raw language. Give them something that will nurture their spirit."
The problem? Many people say that the book does nurture the soul:
National reviews have called it "a moving and uplifting story of love and hope in the face of adversity" and a rare work that brings "dignity and integrity to urban fiction."

The novel offers opportunities to explore areas such as thematic and character development, said Cocchicola, who also noted that it has references to other literary works - such as "Catcher in the Rye" and "The Outsiders" - that become a jumping-off point to other research and projects....

"It's a balancing act, a difficult call," Principal Craig Jordan said of the decision to use books that include controversial elements. He said that students are always given the option of reading an alternative book in such situations.
Speaking from experience, I am the author of a teen novel, The Last Chance Texaco, in which I felt profanity was very important to the characters and situation I was writing about (teens in a group home). I know the book has been challenged in some circles for that language, but I also know that this particular book has spoken to some teenagers, especially foster kids, in a way that the same book without the edge would not. I didn't write the book to shock or offend; I wrote the book to tell what I saw as the truth. And I have literally heard from a number of readers, "I'm so glad you made it so the kids talk the way these kids really talk!"

I think this goes back to the point of literature: is it to instruct and inform, to tell a moral "parable," or is it to tell the truth? Every writer I know says that it might sometimes be partly the former, but it's mostly the latter.

Incidentally, and completely off-topic, buried in the article is this:
Earlier this month, a Hartford magnet school pulled books from students when objections were raised about the content of a self-published work written by the school principal.
The school was studying the principal's self-published book? Hmmmm, something tells me that the students probably weren't very honest when writing book reports on that particular book!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

A Little Historical Perspective, Please

A reader, Emila, posted a strong objection to our take that The Handmaiden's Tale is appropriate for some high school students (below). She quoted some explicit language from that book, then followed up with this comment:
So THAT is literature for minors! Wow... Look at what I missed, reading Voltaire, Camus, Molière, Goethe, Henry James, Kafka, Maugham when I was 17!!!!
AS IF's own Rosemary Graham then posted what I think is some pretty important historical perspective (warning: mildly explicit language follows):
If the Oklahoma people have their way, Voltaire's going to have to be in the adults only section, too. Candide is full of rape and the sexual enslavement of women. Not to mention lusty lesbian handmaids and cannibals, too.

The following excerpts are from chapters 11 and 12 of Smollett's 18th c translation. A contemporary translation would, no doubt, have a different sound.

"I already began to inspire the men with love. My breast began to take its right form, and such a breast! white, firm, and formed like that of the Venus de’ Medici . . . My maids, when they dressed and undressed me, used to fall into an ecstasy in viewing me before and behind; and all the men longed to be in their places."

"The Moors presently stripped us as bare as ever we were born. My mother, my maids of honor, and myself, were served all in the same manner. It is amazing how quick these gentry are at undressing people. But what surprised me most was, that they made a rude sort of surgical examination of parts of the body which are sacred to the functions of nature. . . . I afterwards learned that it was to discover if we had any diamonds concealed."

"A Moor seized my mother by the right arm, while my captain’s lieutenant held her by the left; another Moor laid hold of her by the right leg, and one of our corsairs held her by the other. In this manner almost all of our women were dragged by four soldiers. . .
at length I saw all our Italian women and my mother mangled and torn in pieces."

"Being reduced to the extremity of famine, they found themselves obliged to kill our two eunuchs, and eat them rather than violate their oath. But this horrible repast soon failing them, they next determined to devour the women.

We had a very pious and humane man, who gave them a most excellent sermon on this occasion, exhorting them not to kill us all at once. ‘Cut off only one of the buttocks of each of those ladies,’ said he, ‘and you will fare extremely well; if you are under the necessity of having recourse to the same expedient again, you will find the like supply a few days hence." looks like Voltaire's out. And I know that some of the "classic" authors that I studied--Chaucer, Hesse, Joyce--occasionally used some pretty racy language too.

I suspect in a hundred (or more) years, a lot of what is "scandalous" now won't seem so bad. But by then, I'm sure they'll be new authors "polluting" young, impressionable minds.

For people used to a certain sensibility, some contemporary books can seem shocking. But it's important to remember than many of the classics were shocking in their time.

The fact is, change is an essential part of literature; without it, it dies. Contemporary books are important not just because we need to new books that will eventually become future classics, but also because they often speak more clearly to contemporary readers (including teens!), about, yes, contemporary issues.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Harry Potter, Redux

Harry Potter is under attack again, in Atlanta. As is often the case, the would-be book banner:
hasn't read any of the books in their entirety. She read portions of the books, she said, and was offended by descriptions of demonic activity.

"My personal religious views don't agree with these books," said Mallory, a missionary who moved to Gwinnett about two years ago. "We need for our children to read things that teach good morals. Harry Potter lies, cheats and steals, and there is no accountability. There are better things for our children to be reading."
A couple of thoughts:

First, why do these people always admit to not having read the books they want to ban? Any sixth grader can tell you that context is everything when it comes to evaluating a book, and that it is absolutely impossible to make any intelligent judgement whatsoever about a book without actually reading it. What's next--literally judging books by their covers?

So why do these book banners who admit to not reading the book not realize how stupid they sound? If they honestly can't bring themselves to read all of such horrible, mind-polluting tripe as, say, The Chocolate War, why don't they just lie and say they did? Or buy the Cliff's Notes, since the books they want to ban are often acknowledged classics?

Honestly, they sound so stupid I'm embarrassed for them. Almost.

My second thought is this: I know it's easy to beat up on the person who makes it her mission to ban Harry Potter: "Ha! Look at that, another religious nutcase who wants to ban one of the most beloved books of all time--the book that has inspired more kids to read than any book in history!"

But I think it's worth noting that the Harry Potter books are currently among the country's most frequently challenged books. There is a huge, active, vocal, and very organized faction of people who wants these books removed from schools and libraries (but, alas, they're not so active that they can take the time to read the books themselves).

The thing is, there's this unspoken idea that if someone takes the time to challenge a book, they must have a point. There must be something in the targeted book that really is objectionable, and the objection should be accomodated somehow. And if a book gets someone that upset, or a whole group of people upset, well, why not just remove the book, and replace it with books that have nothing objectionable whatsoever to anyone? Why not find common ground? Why deliberately offend someone? It's a public school, or it's a tax-payer financed library, right?

But Harry Potter proves this is a lie. Because when books as inoffensive as these ones are among the country's most targeted, you know there's no pleasing some people. If these people are allowed to call the shots, our library shelves will effectively be bare--which, I'm sorry to say, seems to be the hidden, anti-intellectual agenda of some of these people and groups.

This doesn't mean we can't have standards in the books we buy and teach. But it does mean that just because someone thinks something--just because a lot of people think something--that doesn't mean they have anything resembling a legitimate point.

Do these people have a right to their opinion? Of course. They also have a right to make sure that their own children don't read the book.

But let's face it: some opinions are so lacking substance, and so poorly formulated, that they really don't deserve to be paid much attention at all.

A woman in Georgia wants to ban Harry Potter from schools? And a majority of legislators in Oklahoma wants to restrict or remove all gay-themed children's books in a public library? Someone else thinks it's not appropriate for some high school students to study To Kill a Mockingbird or The Handmaiden's Tale or Brokeback Mountain?

I'm sorry, but these opinions are patently absurd. And the fact that lots of people might believe them doesn't change that in the slightest.