Saturday, May 27, 2006


AS IF member David LaRochelle's comic novel ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY NOT, about a gay teenager who is determined NOT to be gay, is under fire in Minnesota.
David LaRochelle, a prolific and popular children's author from White Bear Lake, is in demand at Young Authors' conferences across the state. But last week he was asked to leave his award-winning book for young people, "Absolutely, Positively Not ..." (Scholastic/Levine, 2005) at home.

The book, whose teenage protagonist is struggling with his sexual identity, wasn't allowed on the display tables at a Young Authors' event at Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls, Minn., on May 18.

The event is geared toward fifth- through eighth-graders.

Minneapolis author John Coy, keynote speaker at the Thief River Falls event, was so upset over the decision that he ditched his prepared remarks and issued a protest to the 400 or so young attendees.

"I asked them how they felt about somebody making the decision to protect them from a book that was about a 16-year-old boy growing up in a small Minnesota town trying to figure out who he was," Coy said Thursday. "I told them the reason it was banned was because the main character is trying to figure out if he's gay, and some people don't think you can handle that topic."
First, can I just say that I'm in love with this John Coy person. John, will you marry me?

This is an interesting case because the argument that the book might not be appropriate for 5th graders seems, on its surface, to be plausible. But that's only if you ignore the fact there is nothing sexual or in any way edgy in David's book (not even a single swear word), except the fact that main character is gay. And the argument also only makes sense if ALL "teen" books were similarly banned from the event, which also isn't the case. This book, whose target audience includes people who were to be at the event, seems to have been singled out solely because some people thought the subject matter was so scandalous that the book shouldn't even be allowed in the same area as people below the book's target audience.

The organizers of the conference explained it thusly:
The book was not "banned," said Lloyd Styrwoll, a public school administrator for more than 30 years and director of the Northwest Service Cooperative, which sponsors the annual Young Authors Conference in Thief River Falls. "We just looked at the age level of our youngest students, which would be fifth-graders, and felt that may be too young an age [at which] to introduce this particular topic. This was certainly not an issue of not being accepting of alternative lifestyles. It's an issue of how you deal with the privilege of dealing with other people's children."
Here's my take. Maybe this is an "editorial decision," not "censorship" per se. But it's an editorial decision motivated by prejudice. The fact is, this level of scrutiny was clearly not given to all the other upper-age-appropriate books at this event, just the gay-themed one. When minorities complain about discrimination, this is exactly what they mean: not that the rules are different for them, but that the rules are enforced differently--to the very letter of the law in cases where they usually are not.

On the plus side, it sounds like David's book will be available at similar upcoming events:
While there was confusion Thursday about whether or not the book would be available at this week's event at Bethel University in Arden Hills, the parties had worked out their differences by day's end.

"The book will be there," said Cathy Macdonald, director of Success Beyond the Classroom, sponsor of the event, which has been held for the past 11 years at Bethel and attracts thousands of people.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Smackdown in District 214.

Six to one. More here. (Registration required. Bugmenot.)

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Apparently, It's the Season

Although you can take the most vile and dirty exerpts from a book does not mean that the book, as a whole, is all that bad or, as stated, "pornographic". We are teenagers and we should not be locked inside this bubble District 214 is trying to hold us in. And, futhermore you should read the books before you deem it inappropriate.

From the on-line petition at District 214

Students in Township High School District 214, a Chicago-area suburb, are fighting a single school board member’s attempt to ban seven books from the curriculum. One student launched an on-line petition, which has over four hundred signatures and comments. Some students are wearing tape that reads “censored” over any writing that appears on their clothing and many plan to attend the school board meeting Thursday night, where a decision about the books will be made. The striking of these books was suggested by school board member Leslie Pinney, who ran for her position promising to bring her "Christian" views to the job.

Ms. Pinney freely admits that she hasn’t read the books in question. Just the naughty bits.

The books in question:

The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien

Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World, by Michael Pollan

Sunday, May 21, 2006

May Reason Prevail

A school board in Hernando County Florida has placed ASIF! Member Maryrose Wood’s novel, Sex Kittens and Horn Dawgs Fall in Love on a list.

A committee, appointed by the school district’s superintendent will review the list--which includes titles by Barbara Kingsolver and Jean Auel--and decide whether Wood’s book will be purchased for the Nature Coast Technical High School library. Sex Kittens has been described by School Library Journal as "squeaky-clean" and appropriate for readers in grade six and up. Commonsense Media, a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization, which seeks to “provide trustworthy information and tools, as well as an independent forum, so that families can have a choice and a voice about the media they consume” has found Sex Kittens “totally age-appropriate for readers twelve and up,” and praised it as “an efforvescent delight” that parents might enjoy reading with their children.

In a televised meeting, the school board was pressured by a boardmember who read profanity-laced passages from another book. It is unclear from the news coverage whether this school board member has actually read Sex Kittens and Horn Dawgs Fall in Love, or if the title alone prompted its inclusion on the list. The fact that a book called Unspeakable Acts, Unnatural Practices: Flaws and Fallacies in Scientific Reading Instruction, which seeks to debunk the "science" of early phonics training, got a last-minute reprieve when the principal begged for its life leads me to think perhaps not.

Perhaps the fuss is all about the title.

Let's hope that reason prevails, that the committee members will read the novel and the professional reviews and decide by their own lights, and not under the television camera’s glare

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Round One: Harry Potter

Regarding the recent challenge of Harry Potter in the Atlanta area school district, the hearing officer "strongly recommends" that the books remain in Gwinnett County public school libraries.

In addition:
Media review panels from J.C. Magill Elementary, where Mallory's children attend school, and the school system already ruled the books should remain. Both panels are composed of parents, community members and school system staff.
I think this is all over, folks. Insert your favorite quidditch or Voldemorte reference here.

Friday, May 05, 2006

To Rate Books? An Open Letter From Pat Schoeder

Here at AS IF!, we have spent a lot of time debating the rating and/or labeling of teen and children's books (and I think I've now heard every possible argument, pro and con!).

Here's an open letter from Pat Schroeder, the president of the American Association of Publishers, and the AAP's Freedom to Read committee that ironically seems to come to many of the same the conclusion that most of us here at AS IF! have reached. My own comments follow:

In traveling around the country, I’m occasionally asked why publishers don’t provide descriptive content “ratings” for their books similar to those provided for TV programs, movies, music CDs, and video games. I’ve heard from individual publishers that they, too, get similar questions and requests. It may be helpful to clarify the industry’s position on the question of book “ratings

Guidance regarding content and age-appropriateness of children's books is already available from a wide variety of sources, including publishers themselves. Publishers’ catalogues contain descriptions of a book's content, identifying it as being appropriate for young children, middle readers, teens, or young adults (YA), and these categories are constantly being refined. Some publishers even indicate age-appropriateness by the actual format in which a book is published. (Paperback books in "digest format," for example, are published for younger readers and do not contain the mature content that appears in YA books.) In addition, retailers such as Barnes & Noble, Borders, and independent booksellers, help consumers identify age-appropriate books through the standard practice of shelving books according to age level. Books for children (approximately through age 12) are shelved in a separate area from those for teens and "Young Adults.” Libraries and school systems are familiar with these designations.

In addition, there are a host of resources that review and rate content of books for children and Young Adults, often specifically mentioning that the book contains "mature" content in its language or subject matter. Some excellent sources of children's book reviews include School Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Horn Book, and Voice of Youth Advocates.

Confusion sometimes arises with respect to books that appear on "Accelerated Reader" lists, often cited in complaints about books with mature content. There apparently is some misapprehension as to what this designation means. "Accelerated Reader" is proprietary reading management software created by Renaissance Learning, a for-profit corporation that provides materials to schools to aid in meeting state standards of learning requirements. The Accelerated Reader lists refer to reading skill levels. They are not meant to be used as a substitute for the information provided by School Library Journal or other reliable children's book reviewers.

In addition, we need to emphasize the fact that books published by a publishing house other than a children's publisher (including books by well known authors such as William Styron, William Faulkner, Norman Mailer, and John Updike which appear on lists recommended for older students) are by definition intended for an adult audience. The decision to include these books on honors reading lists and recommended lists for older students must reside with the teachers and librarians responsible for selecting these materials and they, in turn, need to be familiar with the books they select. If the content of a particular book chosen for its literary merit offends the values of a particular family, those parents should be able to request an alternative reading choice for their child. The idea of having publishers "rate" literary material intended for an adult audience runs counter to every legal and traditional understanding of basic First Amendment-protected rights.

We also need to underscore the difference between Young Adult books with "mature content" and mass entertainment media such as movies, music, and video games. The mature content of a Young Adult book is integral to the book as a whole and is intended to make YA readers aware that choices have consequences.

In our diverse and pluralistic society, choosing what students read and learn is neither easy nor free of controversy. A number of years ago, AAP joined with the American Library Association and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development in a nationwide study involving school librarians, library supervisors, school principals, and district superintendents. What we found out is still relevant. We learned that school districts need to:

• Establish in writing a materials selection policy making clear the local criteria and procedures for selecting curricular and library materials.

• Establish in writing a clearly defined method for dealing with challenges and complaints concerning these materials, including a formal "request for review" form to identify specific concerns and objections to the materials.

• Create a broad-based committee that includes parents, teachers, librarians, and school administrators to review challenged materials, placing no restrictions on the use of these materials until the process is complete.

• Keep lines of communication open with the public served by the schools, providing regular updates on educational objectives, curricula, and classroom and library programs, including the selection and review of books for classroom and library use.

Although we as parents are often tempted to shield our growing children as long as possible from the harsher realities, our well-intentioned efforts eventually prove counter-productive. These harsh realities are part of our (and their) world and young people need a safe and non-threatening framework within which they can begin to understand and deal with issues surrounding sex and sexual identity, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, child abuse, and other difficult subjects. AAP’s member publishers are committed to providing books for older children and young adult readers that will give them such a framework and ease their transition into adulthood.
I'm certain that some folks will think this letter is a cop-out, that it once again circumvents the central issue that concerns a lot of parents, which is coming up with a way to get information about the content of children's and teen books into the hands of parents so they can make their own, informed decisions (which, incidentally, is exactly what everyone here at AS IF! wants to!).

But speaking from the point-of-view of an author, the question for me is: who decides? Who's doing the rating? Anyone familiar with the MPAA, which rates movies, knows that the system has been rife with inconsistencies and accusations of bias. And since books and their publishers often don't have the resources that movie studios do, I worry that many worthy books, authors, and subject matters will be unfairly and unduly stigmatized, resulting in unofficial blacklists, defacto censorship, and worse. It's worth noting that there exist many folks who already openly advocate such tactics when it comes to gay themes, for example. So I don't think it's paranoia on my part to suspect that these people would try to use any label or rating system to further this political agenda.

Finally, keep in mind that, even now, many, many parents decry the MPAA, and the limited information it provides. So in any event, labels and ratings are certainly no panacea.

As Pat Schroeder implies, being a parent is hard, hard work. Slapping a label on every book creates an illusion of action, but it doesn't come close to resolving the real issue--and I think its potential to create other, even more serious problems is very great indeed.