Friday, April 27, 2007

Speaking of Girls Kissing . . .

Maureen Johnson’s novel, The Bermudez Triangle, which contains no sex but is about (among other things) a lesbian relationship, has been removed from the Bartlesville Mid-High School in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The removal began with a single parent’s complaint about “the lack of discretion, and moral decline in the selection of books at the Mid-High library.” This parent singled out The Bermudez Triangle for having “no moral fiber” and promoting a “do whomever you want to discover yourself” mentality. The decision to remove the book was made by a committee appointed by the Bartlesville Board of Education upon receiving the parent’s complaint.

Maureen has responded to the action and allegations on her blog:
The idea that Bermudez is a “sexual free for all” is a joke. My mother read Bermudez—the same mother who wouldn’t let me wear denim skirts and who still tells me the stork brought me—and said, “I can’t see why anyone would object to this book.”
Maureen concludes that the complaint reflects “Garden Variety homophobia.”

The Oklahoma Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Committee has been asked to look into the situation.

Stay tuned for updates.

Two Girls Kissing? Let's Go to the Tape

At a high school near my home (and where I've spoken several times), administrators found that the cafeteria surveylance camera had captured two girls kissing.

So what did they do? They showed the tape to the girls' parents. Now one girl has been removed from school and supposedly sent off to an anti-gay private school.
"It wasn't a violation of policy and procedure ... but we all agree it was not a good use of surveillance," Schellenberg said. "It was an abnormal use of our equipment and it won't happen again. This is not a Big Brother institution."

Even so, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington said the group plans to look into the matter.

"I have a hard time believing this incident would've been handled the same way if it was a heterosexual couple," said spokesman Doug Honig.
Ya think?

Despite everything else this is, it's also a reminder to teens that there is no presumption of privacy when it comes to blogging and PDAs. In other words: your parents might find out.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Editorial: Art and Alienation, or, Can Books Save Lives?

Normally, our posts here focus on particular cases of banning and censoring going on across the country rather than the big philosophical issues. Sometimes particular cases will lead to interesting philosophical discussions in the comments section, but today I want to put an idea right out there for us to think about and discuss. And this isn't a rhetorical question; I don't already have an answer for myself. I really want to know.

Like many today, I've been hearing and watching clips from the video "manifesto" put out by the Virginia Tech shooter, Cho Seung-Hui. I have to admit that some of what he says doesn't sound all that unusual to me---he sounds like a lot of people I knew in high school who were pissed off at the world, felt done to, felt they had no place, angry and misunderstood and feeling helpless. But set him and his words aside, because the incident is too new and his history of mental illness too clear to make the case that a good book could have turned this situation around. It gets me thinking, though, about past school shooters in junior high and high school incidents of the last twenty years. Every case is different, every individual different and infinitely complex, but one of the recurring themes is that the shooters were outsiders, kids who were bullied, alienated, misunderstood, lacking a social circle that understood them, unable to articulate fear or rage or sorrow or whatever they were feeling.

One reason I read when I was a kid and teen was to feel understood. When I cracked open THE CHOCOLATE WAR for the first time I remember feeling that finally, finally, someone out there really understood the hell it was to be fourteen years old. Whenever I read a Madeleine L'Engle book, I knew it was okay to be smart---something kids in my junior high used as an insult over and over again. ("You're so smart." It came out sounding exactly the same as, "You're so ugly." I recently got an email from an adult who read about my book, and said that her own sexual promiscuity in high school started in an effort to hide and change her identity as the "smart girl.") I sought out books that featured alcoholic parents, because I had one and wanted to know I wasn't alone.

AS IF founder and regular poster here, Brent Hartinger, has gotten letters from teen readers who were so confused and alienated by sexual identity that they were considering suicide. Reading about the gay characters in Brent's books may have literally saved their lives. Authors of the so-called "edgy" books that get challenged and censored regularly hear from readers who say that their books are the first and only place they have found some understanding, some safety, some knowledge that they aren't alone. I know that sometimes adults look at the topics in some teen books and say, "How depressing! How hopeless! Why are we letting kids read this stuff?" Because for many of us, there is enormous hope simply in knowing you are not the only one who has done/felt/thought/been through a particular experience.

One thing AS IF sees again and again in censorship cases is this pervading fear of art and what it might do to children or teens. There is concern over exposing them to topics that seem too dark, too challenging. What is more fear-inducing? The prospect of a teen reading about something potentially controversial and difficult, or the prospect of a teen believing that violence---towards self or others---is the only remaining option? Maybe getting the very books that draw so much fear into the hands of kids before they turn that dark corner can be part of a process that changes a path from hope to despair. Is it possible that the defense of intellectual freedom can be the defense of life itself? It could be that I'm too optimistic about the power of art to reduce the feelings of alienation, I don't know. What do you think?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

(This column of mine was published in Tuesday's Greenwich Time),0,5000660.column?coll=green-opinion-columnists

Is the right to free speech absolute? Does art need to be "fair and balanced"?

I've spent hours discussing these questions since my column on the cancellation -- or postponement, depending on who you talk to -- of the play "Voices in Conflict" at Wilton High School.

The most interesting yet disturbing conversation was via e-mail with 1st Lt. Zach Alessi-Friedlander, of the family whose protests managed to get the play canceled/postponed, who is currently serving in Iraq.

Lt. Alessi-Friedlander's position can be summed up by this, from his most recent e-mail to me: "High-school students are mostly under the age of 18 -- i.e. the age at which the government has determined that they are able to serve in the military and to vote in formal elections ... Prior to the age of 18, high-school-aged students are relieved of the responsibility of participating in our civic processes so that they may cultivate the critical thinking skills necessary to make these types of important decisions. You said in your response that Ms. Dickinson's ... students were intending to stimulate discussion and therefore are not required to do thesis work. I would counter this contention by saying that if these students want to take on a serious subject, then they must be prepared to do the serious work necessary not only to stimulate but to frame and develop a serious discourse."

I find his point of view problematic for many reasons. It's been many moons since I got my degree in politics, but I don't remember the Constitution limiting the right of free speech to those of voting age. But more than that, this script was written for a drama class, not for history, social studies or the debate club. A work of artistic expression shouldn't be expected to "frame and develop a serious discourse." It can, however, provide a vehicle through which serious discourse can take place. Art is meant to stimulate thoughts, emotions, beliefs or ideas. As an author, I'd argue that it is only able to do so by taking a stand.

Lt. Alessi-Friedlander feels the "pro-military service" point of view should be experienced by impressionable under-18s to counteract the arguably negative portrayal in "Voices in Conflict." But by allowing armed forces recruiters to set up shop in the school cafeteria, Principal Timothy Canty ensured that the military has a voice at Wilton High School. I find it extremely disturbing that it's fine for students to be exposed by on-campus recruiters to a one-sided portrayal of life in the service (do you think the soldiers currently serving in Iraq were told: "And by the way, we might just extend your tour of duty by five months while you're over there"?) but unacceptable for a drama class to present a play that explores other points of view on the conflict unless they do detailed study of the Middle East situation.

Lt. Alessi-Friedlander and I agree on one thing: "that freedom of speech is a privilege and a right; it is an extraordinary tool for shaping our nation's present and future." However, here's where we part ways: "In an abstract intellectual sense, the principal of free speech is absolute. However, in a practical sense, we must be willing to do the hard thinking and work necessary for free speech's most effective application."

I don't believe that free speech is absolute only in an "abstract intellectual sense," and that we are only guaranteed that right if we are willing to pursue with intellectual rigor every topic we wish to discuss in the public domain. The blessing (and yes, sometimes curse) of our Constitution is that any nut job has the right to speak out. Take Ann Coulter, for example.

I do agree with Lt. Alessi-Friedlander that, "We must, as a country, work harder to make the public discourse more serious -- and this starts with how we train the younger generation in school."But here's where I think both Principal Canty and the Alessi-Friedlander family have got it wrong.The Socratic Method is the oldest technique of fostering critical thinking, in which a teacher does not give information directly but rather asks a series of questions, continually challenging students' assumptions and logic, with the result that the class attains knowledge by answering the questions and, often as a result, deeper awareness of the limits of knowledge.Why not present the play and then lead discussions using the Socratic Method?

Surely a lesson in expression and critical discussion is better than one in suppression and intolerance?

Monday, April 16, 2007

THE CHOCOLATE WAR Banned In Maryland

A librarian writes from Maryland:
Ok, here's the scoop. The Social Studies department in Harford County Maryland is offering a course to 9th graders called "Living in a Contemporary World." This course is designed to help ease the transition from middle school to high school for 9th graders. One of the classes focuses on stress management and decision-making and uses the novel Chocolate War by Cormier. So far so good, right?

I love Cormier's books. They present the life of young people in a realistic and often disturbing light. In his novels, Cormier takes on the real and often disturbing issues that our young people face. He uses their point of view, their mannerism, their language. His books are among the most popular books that kids check out. I am always recommending them - I've read most of Cormier's books myself. I find them realistic, engrossing, captivating, and overall great reads! Cormier's novels resonate with young readers. Without using their own language and thoughts, Cormier says his book "would lack credibility" with his readers.

Turns out the 40 parents don't agree.


Reader Mail!

Interesting email from a reader:

I read AS IF! religiously. I wanted to tell you about censorship that occurred last year in my school. I am 12, last year my old teacher selected a book for the class to read. There was no sexual content or anything. It was one word: "jackass". He would not let us finish it (but I did independently without his knowledge). My teacher told us he's a afraid of "parent complaints".
By the way here's a interesting censorship poem you may want to read.
Proud bookworm anti-censor,
Thanks, Stargirl! Personally, I think you're right to be annoyed by your teacher. If there's one thing I know from my work with censorship issues, it's that almost all of us, no matter our age, really resent being told what we can and cannot read or hear, especially when those decisions are being made as a result of fears about what "someone else" might think.
There are lots of healthy, interesting debates to be had about the content of individual books, not to mention the whole question of "age-appropriate." But I've said it before and I'll say it again: these debates should be done in public with as many people as possible getting a chance to have their say, including the kids involved.
Why? Because no matter the outcome of the debate, the community gets a chance to talk about its shared values. If a book is banned, people who don't agree know about it, and maybe get activated to change things. If a book isn't banned, values that I cherish, like intellectual independence and the freedom to read, are upheld and reinforced. But either way, people interact, and that is always a good thing. In my experience, the more a community really talks about books and libraries, the less these censorship controversies arise.
Keep fighting for books! And thanks for writing.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Kaffir Boy pulled to "protect society's morals"

I won't say much about the specific article here, because I want to leave the debate fairly open on this one. Basically, a school's administration has stopped all of its 8th graders from reading the multiple-award-winning MEMOIR _Kaffir Boy_ because it contains a sequence in which men prepare to engage in coerced anal sex with boys.

I emphasize the word MEMOIR because, while authors are frequently accused of sensationalizing their works of fiction, I have to believe that the rules for nonfiction should be different. Especially in books like _KB_, which serve to alert the world to the plight of an oppressed group, any "softening" of the truth destroys the entire point of the book.

Anyway, two quick anecdotes from my life:

1. My fairly-sheltered third grader was doing a homework assignment, trying to find all of the different words he could create using only the letters in the word "depart". He came up with "raped", and then asked me what the word meant. I asked him where he'd heard it, and he said his best friend (also fairly innocent) had written "raped" on his sheet while they were starting the assignment in school. My point: no matter how much parents TRY to filter their kids' experiences, the parents who think their kids haven't heard some seriously heavy stuff by 8th grade are deluding themselves.

2. I was visiting a middle school last month, and the librarian and I were discussing teen authors. The name of Laurie Halse Anderson (who happens to be an AS IF member, BTW) came up, and the librarian said, "I love her stuff." Then she paused, and finally said, "But of course I had to send her book _Speak_ up to the high school, where the girls will be ready for it." I then asked this woman, "So, uh, did you send all of the _rapes_ up to the high school, too?" This kills me: something like 15% of all rape victims are under age twelve (see So to a large extent, sending _Speak_ up to the high school is stopping these middle-school aged victims from finding validation, a chance to seek professional help, etc.

If we could protect our kids from a world full of awful experiences just by hiding the books, I'd be the captain of the book-disposal team. But since we can't, I'd rather have the books out there to provide our children with the straight scoop about their planet and its inhabitants.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

"Voices in Conflict" goes to the Public Theater

After drama students at Wilton High School were forbidden from performing "Voices in Conflict", a play about the Iraq War using the words of veterans, they are now going off-Broadway, with performances at the Public Theater scheduled for June. Read the story here:

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Welcome New AS IF! Members!

A big welcome to new AS IF! members (and authors) Coe Booth, K. L. Going, Carolyn Maccullough, and M. T. Anderson!

Aren't we an impressive bunch?

P.S. Apologies if I forgot any newer members. I have the memory of...well, the opposite of an elephant.

Friday, April 06, 2007

And speaking of censorship...

My son came home from his Greenwich middle school the other day saying that he could no longer access my author blog at school as it had been blocked for "adult content".

Yesterday, an avid Greenwich reader of both my political blog and my author blog told me he couldn't access either from the Greenwich Public Library for the same reason.

Now I realize that my frustration with the current Administration causes me to sometimes lose my cool and use bad words (although I always express them with an * rather than spelling out the whole word) in my political blog, but the closest I got to adult content in my author blog was my discussion of the "Scrotum-gate" controvers - so I can't help but being a little paranoid about this.

Does anyone have any idea how I would go about finding out one what grounds my blog has been rated for adult content, and how I would go about getting the ban lifted?The last thing I want is for kids to be unable to access my blog.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Censors hush voices students need to hear

Here's my column from today's Greenwich Time on the censorship of "Voices in Conflict" at Wilton High School:,0,1742290.column?coll=green-opinion-columnists

At Wilton High School, 15 students in Bonnie Dickinson's theater class are creating a play about the Iraq War using the words of veterans.

Aware of potential sensitivities, Ms. Dickinson ran the idea before Principal Tim Canty."I said I'm thinking about doing a project about the Iraq veterans. This is a book ("In Conflict: Iraq Veterans speak out on Duty, Loss and the Fight to Stay Alive" by Yvonne Latty) that has their exact words. It might be a little controversial," Ms. Dickinson said. "And he said, no. I think that's great."

But after one student, Gabby Alessi-Friedlander, and her mother, Barbara Alessi, complained that the play, "Voices in Conflict" was one-sided and "insulting" to currently serving soldiers, Mr. Canty told students that the play could not be performed on school premises, despite efforts to modify the script to address the family's concerns."We were looking to make sure that the script... would present a fair and balanced overview of the many perspectives and points of view that exist," Mr. Canty said.

Hmm. "Fair and balanced." Perhaps he'd be satisfied if the play were performed with a Fox News ticker running along the bottom. "We're not part of the entertainment industry," Canty said. "We have to make sure we don't express any bias...that we are exposing students to all points of view.

"I find it ironic that Principal Canty has forbidden the performance a play comprised of the words of Iraq War veterans on the basis that it doesn't expose students to "all points of view," when he allows military recruiters to set up shop in the school's cafeteria. Surely a play reflecting the reality of war in the words of veterans who've served in it would provide "balance" to the rosy picture of military life presented by recruiters?

Perhaps more surreal is a recent press release from Gary Richards, superintendent of Wilton Public Schools, which states objections to the play on the grounds that "the script contains language that, while realistic, is graphic and violent."

So let's get this straight - it's OK for kids to enlist and be shipped off to Iraq but heaven forbid we should let them hear about what soldiers are actually experiencing in there because the language is too "graphic and violent." This is beyond nonsensical - after all, war is graphic and violent. Richards goes on to complain "This approach turns powerful material into a dramatic format that borders on being sensational and inappropriate."

Hello?! This play was written for a drama class. What's more, I struggle to see how anyone could consider our veterans' own words "inappropriate."

"Any real discussion of the situation in Iraq is going to be controversial. The stories of troops coming home from war will not be pretty or pure, and will rarely be black-and-white enough to align with extremists of any political persuasion," said Paul Reickhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "But however ugly and uncomfortable, it is our duty as Americans to understand the truth about the war in Iraq."

"Voices in Conflict" was a step towards doing just that. What's more, it served to motivate students to read and learn more about the war and current events."I'm not sure if working on the play changed my opinions, but it has certainly made them more informed," said student Sarah Anderson.

Clearly adherents to the Bush/Cheney/Lieberman "if you criticize the war you're giving comfort to the enemy" school of thought, some students at Wilton High have been telling actors in the play they are "faggots" who should be "hanged for treason" having been brainwashed by their "liberal pig parents."

Last October, the Fort Drum Blizzard published an article by 2nd Lt. Zach Alessi-Friedlander, Gabby's brother, about how soldiers of the 1st 89 Cavalry Regiment were helping two schools near Baghdad. Lt. Alessi-Friedlander wrote: "Quality education teaches students how to think critically about their own lives." He goes on to quote former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky's warning against "societies that restrict intellectual freedom and prevent the free exchange of ideas," favoring instead those that "unleash the creative potential of their people."

Lt. Alessi-Friedlander is risking his life to bring intellectual freedom to Iraq. It's supremely ironic that his mother and sister are working so hard to restrict it at home.

"Please tell your readers that soldiers' voices need to be heard," student James Presson told me.

We honor our troops by preserving at home the intellectual freedom they're fighting for in Iraq.