Saturday, June 30, 2007

Censor This! (Our Bi-Weekly Censorship Round-Up)

What's up in censorship news?
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower (one of 2006 most banned books, according to the ALA) is being challenged for its inclusion on a summer reading list in New York state. All the books on the list are optional, chosen to reflect a range of interests. Ironically, the list was compiled after much consultation with students and teachers specifically because students weren't reading the books on the previous summer reading list.
  • Interesting article on the controversies over gay themes in picture books. Arthur Levine is quoted.
  • A new fatwa for Salman Rushdie.

The Censor Strikes Again

I'm just posting this on behalf of my friend Nikki Nate, a fellow writer, who had a little brush up with the censor. Alas, in my home province, too.


The following is from:
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
The Censor is Alive and Well and Living in Saskatchewan
This just in from Sono Nis Press, publisher of Trouble on Tarragon Island...

A librarian at a school in Saskatchewan called to complain about the age level listing for Trouble on Tarragon Island. She said the committee for their school library feels the book is not sensitive to aging women in its reference to saggy breasts and using the word 'bazoongas.' In particular, the librarian and her committee members are offended by page 11 - line 14, which refers to a boy cupping his hands in a certain way making reference to breasts, etc. The school has zero tolerance for that sort of behaviour and the librarian feels that by allowing students to read about it, the school is giving support to totally unacceptable behaviour. The solution, in this school anyway, is to pull the book from the school library. The librarian went on to say that the book should not be listed as appropriate reading material for young readers.

The school principal agrees that such behaviour is unacceptable and supported the librarian's decision to refuse access to the book through the library. Even if a child specifically requests the book, he or she will not be able to take it out on loan from the library. Not that the school is forbidding children to purchase a copy. The nearest bookstore is a mere 200 kilometers away in Saskatoon, so real keeners can, presumably, hop on their bicycles and tootle to the big city to find a copy.

All this is rather interesting since the book seems to have found many fans among the critics (it's nominated for a Red Cedar Award, a Chocolate Lily Award, and a Saskatchewan Willow Award and has had a number of very positive reviews in the media...) Note that even children who are participating in the Willow Award reading program will not be allowed to take the book out of the library, though the principal assured me in a phone conversation that the children will be given the full title of the book. Whew - that's a relief!

As for the complaint, well, I hardly think that mentioning a negative behaviour in a book condones that negative behaviour. Otherwise, children would never be allowed to read a book about the Holocaust, drug abuse, less than perfect parents, divorce, war, or a whole slew of other less-than-perfect examples of human nature. Do I condone the behaviour my characters exhibit in the challenged part of the book? Of course not - any Grade Five reader will understand that those boys were the bad guys at that point in the story.

What is the message I hoped to share about older women? That they are feisty, powerful, amazing women willing to take on the powers that be in order to stand up for their beliefs. And, yes, sometimes, the most strident among us cause (often inadvertently) some degree of consternation to our relatives. That's life. And isn't the role of fiction to hold up a mirror to what goes on in the world so we can examine what happens from another perspective? Granted, you have to read beyond the first few pages to figure all that out, but it seems young readers haven't had a problem staying interested in the story until the end of the book.

Not that the children in this particular school will be allowed to think for themselves and debate the merits of the grandmother's tactics or the boys' reactions, or the issues surrounding Old Growth Forests... Someone else, apparently, has decided to do the thinking for them. Poor kids.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Same-sex Kiss Blacked out of Yearbook

We here at AS IF! were admittedly floored (and outraged) by this story out of New Jersey where a student purchased a "tribute" page in a yearbook (to the tune of $150)--only to have his page blacked out with markers by the administration because one of his photos (pictured) was of him kissing his boyfriend.

At first, the superintendent tried to argue it wasn't a "gay" issue at all, that the photo was too "illicit." But then it was pointed out that (a) uh, the photo isn't particularly illicit, and (b) a number of heterosexual students had included photos of themselves kissing, and those photos hadn't been blacked out.

"I don't understand," the student said. "There is no rule about no gay pictures, no guys kissing. Guys and girls kissing made it in."

But here's the real rule, which is never stated outright: gay kids, and gay content, are treated as something outrageous, something "controversial," with a completely different set of rules than those applied to heterosexual kids, and heterosexual content. "There's no rule against same-sex kissing in yearbooks? Well, there should be!" The administrators were clearly worried about the reaction to the same-sex kiss, so they preemptively censored--yes, censored--the school yearbook. Really, can there be a better example of censorship than this?

For the record, we here at AS IF! have never argued that libraries and schools can't have standards and policies--that they can't keep certain books out of the library, for instance. We simply argue that a library or school's standards and policies have to be "reasonable" and based on reason (not prejudice), they have to be open and clearly stated, and they have to be fairly applied.

In the case of this censored yearbook, I can't imagine a more inconsistent, unfair policy.

I've long argued on this blog that this kind of inconsistency and unfairness, this pandering to potential outrage, also applies to gay teen books and gay content in teen books. As a gay author, I experience it all the time when I'm informally invited to speak at a school--only to be told that, after confering with administrators, they've decided that, no, maybe it wouldn't be such a good idea if I came after all. Likewise, I hear, "Oh, we'd love to have your book in our library, but I'm afraid it just wouldn't go over well with parents."

I hope I don't sound like I'm playing the victim card (and no, I don't need the speaking gigs--I'm plenty busy as it is!). But it bothers me because I see this as a "censorship" of a sort--an unreasonable, systematic, and preemptive elimination of a certain topic from the curriculum. And it bothers me more that more people don't see it as such. That's why I think stories like the above one out of New Jersey are so important. They clarify things, what's really going on.

Incidentally, we here are AS IF! have discussed this, and most of us seem to think that kid should sue the pants off em!

We also think that superintendent inadvertantly taught that school and those kids a lesson about free speech and freedom of expresion that those kids will never forget.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

"Occult" Concerns Gets SC Summer Reading Program Cancelled

This is a pretty good example of the fine line teachers and librarians must walk these days if they want to encourage kids to read for pleasure. A public library in South Carolina created a voluntary summer reading program with six weekly sessions. One of the sessions included astrology. But that got some parents upset. They created an uproar and got the whole program cancelled.

Sadly, we at AS IF! get reports of this kind of thing happening again and again, all over the country.

Here's one writer's take:

The Pickens library planned a reading program in Easley for grades 5 and up called “You Never Know at Your Library.”

There were six weekly sessions planned — featuring the theme of mystery and suspense — plus a pizza party at the end.

Then some parents began screaming bloody murder.
Seems like one session focused on — egads! — the occult.

The June 14 meeting called “What’s Your Sign?” included this description: “Get to know your inner cosmic being through astrology, palmistry, numberology (they probably mean ‘numerology’). Partner up to practice palm-reading, or try your hand at tarot cards.”

That peeved some parents.

Marguerite Keenan, Pickens County library system director, was quoted by Greenville News writer Ginny Johnson as saying she got phone calls from parents who said the session was “promoting witchcraft and teaching other religions.”

Yikes! Hide the kids, Martha!

I could understand parents complaining about the lack of educational content in a session discussing such phony-baloney stuff as tarot cards.

But it’s extreme to say the library was promoting witchcraft and other religions.
Let’s assume the protesting parents were well-intentioned. But I think it’s fair to say most people believe astrology and fortune-telling are superstitions — not genuine religion.
Elevating palm-reading and astrology to the level of religion gives such superstitious stuff a respect and dignity they don’t deserve.

In addition, it's improper for a few protesting parents to dictate what is appropriate for ALL children in the community.

After all, no child was REQUIRED to attend this completely volunteer reading program.
Any parent who was offended by a session could have kept junior at home that day and have him watch "Married With Children" reruns on TV.

Library officials said they chose the content of the sessions based on similar programs nationwide and by popular demand.

Fair enough. But instead of sticking to their guns, library officials decided, based on a couple of dozen complaints, to get rid of the June 14 session.

But wait! They didn’t stop there: They killed the ENTIRE reading program.

But wait again! They kept the pizza party at the end.

Get it? Here's a summer reading program that requires no reading but offers a pizza party originally designed to reward those who dutifully read books throughout the program.

Shall we laugh at this or cry?

How ironic that the name of the program was “You Never Know at Your Library.”


Library officials said they kept the pizza party because that probably was the only thing that wouldn’t offend local sensibilities.

Most Challenged Books of 2006!

Here's the ALA's list of the most frequently challenged books of 2006 (though, it must be added, these are only the challenges actually reported to the ALA; most such challenges go unreported). This year's list includes two AS IF! members, Chris Crutcher and Carolyn Mackler:

“And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, for homosexuality, anti-family, and unsuited to age group

“Gossip Girls” series by Cecily Von Ziegesar for homosexuality, sexual content, drugs, unsuited to age group, and offensive language

“Alice” series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor for sexual content and offensive language

“The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things” by Carolyn Mackler for sexual content, anti-family, offensive language, and unsuited to age group

“The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison for sexual content, offensive language, and unsuited to age group

“Scary Stories” series by Alvin Schwartz for occult/Satanism, unsuited to age group, violence, and insensitivity

“Athletic Shorts” by Chris Crutcher for homosexuality and offensive language

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky for homosexuality, sexually explicit, offensive language, and unsuited to age group

“Beloved” by Toni Morrison for offensive language, sexual content, and unsuited to age group

“The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier for sexual content, offensive language, and violence.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

AS IF! Interviews BAD BOY's Tanya Stone

Here's the first in what I hope will be a regular AS IF! feature: interviews with our members. First up, Tanya Lee Stone. Tanya is the author of the terrific, yet definitely sexually provocative, teen novel, A BAD BOY CAN BE GOOD FOR A GIRL (which is just now out in paperback!).

Why did she write it? What has the reaction been from both adults and teens? What does she think about sexual content in teen books?

Well, let's ask her, why don't we?

AS IF!: A BAD BOY CAN BE GOOD FOR A GIRL is a book about teen sex: whether or not to do it, what the consequences of doing it are. Why this book? Why do you think this book is appropriate for teenagers?

I guess I should start by saying I'm hoping I achieved the "whether or not to do it" without judgement, as that was my intention. Every teen has to make that decision for him/herself and what I was really interested in exploring are the emotional ups and downs and realizations that go along with heading into that new and uncertain territory of intimate relationships.

Why do I think it's appropriate? Because I take my responsibility to my readers extremely seriously and I wanted to speak to girls about these real and difficult and confusing issues they are dealing with. It's very easy to get emotionally swayed from what feels right to you--and who seems right for you--when you're in the thick of grappling with hormones, desires, common sense, and all the rest of the swirling chaos that goes along with falling in love, or getting turned on, for the first time. I wanted to reach out and say, "Hey, this happens to all of us at one point or another--and pay attention, because this is how it happens, so if you can learn from these fictional girls' experiences, I hope it can help you avoid some pain and make you smarter about who you are and who you want to be."

AS IF!: What was the reaction from the publisher? I know it's just now out in paperback, but what was the response upon intitial publication? Any challenges or bannings? Any negative feedback?

My editor and publisher were wonderful from the beginning. There were a few phrases here and there I was asked to think about, in terms of how necessary they were--which I did. In one or two instances, after putting myself in a 14-year-old girl's shoes (which hurt, as my feet have grown considerably since then), I made a change. In others, I didn't. I'm actually a little surprised that it hasn't been challenged yet. In fact, one extremely positive review included a line about waiting for the inevitable challenge.But I was extremely careful not to include anything gratuitous.

In terms of feedback, I've gotten such overwhelming responses from teen readers, as well as parents and librarians. I get so many emails from teens thanking me for being honest and telling me the book helped them either avoid a pitfall or cope with how they felt about a bad experience. One mother even wrote to thank me for helping her repair her relationship with her daughter. That brought tears to my eyes. The power of words, eh? I remember books that touched me in that way, and there's nothing more gratifying than realizing that you've written something that reaches someone like that.

AS IF!: There's a wonderfully clever subplot in the book about the girls in the school warning each other about a particular "bad" boy by writing the information in the back of the library's copy of Judy Blume's FOREVER. Why this book? I hear you've since been in contact with Ms. Blume herself, no?

I was looking for a vehicle for the girls to quietly communicate with each other, in part anonymously. Once I settled upon a book as that vehicle there was only one choice for me. Forever was a huge book for me growing up. One that opened my eyes to a lot of the things I was feeling at the time. Yes, Ms. Blume and I had breakfast and talked and talked. And let me tell you, she is absolutely as fabulous as I expected her to be.

AS IF!: One of the themes of the book is that boys and girls view sex very differently. (In fact, as a guy, I found myself occasionally frustrated by the jumping-to-conclusions that one of the girls did, which made the book seem particularly real.) What's been the reaction from girls? From guys? From adults?

I haven't had much feedback from guys in general, except the ones who chuckle at the title and don't get its full meaning at first. I'm not sure how many guy readers I actually have for this book; I suspect it's mainly girls reading it. However, I scripted a play based on the book that has been performed at a few book festivals and schools now, and that has been a really interesting experience in terms of feedback from guys. In each case, both the boy portraying our "bad boy" and the boys in the audience for the after-play Q&A had a lot to say about the things that came up in the book. They recognized certain traits and behaviors--if not in themselves, in a boy or two they knew--and talked about issues of learning more respect for girls, and people's feelings in general. Of course, I'm always quick to point out that I am well aware that many, many boys don't act like the boy in the book, and that I made him particularly bad on purpose, as he represents an amalgam of the worst kind of manipulator.

The reaction from girls has been almost entirely exuberant. As I said, they thank me for being honest and they all relate to at least one--if not parts of all three--of the girls in the book.

AS IF!: Why do you think this book and books like it are important for teenagers?

I actually wrote an entire article on this very subject! It was published in VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates) and is called "Now and Forever: The Power of Sex in Young Adult Literature." In it, I review the YA genre from the 70s on, looking at a variety of books that address these topics and discussing why they are important. In a nutshell, they are important because they reflect reality and, if I can quote myself, "books are possibly the safest place for them to learn about sex--not just the physical part, but also the complex web of emotions that accompanies it."

I'm sure there are people who disagree with me, and that's fine. Books exist for the readers who need them. Incidentally (and purely anecdotally), there are plenty of people who do agree that teens are dealing with these issues--just not their teens. And of course some of the time, that's absolutely true. But--and here's the anecdotal part--what explains the large difference between the number of teens who say they are grappling with these things, and the number of parents who say their kids aren't?

Check out AS IF! member Tanya Lee Stone!

So it Goes

And this one from the "Gee, when is this going to end" file: Coeur d'Alene parents look to restrict access to certain books "COEUR D'ALENE -- Checking out a copy of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou may require more than a library card in the Coeur d'Alene School District if some parents have their way.
Some parents say the book, along with five others, should require parental permission for students to read them..."

Alas, we've seen this all before. The kicker is the last sentence where one parent wants presenters to provide audio and video of their presentation before they're hired. Whatever happened to "Gee, we're excited to have you at our school?" Now it's "I hope you're Disneyfied enough for our school."

Ciao for now,