Sunday, April 18, 2010

Readers and Writers and Parents, Oh My!

I'm a little late posting this morning and I apologize. My brain is still a bit fogged from a trip to Texas A&M University yesterday to attend my son's awards luncheon. It was a great trip and it is a wonder to see how grown up my son is. I look at him in his midnights and wonder where that little red headed boy chasing the dog has gone. And, as often happens with parents, seeing my son as a grownup, respected and liked by his peers and preparing to start a career he's excited about, I found myself remembering past times and wondering where all the years have gone.

And that brings me to today's post. The ALA (American Library Association) has announced the 10 most challenged books of 2009. Some books that have been on the list for years have been replaced. Others are still there. But the message is still the same. There are books in school libraries and that are required reading that parents feel aren't appropriate for their children to read.

Now, I am not and never have been a proponent of censorship. The quickest way to get to me is to start talking about taking books off the shelf or burning them. Nor am I saying the parents who challenged these books were right in doing so. I know too many people who object to books and feel they should never see the light of day simply because someone else told them how evil the book is -- the Harry Potter series is a prime example of that. The number of times I've had people challenge me because I let my son read those books that "encourage the practice of witchcraft" are too numerous to count. Worse, most of those telling me that had never read the book.

That said, I do take issue with the educators and professionals who feel they have to "prepare" our children for adulthood by having them read books that aren't age appropriate. These books more often than not are written for high school students and deal with issues most high schoolers are familiar with. Yet, they suddenly become required reading for 5th and 6th graders. Worse, in a variation of the mistake some parents make when they condemn a book without reading it, teachers assign the book without reading it because it comes from the "approved" list.

This was rammed home for me the summer between my son's 5th and 6th grades. We were on vacation and he was reading the last book on his summer reading list. Imagine my surprise as we lounged in our room at my aunt's house in Cleveland and he started reading aloud an attempted rape scene that would make most adults blush. Gone was the nice gothic mystery we'd been reading together. For more than a dozen pages, the author described the attempted rape and subsequent killing of the villain -- in graphic detail. Now imagine my reaction and the conversation I had with the English teacher as soon as we returned home.

That is when I discovered that the summer reading lists were prepared by committee, members of which were librarians and businessmen and not teachers. Nor were they librarians from the districts where these lists were being used. This particular book had been written for high schoolers. Not for kids entering the 6th grade. But that apparently didn't matter to the committee. They wanted to teach about rape and abstinence. Just as they wanted to teach about drug abuse and mental illness with the other books on the list.

So do we, as writers, have a responsibility to keep in mind that what we write might be used in ways we don't anticipate? What can we do -- or should we do anything -- if we discover a book we wrote for an adult audience with adult situations is on a middle school or high school reading list?

27 comments:

Stephen Simmons said...

I wonder, could the author in such an instance provide the school district with an accompanying "author's commentary", and insist that it be attached to the reading list and/or covered along with the book in class?

One o the guys I went to boot camp with, thirty years ago, told me about the creative response his senior class came up with when the activist parents in his home county tried to get a bunch of books pulled from the shelves of his school library (in rural North Carolina). The senior class got permission from the school administrors to stage a book-burning on the school lawn - each senior burned a copy of Bradbury's "Farenheit 451". The parents got the message.

matapam said...

Dear Dog! The books kids are required to read! And always have been. And it's not getting any better.

I don't think there any way we can write that won't be misinterpreted or abused by someone with an agenda. We can try to avoid inappropriate audiences with clear labeling but that's not going to stop people who think "children of this age should know about rape."

If we find a book of ours on a reading list somewhere, we can try to get information on age appropriateness added, but we're about as powerless as we were when we were parents.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Amanda, I take objection to books which wallow in misery and self pity and paint the world as amoral and beyond redemption.

Children at the end of childhood and in their early teens are very vulnerable emotionally.

I admit the world is not a perfect place, but the good balances out the bad. This is conscious choice that we make.

You can tell I'm the mother of a son who spent 7 years battling depression.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I did have a book banned.

It was for upper primary school and the underlying message was that racism is bad. The protagonist had to travel a character arc where he started out racist and then grew as a person.

Parents objected and the book was banned.

Where is the sense in this?

C Kelsey said...

Rowena,

I'm really biased, but in my experience folks who ban or recommend books have agendas and mental issues all their own. They project all of that onto reading recommendations. Among their greater crimes is that the "recommended" books tend to drive young minds away from reading. Then we all sit around and complain that the young don't read anymore. Yeah, it ticks me off.

Amanda Green said...

Stephen, I have to admit, that's one way to make your point. I'm not sure I could do it though. Whether I like a book or not, I don't think I could bring myself to burn it. Besides, some of the folks who fall into that "activist" group wouldn't understand and think they had managed to convert the teens.

Amanda Green said...

Matapam, I think things get worse with each year that passes when it comes to what the required reading lists are. While I agree our kids should read, and that they should read something more than manga and shiny vampires, you can't take the joy out of reading by making it seem that everything has to have a message. As for what we can do as writers, I don't know. Maybe keep watch on google alerts and similar programs and if we see our works being used in schools, etc., send a message on to the powers that be about age, content, etc. But, as you said, we are about as helpless as writers as we are as parents, probably even more so.

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, I agree with you completely. And, as a mother who had a teacher use reading as a punishment, thereby killing my son's joy in books, I resent them presenting books that have no chance of entertaining the kids even for a short while. While I don't think we need to paint a world that is all sugar and light, I also don't think we should make the world seem darker than it really is, especially not for kids too young to know that everything they read isn't true.

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, the sense in that is the same sort of non-sense as in banning Harry Potter because it teaches witchcraft or Tolkien because it has elves and other non-human characters. In other words, there is no sense. In fact, I'd lay odds that the parents who objected didn't read the book, or didn't finish it. If they had, they'd know you took your character on a growth arc and that he was "redeemed" in the end. Of course, the other alternative is that they didn't want you showing their kids that they didn't have to remain racist but we won't get into what I think about folks who feel that way.

Amanda Green said...

ChrisK, were you reading my mind? That is exactly how I feel. So, what do we do -- either as parents or as educators or as writers -- to fight that mindset?

Kate said...

I went to the top hundred list. WTF?

To Kill a Mockingbird for RACISM?

Clearly the zombiepocalypse has already occurred and there are no brains left.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Rowena,

I second. On top of that, must every book my kids are assigned be about "oppressed minority" has horrible things happen to him/her/whatever and doesn't or can't do anything? THIS is not what I want my kids growing up thinking. You can ALWAYS do something. There is a reason despair is a sin.

I had a short story banned (G) in Australia! My first published short story, Thirst, now available in my collection Crawling Between Heaven And Earth in the Baen Free Library, caused the entire printrun of the magazine Bloodsongs to be seized and destroyed. I just get a kick over this happening in one of the freest places on Earth
[squares shoulders] I always knew I was a disreputable rogue.

Amanda Green said...

Kate, I'm not sure there were ever any brains involved. And if there were, think of how badly they must have upset the zombies' stomachs because surely said brains were spoiled beyond being consumed even by the shambling dead.

Brendan said...

In relation to the argument about age appropriateness, that can be a vexed issue since people don't mature at the same rate. I had two SE Hinton books as school texts one year apart('That was Then and This is Now' & 'The Outsiders') and one I hated and the other I loved. I don't think one was really that much better or worse than the other just that extra year gave me an opportunity to grow enough to appreciate them.

And if teachers were only choosing uplifting books I wouldn't have read 'Kes' or any Robert Cormier books. I may not have loved 'The Chocolate War' but it lead me to 'The Bumblebee Flies Anyway' one of my favourites.

Amanda Green said...

Brendan, if it were the teachers choosing the books, I wouldn't have as much of a problem because they know their students and can make an informed decision about what is appropriate and what isn't. Nor do I have an issue with having some realistic books and issues being presented. My issues come from the fact that is isn't the teachers but some faceless committee in the state capital or national capital that makes up these lists and committee membership isn't people who deal with the students on a daily basis. Then there is, as Sarah noted, the trend to assign books about the "downtrodden without a means to get out of their horrible situation and who can't trust their teachers, the cops, etc., because we all know how bad THEY are."

I won't go any further than to say that there are some good books on the lists but that every year they are being replaced by books deemed to be "socially relevant". If I say anything else, I'll be running down the political path that I try to avoid here.

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, I have one thing to say, "YES!" not only about the books our kids have to read but also about you squaring your shoulders and taking pride in being a disreputable rogue ;-p

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Brendan,

Okay, let me put this in perspective for you. My kids' favorite "assigned" books were 1984, Animal Farm and Brave New World -- not anyone's idea of "uplifting" or "Cheery." Robert also loved Dickens and his oh, heavens, schmalzy Victorian depression.
Most of the books they read are far more depressing than that, because there's no plot, only a catalog of injury and horror.

matapam said...

Amanda, my kids were reading so poorly that I started buying them comic books. _Anything_ to get them reading voluntarily and getting enough experience reading to read well.

The people who want the kids to read books with messages really need to think about those messages. Handicapped people? They had to read "Oh Mice and Men" If you have been so fortunate as to miss it, I'll just say it has to do with a mentally handicapped man who commits a murder and is killed by his best friend to keep them both from being killed by a vigilante mob. Compare and contrast the presentation of the handicapped between that appalling miscarriage and say, the presentation of the handicapped in _The Warrior's Apprentice_.

Which message do they want the kids to get, eh?

Amanda Green said...

Matapam, it was much the same with my son. He could read but hated to after the teacher who made reading a punishment. Add to that the books with "a message" and, well, I'm sure you understand. Manga and books on tape saved the day. He'd read the manga on weekends and we listened to the books on tape whenever we were in the car. That got him interested in mysteries, the Harry Potter series, even some of the "classics" like 1984, etc.

As for the two books and what message the powers that be want to send to our kids, well, I think you can guess what my response is to that message. I'd much rather see them send the message in "Warrior's Apprentice" than in "Of Mice and Men".

Dave Freer said...

Um. As an author who HOPES kids read his books I worry more about prescribed books than proscribed books. Maybe kids need to read Lord of the Flies (yechh) or Of mice and men... but they need to love reading far, far, far more. I extend my own moral code to my books, and I am afraid, a lot of my faith in humanity. If you don't like it, read something else.

John Lambshead said...

I laughed at loud at the idea that Harry Potter is evil but graphic rape scenes are suitable for children.

Not funny for you at the time, of course.

On another note being banned is often the sign of a great book. Not always. Lady Chatterly's Lover was a great disappointment to the boys in the Lower Sixth when we got our hands on a copy. :)

The greatest work of science fiction of all time, 1984, heads the list of apparently the most 'challenged' (i.e. attempted to ban) book in the USA.

Ah, Minitruth in action.

I came across this recent quote underneath a review of 1984:

"Morgan - 2008-03-13 07:36:51
believe it or not, my friend's kid got suspended from school 2 years back for writing his book report on 1984 and relating it to present day America. The teacher actually called the essay unpatriotic. Insanity.."

Thinking is unpatriotic - the irony is wonderful.

John

Kate said...

John,

One of the most valuable things about 1984 is how much it shows the mundane everyday of tyranny. Comparing it against any modern government is a good thing in my view because every government, however benign, will use some of the disinformation techniques demonstrated in 1984.

The issue at hand is how they are used, why they're used, and how much abuse there is - and that in a class of reasonably intelligent 16-18 year olds would be a very animated discussion indeed, and an educational one.

Kate said...

Amanda,

It's cruelty to zombies! Discrimination! Forcing those poor innocent zombies to eat education committee brains. It's time for the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Undead to do something!

Amanda Green said...

Dave, thank you! Not only have you said exactly what I believe as a reader, as a parent and as a writer, but you write what I want my son and others to be given the chance to read. You, Sarah, Rowena and the rest of the MGCers all put out a "product" that should be included in reading lists, imo. It is important that they see there is hope for our species and that while there are warts -- a lot of them -- there are also gems. Sure, let them read the classics too, but don't limit their reading to just the "socially aware" books that turn them away from the joy of reading.

Now that he's older, my son has admitted that some of the books he had to read in public school were good for making him think. Of course, what he thought usually wasn't fit to print. Now, when he is home and can read, he grabs your books -- usually hiding them so I can never find them again. I had to get him his own copy of Sarah's Darkship Thieves. Dave Weber's Honor Harrington books and David Drake's Hammer's Slammers are favorites as well because of their military aspects. But does he go back to read any of the books that were meant to teach him social awareness, etc -- nope.

So, to you and all those who feel as you do, thank you. Thank you for writing books that are entertaining and that still show us a moral code and faith in humanity without beating us over the head with it. [end fan squee now]

Amanda Green said...

John, you're right. There are times a banned book is a great one. But usually, at least here, the books are banned simply because a very small group of parents have gotten together to yell about a book they haven't even read. And in this day and age of "let's make everyone happy", school districts give into them.

And, yes, the irony of banning 1984 because it made students think about and question the government is wonderful.

Amanda Green said...

Kate, Kate, Kate, there you go again making assumptions. Do you really think those on the committees actually have brains? If anything, it's false advertising to entice the zombies to come -- offering them the chance for a meal that never materializes. ;-p

Mike said...

Late as usual, but it seems to me that part of the problem is not the books on the list, but the approach to reading that is taught? I mean, if you are forced to analyze almost any book in the methods commonly used (Identify five metaphors used in Darkship Thieves. Compare and contrast the use of metaphors in this book with the definition of metaphors given in Shakely's Guide to Teenage Writing. Summarize your opinion on the use of metaphors in books.) Sorry, that's a parody, I'm not sure what they teach now, but I'm willing to bet it's heavily analytical and not very reader-friendly. Mostly because when I talk to students, most of them have a secret genre that they read -- and then there are the books that they perform English on. Reading for fun is not reading for school grading -- not because of the books, but because of the approach?