Sunday, September 26, 2010

Our Right to Read

Imagine going into your public library to pick up a copy of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, only to find that it’s not available. Not because another patron has taken it out: because it’s been removed from the shelves. Permanently.

Maybe you’re not the questioning sort, so you figure what the heck, I’ll just find another classic … how about … F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby? But then you discover that’s missing, too. Disappeared from the collection and struck from the catalogue.

The list goes on: John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Even Harry Potter is gone. Hemingways are missing. Nobel prize winners (I’m thinking of Beloved by Toni Morrison, one of my all-time favorite books) are not to be found. Heck, you can’t even find a decent Jodi Picoult novel (although they’re readily available at most airport bookstores.)

If this scenario seems ridiculous and unlikely let me tell you: there are people in our country who are actively working to make this a reality. Every book, and every author I’ve mentioned here, have been targets, numerous times, of book banning. If you don’t believe me, ask the American Library Association. This is National Banned Books Week, and the nation’s librarians have a lot to say about our national right to read.

Just last week this issue raised its ugly head. A fellow named Wesley Scroggins out in Missouri called upon the powers-that-be in the Republic, Missouri schools to ban Laurie Halse Anderson’s young adult novel, Speak. He described it as “soft pornography.” He objected to the novel’s portrayal of dysfunctional families and insensitive teachers. I don’t know … I guess he thinks authors should only write about happy families and classrooms run by the Teacher of the Year?

Speak is a moving, empowering fictional account of a girl who is raped the summer before her freshman year in high school. She is emotionally scarred by this event, to the point where she can barely speak. It’s a story about how she ultimately deals with her attack and finds her voice again.

It’s not easy to read. But it treats, sensitively, an important topic. The author has received countless letters from girls, thanking her for writing this novel, which helped them cope with their own sexual assault traumas. When I read this book it confirmed my own decision to write for teenagers. It’s possible, through fiction, to touch young readers in ways that help them, and move them. Laurie Halse Anderson is one of our best YA authors out there.

Luckily, there is an army of teachers, writers and librarians out there ready to take on the Wesley Scroggins of the world, and while the citizens of the Republic, Missouri school district still haven’t taken any action regarding Speak, they’ve sure heard from a lot of people who strongly approve of the book. Librarians, especially.

And if there’s one thing I know, Wesley, you don’t want to make a librarian mad.

Every day this week, in honor of Banned Books Week, I’m going to recommend a recently banned Young Adult title. Thanks to Wesley, I’ll start with: Speak.

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