After months of pleading his case, my fifteen-year-old son, Al, persuaded me to do an AMA on Reddit. First he had to tell me what Reddit is: an online community where users vote on content, making the "good" content rise to the top while burying the bad or boring content by downvoting it to Internet oblivion. Then he had to explain what an AMA is--it stands for "Ask Me Anything." I knew none of this, as I'm not nearly as hip as my son is, nor will I ever be.
Al's justification for why anyone would care what I had to say? Because I write fiction for teens, and because my books, especially a series called The Internet Girls, have a history of being banned. Censorship is a hot topic. We Amer'cuns like our freedom.
So I did the AMA, and over time, nearly ten thousand Reddit readers popped in on the conversation. Again and again, readers expressed amazement that censorship occurs in this day and time. "Wait--it's still legal in America to ban books?" one Redditor queried.
Well, no, but it happens anyway. The conclusion I've come to is if someone, and let's make that someone a grown-up, is asked, "Is it okay to ban books?," he or she will probably say no. But if that same person is asked, "Hey, are you cool with twelve-year-olds, maybe even your own twelve-year-old, reading a novel about drugs, violence, or werewolf sex?," she or he might consider the question in a different light. Censorship, for many, is no longer defined as censorship when the werewolves are prowling in their own backyards.
I don't write about werewolves, but I do write about sex, and plenty of adults don't approve. Here's a small sampling of the sort of e-mails I keep in my "Angry Adults" file:
"I recently read the vulgar hot tub scene in your book ttyl, and I was appalled. I immediately had all of your books pulled from our local library."
"I find it absolutely amazing that you as a mother find it appropriate to inform young innocent minds of such things as thongs, French kissing, erections, and tampons. Can our children remain children no longer???"
And, because I can't not include it, "Just because you were a girl with loose morals early in life doesn't give you the right to influence young girls to follow in your horrible footsteps. My daughter's school will not glorify one of Satan's minions."
I get that. I'm not out to glorify Satan's minions, either. But to paraphrase Katherine Paterson, author of Bridge to Terabithia: A book written to offend no one will most likely fail to make a difference to anyone.
I want my books to make a difference, and though a novel I've written might be some adult's worst nightmare, it might also be some girl's small saving grace at a time when she's feeling teary and alone.
Grown-ups tend to think their problems are bigger and more important than the trials kids experience, but guess what? They're not. We're all traveling through life together--and not only that, but every adult was once a child. Too many adults forget that, I think. Too many adults forget what it feels like to be that awkward middle schooler worrying about which table to sit at during lunch. They forget that dealing with changing bodies, ever-shifting friendships, and maybe-getting-divorced parents is hard. So hard. I write about all that stuff (and more), but I don't write with the goal of corrupting my readers. I write with the hope of handing my readers a mirror in which they can see themselves as well as a window through which they can see the pains and joys of others.
Back to book banning. I downvote it.
I don't want anyone telling me what I can or can't read. I don't want anyone telling anyone what he or she can or can't read. (Of course a child's parents have the right to decide if a certain book is right or wrong for their child, although, sheesh, if you're a parent? I beg you to read a given book yourself before deciding how you feel about it. Books for tweens and teens rock! You will be surprised!)
My three kids have my blessing to read anything they want, and I absolutely encourage them to read banned books. Why? Because I respect them and think they're smart, and because I want them to draw their own conclusions about bullying, loyalty, issues with parents... all of it. I want my kids to be critical thinkers.
Jason Clarke, one of the best and most passionate high school teachers I know, puts it like this: "When parents tell me not to let my students read a given book, what I hear is, 'Don't teach my children to think, because if they think, they will no longer believe the bullshit I've been feeding them for fifteen years.'"
But that's a mentality born from fear. If we fail to encourage kids to think for themselves, we're doing them a terrible injustice.
Psychologist William James claims that absolutism--the idea of Truth with a capital T--allows people to take a moral holiday. If everything is black or white, then no soul-searching is needed when it comes time to take a moral stance.
I don't think everything is black or white, and God knows I search my soul every day, or try to. Books help me do this, because books offer a full spectrum of lowercase truths and untruths, rights and wrongs, acts that are moral and acts that are not.
Books astound me and change me. Books enlarge my life. Not all of them, of course. Some books suck. But there's only one way to find out what a book has to offer: Read it.