On June 12, members of the Cape Henlopen (Delaware) school board voted 6-1 to remove my LGBTQ YA novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, from their summer reading program for college prep and honors students. The reason they gave: "inappropriate language." Pages and pages of it, they said.
What follows is the letter I sent to the Cape Henlopen school board. (This version has been very slightly edited for style and length.)
I'm emily m. danforth, the author of the book you censored.
Well, not all of you.
Thank you, Dr. Posner, for standing up against the intolerantly conceived, sloppily researched, and unnecessarily executed whims of your colleagues by refusing to censor a book you've not actually read.
As the writer of the book in question, my reaction to your unfortunate decision to remove The Miseducation of Cameron Post from your district's summer reading list is one of both sincere disappointment, and also one of unexpected pride.
I'm disappointed, of course, that you, the members of this school board, have taken it upon yourselves to overrule the work of the dedicated and informed librarians who crafted the Blue Hen reading list in the first place, particularly because you admit to not even fully reading my book before voting to remove it from said list.
In the Cape Gazette article about this decision, you, board President Spencer Brittingham, seemed to take particular pride in knowing "in less than three minutes" that my book wasn't one you wanted on the list. (Funny, took me seven years of writing and revising and hundreds of pages to tell the story that's told in that novel. But it took you less that three minutes to become an authority on it? Impressive.) You claim to have come to this conclusion after reading a few select passages from my book online. Those few passages apparently contained a whole lot of what you refer to as "inappropriate language." (Similar to instances of language found in several of the other, non-challenged, non-removed books on the Blue Hen list, but I'll get to that in a moment.)
I'm a writer and a teacher. And as a writer and a teacher, I think that you, President Brittingham, are sending the very troubling message to students that a hasty perusal of a few pages from a nearly 500 page novel gives a reader an adequate sense of that novel's themes and style and content. Adequate enough, apparently, to equip that reader with all the knowledge he or she needs to make sweeping generalizations about the book before censoring it. I very much doubt that you would encourage students in your district to complete their homework by only reading a very few select passages from an assigned novel before coming to significant conclusions about said novel. Hardly the way to write an essay.
And while you may claim that the board's "intent is not to censor" --that is, of course, precisely what you've done. The Miseducation of Cameron Post was included on a librarian-developed list that was part of a summer reading program for incoming freshman. You took the drastic action of removing the book from that list, thereby eliminating it as one of the books students participating in that program might choose to complete their assignment. Yes, my book is (apparently) still available in the school library--which is wonderful--but it is no longer a part of this important summer reading program because of a direct action taken by this school board. Period. That's the very definition of censorship, Mr. Brittingham. But surely you know this. (It does seem that this board rather likes to hide behind its rhetoric.)
However, even had you actually read my book (as perhaps some of you are now doing, after the fact), I feel uncomfortably confident that your decision to remove it would have remained the same. And this is because I find it very difficult--impossible, really--to believe that my book was actually removed for the reason you're offering publicly.
As I mentioned, several of the other books on the Blue Hen list also include instances of what you refer to as "inappropriate language." Perhaps The Miseducation of Cameron Post has a greater number of these instances than some of those other books, but unless you're prepared to offer a specific number of "allowable" curse/swear words per book on the list (which seems a poor idea, indeed), then your claim that my book was removed "solely" for its objectionable language seems patently dishonest.
As acclaimed YA author and co-founder of Diversity in YA, Malinda Lo, put it in her tumblr post on this matter:
"It's almost as if the school board here understands that homophobia is no longer publicly acceptable, so they have to fall back on objecting to the usage of the word "fuck." I'll just say I'm not convinced that's really why they removed the book from the list, although I do know that some parents object to cursing in books. And yet if that's the reason, why are the other books on the list still on the list?"
I'd like to second Malinda's "I'm not convinced."
It seems to me that even if we take you, the board, at your word--if we believe that you really did remove my book because of its objectionable language--then surely the parents who initially complained to you must have already singled my book out for closer scrutiny and potential objection because of its advertised queer content. How else can you explain that those other books weren't also challenged on the same basis? My book is, very proudly, about a young lesbian--that fact is in every press release and blurb--it's printed right on the book jacket.
In the Cape Gazette article I mentioned, you, board member Sandi Minard, claim to have sat down with parents to go "over parts of the book that were concerning." I'd be very curious to know the context for those "concerning passages." They may very well have included instances of the "offensive" word you mention, but were they also about sexuality, or romance between two teenage girls, or drug use, or any number of the other topics this board clearly doesn't feel comfortable addressing head on?
I think, for me, this is the most depressing part of this entire dismal and embarrassing charade. You're clearly hiding behind claims of finding too much "inappropriate language" in my book, when other books on the list certainly include the exact same kinds of language, in some instances, in abundance. This feels like a particularly insidious form of homophobia, one that's not nearly as covert as you must think it to be.
Quite frankly: the students in your district deserve much better from their leaders. And, to be clear: I'm certainly not objecting to the realistic usage of frank or salty language in those other excellent books on the Blue Hen list, I'm simply questioning why my book was so dramatically singled out for that usage when it is so obviously of a kind. Writers at AfterEllen.com have done a remarkable job of delineating those instances, should you have not yet have seen their fantastic response to your unfortunate decision.
So, yes, I'm very disappointed that incoming freshman taking college prep and honors classes at Cape Henlopen won't have the opportunity to consider choosing The Miseducation of Cameron Post to complete their reading/essay assignments. I mean, there were ten books on that original list, and, if I correctly understand the parameters of their assignment, students were asked to choose, at most, two of them. Why the objecting parents couldn't have simply asked their students not to choose my novel, to instead choose from any of the other nine books, is beyond me. It seems a simple-enough solution to the objections of a few parents.
However, as I said in this letter's opening, your decision has made me proud, too. Very proud. And honored. And humbled.
I'm proud that The Miseducation of Cameron Post is now in the company of so, so many novels that have been banned and challenged and censored throughout history--many of them among my all time favorites, the very books that shaped me as a reader, a writer, and a person. It seems that everyone except you knows that censoring, or even attempting to censor a book, only makes it more appealing to curious readers, which certainly seems to be true in this case. I'm honored to be told that dozens of local readers have already begun seeking out my novel, something they almost certainly wouldn't have done before you made this completely unnecessary decision.
Finally, and most of all, I'm humbled by the swift and passionate response of Cam Post's many supporters. These readers and activists have taken to social media to decry your decision and, more than that, to take specific action by orchestrating the impressive donation program at area bookstore Browseabout Books. When I first heard of your decision (early Sunday morning--an upsetting thing to wake up to, to be sure), I wouldn't have guessed that this is where we'd be by Tuesday afternoon. But then, I've often found Cam's readers to be a resourceful, dedicated, passionate bunch: so maybe I should have expected as much. I feel very lucky, indeed, to have readers like these.
I'll close by saying that since The Miseducation of Cameron Post was first published in February of 2012, I've personally heard from hundreds of teen readers who have connected with the novel. I could tell you any number the of emotional stories that those readers have shared with me about their own difficult adolescent experiences. But I won't cherry pick the most moving story. I'll give you, instead, the most timely.
Within just a few hours of learning of your decision, I received an email from a teen reader going into her sophomore year of high school. Which means that, if we're doing the math, she was in exactly the age group that you've deemed "not yet prepared" for my novel when she read it. This student told me a little about the difficulties she's having getting her parents to accept her sexuality, adding: "...the way you describe Cameron and her challenges, made me fall completely in love with her as well as see parts of myself in her...Your writing completely captivated me, and I hope I will be able to do that someday."
I think it's incredibly unfortunate that your decision to remove my book from your summer reading list may well keep a student just like this one--a student who might be too embarrassed or unsure to, on their own, pick up a novel with subject matter like mine--from choosing my book "safely" as part of a larger class assignment.
When material in novels is uncomfortable or difficult or strange or simply new, to a teen reader, it can be such a comfort to have it endorsed by a librarian, a teacher, or a curriculum; to be able to discuss it, rigorously, with other students who have also been assigned that same difficult material. (This doesn't work as well, of course, when you skim a few passages on the internet and call it good.)
With the donation program now in place at Browsebaout Books (thanks, again, to the efforts of the incredible staff there and at AfterEllen.com), I'm confident that any area teen who wants to read The Miseducation of Cameron Post will now have a good chance to do so, and this feels absolutely phenomenal, but it doesn't mean that I think it's a complete correction of the serious offense of censorship caused by removing my book from the Blue Hen list in the first place.
It's on you, the members of the Henlopen school board, to overturn your misguided decision. Or, at the very least, to provide for it a course of reasoning that takes into account all of those other books currently remaining on the list, books with the very same instances of "inappropriate language;" a course of reasoning that doesn't smack of homophobia.
And please don't think, for one second, that I'm advocating for you to ban--sorry, censor--oh, sorry--remove all of those books as well. That would be a fucking travesty.