I was walking back from my high school's audio-visual room with my English 9 students. We were all carrying our new class book, a memoir titled The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.
Another teacher happened to be walking down the hall in the middle of our group, and saw the book that my students were holding in their hands. She approached me. "Hey," she said quietly, "do you warn students before they read that book?"
"I mean...that book's pretty serious," she said. "There are a lot of triggers in it."
"Right. Actually, I did warn them. I told them how intense it might be for some of them and that the book has some really gritty elements." I said I warned them in the same way that a movie has a rating. I let the students know that they were going to read the difficult journey of an American girl, and that she was going to experience some things that might disturb them.
The teacher and I quietly talked about the elements, but she wasn't satisfied. "I just don't know," she said. "That book's really dark." Her face was a combination of a wince and a frown. Clearly she didn't think that The Glass Castle was appropriate for high school students.
I almost asked if the book was too real for her, but I didn't want to fight over a book in front of my students, and so far we'd kept our voices down. We'd acted like professionals. So I kept walking.
Even though I was the teacher who acquired The Glass Castle for our English department, I wasn't offended. First, The Glass Castle isn't very dark. I know that it isn't too dark in the context of memoirs because I read contemporary memoirs regularly and I'm also the author of a dark, contemporary memoir (The End of Boys). Second, I've never argued much when I've encountered literary conservatives or would-be censors. So I didn't say anything. But then I thought about it for a couple of days and realized that this is an important fight - the fight against book censorship - and that I have to stand up and challenge this insidious point of view.
To fight any argument, we have to understand the positions our opponents hold. So - to summarize - these would-be book censors believe the following:
1. We need to protect young people.
2. Teenagers can't handle gritty material.
3. Teens won't understand what's going on if the material is too complex.
On the issue of protecting teens by not allowing them to read certain books, isn't that one of the founding doctrines of the average 20th Century European fascist dictator? We need to protect the people by not allowing them to read dangerous ideas. If we do in fact allow people to read anything serious, there could be dangerous consequences.
Also, because I hang out with adults and teenagers on a daily basis, I know that the people-group I hear talk about horror movies most passionately and regularly is high school freshmen. The adults I know rarely watch horror movies, and my seniors rarely talk about them either. But 14 and 15-year-olds LOVE the horror genre. And if they're allowed to watch gratuitous and graphic violence on the screen, what are we protecting them from in books?
But it's not just about the horror genre. Books are often banned for teens because of vaguely "adult" subject matter. Book censors are attempting to protect teens from "inappropriate" and "controversial" material. As my favorite librarian, Julie Vignol of South Eugene High School, says, "If teens are going to be able to vote at 18, shouldn't they be reading the most controversial and interesting books as teenagers so they learn to think and discuss and debate and change minds? Isn't thinking a big part of becoming a responsible voter?"
If we censor and limit teens' reading material, don't we then stunt their intellectual development?
Also, can we actually protect teens from swearing, sexuality, bigotry, and violence? Aren't they getting regular doses of all of those while watching Netflix, television, movies, or Youtube? Don't professional athletes regularly use homosexual slurs? Isn't "Game Of Thrones" full of rape and incest? Aren't the hallways at the average U.S. high school populated by teens who sometimes use the F-word and/or disparaging terms for many people groups? I'm not saying that bigotry and violence and rape are good things. Clearly they're terrible. But they're also common occurrences in contemporary media and secondary schools. So is protection even possible?
Second, on the idea of teens not be able to handle gritty material...
One of the best young adult books of 2015, according to NPR, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Barnes & Noble is the novel Mosquitoland by David Arnold. The book is incredible and the main character, Mim, is a perfect narrator. Her voice is poignant and unforgettable. But responses to that book's Amazon reviews show that many people object to the book because:
A. It includes the F-word.
B. It questions whether many teens should be on psychotropic drugs.
C. It addresses sexual assault.
D. It demonstrates that some people use derogatory terms for homosexuals or developmentally disabled people.
So - basically - the book is "too gritty," which in reality means "too realistic." Teens reading the book will discover real-world issues, real-world language, and real-world situations. They will read those very real scenes and have to decide how they feel about them. In reading a real book, they will sometimes laugh, sometimes cry, and sometimes root for or against certain characters and events. In short, they will have normal responses to lifelike things. And what's wrong with that?
Finally, let's talk about the most ridiculous argument for censorship: "Teens are not able to understand complex material."
Young adults are simply young adults. They are not feeble-minded or mentally-limited people. They are not weak and they don't struggle with cognitive issues. Most high school students aren't old enough to buy cigarettes or enlist in the Army, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be challenging their minds and expanding their worldviews with excellent literature of all types. In my experience as a high school teacher, I've found teens capable of incredibly insightful readings of novels and nonfiction. I've seen teens be creative, argumentative, philosophical, and opinionated. They often discover something in a text that I've never thought of. So why shouldn't we put excellent literature in their hands?
But I also have a personal argument against the ludicrous idea that teens can't handle complex material:
Last year, I pulled my thirteen-year-old daughter out of 8th grade and let her finish the year educating herself. At her middle school, she had been assigned half of one novel in two-and-a-half years - and I knew that she'd be better educated if she stayed home to read novels and poetry collections, study math, read a book on physics, watch Bill Nye science videos, examine history, and memorize Spanish verbs and nouns. Basically, I trusted her to challenge herself and examine complex material.
She was allowed to determine a lot of curriculum during those five months, and part of that curriculum was reading two of the most banned books of all time. She chose Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Alice Walker's The Color Purple. My daughter loves classics and she wanted the challenge of reading those two novels. They're both difficult books - both deemed inappropriate for teens - but my daughter worked through them and asked intelligent questions, wrote about complex themes, and examined the use of literary devices in the texts. Put simply, she read those novels well. So if an eighth-grader can read difficult, banned books and get a lot out of them, why do we keep those same books out of the hands of our average high school students? Why do we limit teens' lives and disparage their abilities as learners? Why do we think that a teen is less capable than the average adult?
When School Library Journal gave my first adult novel (Graphic The Valley) a starred review, it ended the review with this sentence: "Both adult and mature young adult readers and lovers of literary ecofiction will enjoy this fast-paced love story." Many adults online took offense when they read that review because my novel includes some sex, and young adult readers shouldn't be reading those scenes. First, the sex in my novel is both limited and not too graphic in nature. There's certainly nothing pornographic about it. And second, I'd guess that there might be a little bit of sex going on at the average U.S. high school as well.
Finally, by banning books, or by choosing not to teach classics with "gritty content" to teens, what are teachers and parents losing, or more accurately, what are the students and teens in our schools and households missing? If we keep the classics from young people, will they ever read them later on? Will the average adult in this country seek out banned books and sit down to read them from the ages of 21 to 24, the first four years of legal adulthood? Will the average adult self-educate and catch up on material missed in high school since adults chose to ban certain books?
Teens have an opportunity in their classrooms and homes, an opportunity to take back their education. They have an opportunity to challenge and develop their capacities for empathy and understanding. They can demonstrate curiosity and zeal, can question what has been taken from them, and demand that they get it back.
To teens, I say take back those great books. Take back the classics. Take back gritty, contemporary material. Look at the banned and challenged book lists and decide what you want to read, decide what you want to learn, decide what you care about. Then you can ask great questions, develop strong opinions, and be open to new ideas.