Today, John Corey Whaley, the author of Where Things Come Back, guest blogs about his perspective on Banned Books Week — and I have to say, he pretty much embodies my own personal feelings on this subject, though he writes about it much more eloquently than I ever have. Thanks for stopping by, Corey!
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When I was in the 8th grade, I became quite tired of reading Hardy Boys Mysteries, especially after I figured out that they were, in fact, the same exact stories repeated over and over again by a room full of well-paid ghostwriters. As a writer, it’s sometimes very difficult to admit to people that I was, from a very young age, a very lazy, hesitant reader. I liked the idea of books—loved them so much that I amassed a large collection through Scholastic mail-in book clubs and begged my mother to take me to the bookstore when other kids were frequenting skating rinks and bowling alleys. There has always been something about books … some indefinable magic that I feel when I pick one up, ruffle its pages, old or new, and smell the papery air flying my way. Books are concrete in a world of invisible information and though it took me a while to become an avid reader, I somehow always knew this magic existed and was waiting for me to be a part of it all.
So, I’m in the 8th grade, I’ve set aside my Hardy Boys series and I’m looking for something different, something that will make me think. I want to say that it was my father, who has always consumed books in massive quantities, who suggested to me that I try to find a copy of the Ray Bradbury classic, Fahrenheit 451. Much to my surprise, the sparse library at Springhill Junior High School had a couple of copies and I checked one out soon thereafter. From the first page, I knew this was something important. If you aren’t familiar with Fahrenheit 451, it tells the story of a dystopian world, our world at some point in the unspecified future, in which all critical thought is outlawed. Therefore, if one is caught reading in this society, he or she is put into a mental hospital and the books are burned. All books, in this world, are burned. I want to say that as a fourteen year old I probably hadn’t ever given two thoughts to the fact that being able to walk into a library and check out a book on any topic was a tremendous freedom. But this book changed that. I remember researching the burning and banning of books throughout history. Naturally, articles on Nazi Germany and similar totalitarian governments, along with extremist religious groups, were the result of such reading. And I imagined, even, that in some places of the world the very book that had gotten me thinking about burning and banning books, Ray Bradbury’s masterpiece, was most likely itself forbidden to be read. Now I know what you’re thinking: This guy is about to compare the banning of YA books to the acts of Nazi Germany. No, not so much. I’m merely illustrating how this one novel opened my mind to much more than the world around me was willing to offer up without being asked.
Recently, there have been several stories in the news about banned books. Yes, in 2011. Where? In the United States. I was sad to see that recently, one of my very favorite novels, Slaughter-House Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was banned by a school district in Republic, MO. The major complaint, which led to the decision to have it banned, was that it taught students anti-Christian ideas. Now, all religion aside, isn’t that just an outright breaking of the law? To ban a book from public schools based on one religious group’s beliefs? Yes. Yes it is. My thoughts on it are such: a parent can dictate what his/her child reads, no problem from me there. But a school district shouldn’t make that decision for them, and it most certainly shouldn’t tarnish the name of a classic work of American literature based on a few people’s personal impressions.
And even more recently the YA novel Tweak by Nic Sheff (in the interest of full disclosure, this novel was published by Atheneum, my own publisher), an autobiographical tale of the young author’s struggle with crystal meth addiction, was taken off of the summer reading list in Monroe Township schools in New Jersey, after parental complaints about the novel’s sexual content. As a former teacher, I can look at this decision in two ways. First, I understand parental concern over sexual content. I understand that a parent has the right to safeguard his/her child from the facts of life as long as he/she chooses. But, there should be an option there. If you don’t want your child to read the book with sexual content, perhaps the district could provide an alternative book exploring similar themes discussed in Tweak. Sending out a message to thousands of students that reading novels warning against the dangers of drug addiction cannot be the right way to go about handling this situation. How many teenagers have possibly ruled out ever reading Sheff’s novel because of their fear of being corrupted? How many have now picked it up simply to find the explicit content and absentmindedly skimmed through the more meaningful passages within?
My YA novel, Where Things Come Back contains profanity (even one f-bomb), some sexual references, and a few passages that could easily be interpreted as anti-religious. So, I’ve thought about how I might react if I were to ever learn that a school or school district, or even a singular classroom teacher, banned my book. In a way, I must admit, I think I’d be a little flattered. I’d think to myself “you made them think too much, Whaley…you’ve really made it!” But, mostly, I’d feel like something I put years of my life into and a story that I envisioned would bring hope and critical thinking and understanding to young readers would forever be stained with doubt and mistrust. That isn’t what any author wants; I think that’s fair to say.
I learned about banned books when I was fourteen and since then, I’ve tried my best to give novels, no matter how notorious they may be, a fair chance. And I think that’s my major concern during Banned Book Week. I’m worried that banning books doesn’t so much stop people from reading them (see this article for one reaction to book banning done right), but may tell teenagers that it is okay to suppress thought, critical thinking, and autonomy in a contemporary, free society.
Since I was fourteen, I’ve read books about drug addicts, sexual deviants, alcoholics, criminals, murderers, zombies, ghosts, and even aliens. So far, I’ve yet to do any drugs, drink a sip of alcohol (in fact, I am somewhat of a teetotaler), get an STD, break the law (okay, one speeding ticket when I was 17…), kill anyone, feast on human flesh, haunt anyone’s mansion, or attempt to invade any planets. I was lucky, blessed even, to have parents who let me choose what I read. And I chose to read anything that interested me and taught me things about the world that I may not have experienced in my young life. I chose to read about people growing up in impossible circumstances so maybe I wouldn’t feel as if it were so impossible to do the same thing. People like Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye) and Charlie (Perks of Being a Wallflower) taught me that teenage boys are allowed to be depressed and confused and not fit into the status quo. They’re allowed to cry and to choose to do the right thing sometimes. And I wonder where my life may have ended up had these two novels, both of which are frequently challenged or banned, hadn’t found their way into my life. Maybe I’d have stopped writing stories about unique kids trying to deal with the world. Maybe I’d have joined the football team and done keg stands and bullied kids who reminded me of my former self. Maybe I would’ve let doubt and assumption take me over instead of thinking for myself and attempting to create my own stories. I wouldn’t want to live in a world full of those possible me’s and I wouldn’t want you to either. So, they can ban our books, but you know we will find a way to read them. We will hide under the covers or in our closets. We will sneak onto the roof or read in the middle of the aisle at our local bookstores. You can make us doubt, but you can’t make us stop thinking. That didn’t even work in Bradbury’s world, and they had flamethrowers.