Here We Go Again

Just in time for Banned Books Week, another censorship case, this time close to home.  The school board of Stockton, MO recently voted 7-0 to uphold the restriction of a single book: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.  I’ve read the book, which has won numerous awards including the National Book Award for Children’s fiction.  (The NBA really needs to divide the award into children’s and YA divisions.)  Frankly I don’t remember a lot of it, which is my fault, not Mr. Alexie’s–I should have taken a few notes.  The main character is a Native American teenager who escapes the reservation to attend a white school–the narrative concerns his struggles to adjust and reconcile his native culture with the life he wants to live.  Practically everyone in his family dies, mostly from problems related to alcohol.  This closely reflects the author’s own experience and might have been his fate if he’d stayed on the Rez.

I respect Mr. Alexie and the value of his struggle and his right in a free society to write any book he chooses.  At the same time, I timidly suggest that there’s no need to assume we’re on the fast track to Nazi book bonfires every time a volume is booted from a school library.  A few points:

a. Parents have rights, too.  Maybe the ‘rents are hopelessly provincial and square, but that in itself does not prohibit them from exercising some judgment over their children’s input.  Anyone who’s been a parent knows the anxiety, uncertainty, and often heartbreak of raising a child.  And every parent makes mistakes.  Restricting certain media may be a mistake, but it’s one of small consequence, more often than not.  Given the toll taken by parental abdication in our society, I’m a lot more tolerant of parental overreach–if that’s what this is.

b. Testimonials to the contrary, I don’t think a teen is going to be damaged by not reading Sherman Alexie’s book.  I do not presume to know what inspires everybody, but I do know that if you miss the first bus to Inspiration there’s likely to be another coming along soon.  During the community meeting this week a high school student stood up to say, “This book is my hope.  It’s about not giving up.  It’s about not letting people tell you you’re not worth it.”  I don’t disagree; I only suggest that The Absolutely True Diary is not the only book out there with that theme.  “This book expresses my hope” is a reasonable statement.  “This book is my hope” is an overstatement, unless Mr. Alexie is in the running for the next Messiah.

c. Kids who want to read this book can read it.  Especially high school kids, most of whom have a driver’s license.  Or have a friend with a driver’s license.  I’ll bet they go to Springfield occasionally.  The Greene County library has a few copies of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian; that’s where I got mine.  The Cedar County Library can get it through inter-library loan if it’s not in their collection.  Ask.  Be resourceful.  Use some initiative.  Stockton is not an armed camp.

d. Some YA books can be damaging to some readers.  We writers assert the power of the written word.  But if the written word has so much power, can we not ascribe negative effects as well as positive?  The Absolutely True Diary expresses a generally positive theme in an extremely negative milieu.  While the protagonist’s story will be encouraging to some teens, there are other who feel like they’re stuck on the Rez even though their lives aren’t all that bad; they don’t need to be encouraged to feel sorry for themselves.  And those who are already depressed may not need any more.  For, in spite of some laughs and a “hopeful” ending, the novel is depressing overall.  This is a trend in YA books, so pronounced I’m wondering what kind of view kids are getting of the world they will soon inherit.  Do we notice a lot of optimism out there?  Time will tell, but I’d like to see a little sunshine in the YA world.

e. Book bans generally don’t work, especially if they’re publicized: the book gains more readers than it would otherwise.  Still, I can’t quite blame folks for trying to hold the line against more and more explicit material.  (This book is certainly not the worst YA I’ve ever read, but yes, it has its moments.)  And every time they do, the knives come out–not against the book or its author, but against the line-holders.  They’re yahoos, control freaks, philistines; they’re stupid, backward, narrow.   But maybe they’re just ordinary parents and grandparents trying to protect their kids and maintain some kind of community standard.  I don’t think this is a particularly effective way to do it; at the same time I can’t help sympathizing with the “where will it end?” mentality.

I believe that artists–writers, painters, movie-makers–are mentors to the public.  Children’s authors should never preach to their audience, but they shouldn’t pander either.  “We’re just meeting our readers where they are–kids today hear this kind of language, deal with these kinds of issues all the time.”  If they are–and I don’t disagree–how much does mass media contribute to that?  A lot, I think.  Media, including novels, helps drag the standards down, then points to the standards as evidence that it’s just being realistic.  There’s no easy solution.  For myself, I’m trying to be realistic but not graphic when it comes to writing for kids.  Now back to that manuscript I’m trying to finish up.

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2 Responses to “Here We Go Again”

  1. Emily@Behind the Bookcase Says:

    Couldn’t agree more. I’ve often thought the name “banned books” was itself a marketing coup. Publishers and booksellers do far more to ban books than any individual parent or school district.

  2. Kate Says:

    I agree about YA literature being generally depressing. As a teen myself I don’t even bother looking at that YA section of the library, because I rarely find anything that will enrich my life. It bothers me that this is what so many of my peers are reading. Some “sunshine in the YA world” would be a great improvement.

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