Here’s how I feel about the whole WSJ YA censorship thing…

All right, look. This is going to be brief, because a thousand-and-one people out there are going to say this better than I am.

This relates to the Wall Street Journal article by Meghan Gurdon, talking about YA books:

Darkness Too Visible: Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?

I first heard about this article from Alison Kemper, who posted about it on her Facebook wall.

Did you see some of the “appropriate” books they recommend for teens were written 50 years ago? I’m so sick of people saying kids can’t handle what these books are about. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: books are a safe way to explore the world around you

When you can’t watch the evening news without hearing about meth addiction (Ellen Hopkins’ CRANK) or a female teacher having sex with a middle school student (Barry Lyga’s BOY TOY), or a kid being booked for murdering a classmate by lighting him on fire (RIGHT BEHIND YOU, by Gail Giles), then what’s wrong with reading books about it? I’m intrigued by Mormon polygamy due to all the media coverage and the stigmas attached to it, from the beliefs behind it to the religious sects that still practice it. Do I want to move to Utah and join a sect to give it a whirl? Do I want to practice polygamy right in my own home? No, I read THE CHOSEN ONE by Carol Lynch Williams, and it was graphic and horrifying and downright amazing.  

(All those books I just mentioned are awesome, and I wouldn’t hesitate to give them to the right teenager.)

Personally, I think it’s far safer for kids to read these things and virtually experience them than for kids to explore things they see and hear about on the news in their own way. Fifty years ago, the news wasn’t broadcast far and wide, with headline crawls and graphic images on thirty different stations. Fifty years ago, there’d be no question of whether to show the gruesome images of Osama Bin Laden’s death wound — there’d be no question, because we wouldn’t see it. The article mentions that people protested a graphic cover on a book about cutting? Because that would be too much for a teen to handle? What about when the photoshopped (yet just as disgusting) image of Osama Bin Laden’s death was all over the internet — and on the front page of some newspapers — for all to see. My four-year-old saw that picture on the newsstand at the grocery store. And we expect teens to be shocked by the image of a few razor scars?


I was discussing this issue with my husband this morning, after he read the entire article. He said, “I kind of understand what she was saying.” He then described a graphic scene in the book he was reading, a book about zombies. He said, “I don’t know if this book is marketed to teens or not, but I’d never give it to Jonathan to read.” (Jonathan is my fourteen-year-old stepson.)

I hustled to Amazon and looked up the book. Though the protagonist is a fifteen-year-old girl, it’s not marketed to teens.

And you know what? My husband is handling books like this the right way. He’s reading them first.

I agree that parents need to parent. I had to think long and hard about letting Jonathan read Elemental, because it deals with some pretty strong bullying and there’s one near-date-rape. I agree that teachers need to teach, and schools have an obligation to guide teens towards appropriate books. (Much like the author of the Book Reviews and English News blog, where books are read and reviewed prior to being recommended in the school library.)

But I don’t think that anyone has an obligation to censor books. If you don’t think it’s appropriate, don’t read it.

Just don’t take that opportunity away from anybody else.


11 thoughts on “Here’s how I feel about the whole WSJ YA censorship thing…

  1. It’s not Mormon polygamy. It’s polygamy practiced by a sect of former Mormons who have since been excommunicated from the Mormon church. They obviously got the idea from Mormon polygamy, but that officially ended in the 1800s when the U.S. officially outlawed it.

    But obviously that wasn’t the point of your post. 😛 And I so agree with the importance of letting kids read what’s real life for them in so many ways anyway! Book banning, in whatever it’s form, is no better an idea than Prohibition was.

  2. Uh, Bobbie, they’re Fundamentalist Mormons, rather than mainstream Mormons. They haven’t been excommunicated from the mainstream church because 1) the mainstream LDS church doesn’t consider them members in the first place and 2) they consider the mainstream LDS church to have gone astray, since it no longer practices what Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and John Taylor taught in pre-1890 Manifesto years.
    (Yes, thank you, my g-g-grandfather was a fine, upstanding Mormon bishop who had 5 wives and 32 children and served time for it in the 1890s.) Please keep in mind also that, although a mainstream Mormon today will be booted off the official records for practicing polygamy in mortality, it is still quite normal and accepted for men to be officially married to multiple wives “for eternity” in the Temple.
    Hence, please don’t take the tone that current mainstream Mormons don’t have anything to do with polygamy, as it’s not really true.

    Rant over.

    Brigid, thanks for the shout out!
    I’ve long tried to take the tone in my book reviews that just because something is probably not appropriate for the classroom or school library, that doesn’t mean it’s not appropriate somewhere. Often my comments are made based on the fact that it’s ASKING for trouble from hyper-sensitive parents to put certain books into a school setting, and that may be the only reason they need to be out. In other words, many kids should read them, but a school doesn’t need the headache from the parent who will want it censored for all.
    The only current book I’ve run across lately where I really, really felt uncomfortable was an incredibly sexist one where the author demands it’s not sexist. Unfortunately, that book has been promoted by our librarian and is now very popular at our school. I have a hard time with that. However, I don’t think the book should be censored; I think people need to read it to understand subtle sexism and how it can be wormed into a culture and seem acceptable. (Our librarian, for example, needs that lesson.)
    I, too, applaud your husband for reading the stuff that might be questionable. After all, each kid is different. Some kids might not be able to handle certain topics, so a parent needs to make that call.

  3. I’m a librarian, so this sort of thing *totally* gets me riled up. First off, it smacks of censorship. I believe parents, educators, writers and publishers have a responsiblity to teach teens about the world they live in. When we withhold info or “sugarcoat” reality, we are denying them a chance to learn to think for themselves.

    Also, I strongly dislike the WSJ separation of books into lists for boys and girls. We do not do this. It is sexist. I read a lot of these so-called boy books, and encourage my daughter to do the same. I don’t like anyone hinting around that these books aren’t relevant to our experience just because we’re female.

    Anyway, enough ranting. I’ll end with a quote from the American Library Assn’s “Freedom to Read” statement:
    “To some, much of modern expression is shocking. But is not much of life itself shocking? We cut off literature at the source if we prevent writers from dealing with the stuff of life.”

  4. Oh, side story.
    I’ve always got at least one parent per year who puts strict limits on what a kid can read for my class. This past year, the parent of one of my 9th grade students said “absolutely no fantasy or supernatural.” So, for our gothic horror list, the girl had to read Frankenstein, even though I carefully explained to the parent that the tamest book on the list was Hound of the Baskervilles, as it is really a mystery book and not gothic horror at all. So, her mother preferred her to read a book about a psychotic man who cuts up dead bodies and sews them together rather than one about dog that turns out to be quite real. Okay. Whatever.
    Then, later in the year, we did our fantasy genre. She was not allowed to read a fantasy series, so I recommended other series of equivalent length and difficulty to the mom. She chose Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book and the series. This is a fine set of books, of course, but I found it bizarre that a book that details the graphic horror of the Bubonic plague and two that detail the very real horrors of WWII and the blitz were somehow less damaging to the girl than reading Harry Potter or LOTR. Weird.
    Still, at least the parent was not telling OTHER kids what they couldn’t read….,

  5. I have to say, as a teen, that I’m very uncomfortable reading about drugs, cutting, sex, etc. It may be because I’m at the younger spectrum of teen years (though I wouldn’t say 15 is VERY young), but I find that if I’m trying to avoid cashing in my v-card, smoking weed and ditching class, I wouldn’t really want to read about characters who do that and think it’s normal.


  6. Yahong,
    I know LOTS of fifteen-year-olds who feel that way! That’s one reason I read so many books — that way I can tell kids a bit of what they’re about and let the kids decide for themselves if they want to read the stuff.

    Sorry I’m jacking your blog, Brigid. I’ll shut up now. 🙂

  7. English Teacher, Brigid is a good friend, so I don’t want to debate you on her blog. In fact, I don’t want to debate anyone on this topic, period, or at least that wasn’t my intention. In retrospect, although I am a “current mainstream” member of the LDS church–and thus more sensitive to this topic–I should have refrained from saying anything at all for her sake. I certainly did not mean for my own comment to come across as a rant, nor did I mean to open the door for anyone else’s. Brigid, my apologies.

  8. I’m going to leave the Mormon thing alone. 🙂

    Yahong, there’s nothing wrong with avoiding books about cutting and premarital sex and drug use. I can pretty safely promise that my books will never glorify any of the above. I say read what makes you happy. I didn’t like reading about those things as a teenager either.

    But I do now. And some teens do now. I think it’s all about freedom of choice to read what we want to read, whether it’s women who want to read romance vs. mystery vs. horror vs. fantasy. It’s ALL okay.

    The only thing NOT okay is for the Wall Street Journal to tell us it’s not.

  9. This topic definitely sparked a lot of discussion! I definitely agree with the main idea here that everyone should have the freedom to read what connects with them, although, especially with younger ones, the parents need to read those same books and discuss them with their kids. I try to read most books my kids read and I definitely read anything that might be controversial.

    I wanted to add, though, that if you never read anything that makes you uncomfortable, you’re really missing out on some of the great benefits of reading. There is no safer way to challenge your own thoughts, beliefs, and opinions. For a lot of people, I think the books that are uncomfortable are exactly the ones they need to read!

  10. I’ve been following this same topic over at pimp my novel, and I’m surprised at how the responders are basing their opinions on what they’ve read ABOUT YA fiction. Seriously, some of these folks do not read YA fiction and are making judgments based solely on what they read ABOUT it. Duh. That’s like trying to base your opinion of a restaurant by reading the menu but never eating any of the food. Or like the state legislators who haven’t been inside a classroom for 3 decades making laws about education. (grrrr.)

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