I’m angry, you guys. Like, really really angry.
So I’m spending the day at home, with Cyd Charisse (my netbook), the newspaper, and my manuscript to keep me company. In a moment of procrastination that started about two hours ago, I checked my Twitter feed.
You will not guess what I found.
Basically, Sarah Ockler, one of my favorite writers EVER EVER EVER (and no, I’m not kissing ass here, kids. She’s brilliant. Almost every sentence in Twenty Boy Summer makes me go, “Damn, I wish I’d written that!”) is having a rough time today. Her novel Twenty Boy Summer just got banned from a public school library’s shelves. I won’t summarize the article here, because I feel like I’d do a shoddy job anyway, so just make your way over here and make of it what you will. I know I already have.
And can I just say: I’m angry, you guys. Like, really really angry.
It just reminds me of John Green’s “I am not a pornographer!” video, and Ellen Hopkins in general, and Laurie Halse Anderson and the pastor who thought “Speak” was pornography, and how we’re still not past this. But I don’t want to talk about book banning in general; or about how just because you’re an educator doesn’t mean you know what’s best for students. I also don’t want to talk about how publishers wouldn’t market certain books as YA if they didn’t think those books were age appropriate; or about how teenagers deserve way more credit than they’re given; or about how we’re just moving backwards, especially since Twenty Boy Summer is not the crazy violent heathen book that’s “sensationalizing sexual promiscuity” like the Superintendent says it is. I highly doubt girls go out and magically turn into sluts because Sarah Ockler “sensationalized” it. It is obvious the Superintendent missed the point, and THAT is what I want to talk about here.
I want to talk about missing the point in books.
(Also, can I just say: how can you compare Slaughterhouse Five–which is marketed as an ADULT novel–to Speak and Twenty Boy Summer? All three are brilliant books, but they don’t really, like, go together. If that makes sense. It just seems weird to me that they’d compare all three books like that. But I digress.)
There are a lot of awesome quotes about writing, and how it’s something very special that comes from the depths of the author’s soul and blah blah blah, but the quote I like best of all is one that my best friend Samantha said once a while ago. We were on her giant sectional in her living room having an impromptu critique session, and she just said, “The only bad writing is writing with no heart.” And that, I think, sums up the point of Twenty Boy Summer extremely well: what makes it an awesomepants book is the fact that you can tell Ockler’s work is writing with serious heart. (Also, she’s hilarious. And poetic. But I digress again.) Yes, the book has sex in it. And beer pong. And subsequent drunken actions. And bad things. Quite a few bad things, but that’s LIFE, you guys, and I feel like that was Ockler’s point. She wrote the book the way she did because that’s her emotional truth, that’s what “writing with heart” means to her. Life is messy and loud and imperfect and occasionally awesomepants, and she wanted to capture all that in the book. Anna–the main character–and her best friend Frankie are smart, and funny, and interesting. They’re also imperfect. They make mistakes. They don’t always do what’s best, or right, or “God-approved.” But that’s LIFE.
I read an article in the Shouts and Murmurs section of The New Yorker in a January issue. It was about Skins US, a scripted TV show about angst-ridden teenagers doing bad things and virtually never getting caught/punished/injured/pregnant. The creator said that he made the show the way he did because he feels like kids live under a “teen-centered morality,” where actions are not dictated so much by belief systems or higher powers, but by kids and their feelings. They do what they want, essentially, and what they want isn’t always the right thing, but it’s the realistic thing, because that’s how life happens. And that’s where Ockler was going, I think. It’s life. Kids do bad things, and sometimes (a lot of times, maybe), they don’t regret said bad things. It is what it is, and by banning Twenty Boy Summer, the message being sent is that the board wants to punish that reality away. Maybe the board felt like, by punishing it away, it might not even really kinda sorta exist. If that makes sense. (Sorry, kids. I’m angry right now. It’s kind of messing with my head.)
Anyway, when you think about it, they’re not just punishing the point of the book (point being: an emotionally gripping, entertaining, yet also realistic portrayal of reality), they’re also punishing Ms. Ockler herself; more specifically, her emotional truth. They (the people on the board) are basically saying her emotional truth doesn’t deserve to be read, doesn’t deserve thoughtful attention, doesn’t deserve to be available to kids who might find comfort in it.
I read Twenty Boy Summer two summers ago, when I borrowed Samantha’s copy. I finished it in two days, and what I loved most was the poetry of it. I loved that she wrote it the way she did, the black licorice metaphors and the whale of grief and the descriptions of the beach and the sea glass and the scar on Frankie’s forehead. At first, I was reluctant to read it, but I ended up loving it. I loved that Ockler was brave enough to write about a subject I’m not really keen on writing myself because it hits a little too close to home. I don’t mean to put words in her mouth, but bet it hits close to home for her, too, otherwise she wouldn’t have bothered to write about it. So when people ban the book, they’re telling her that all those feelings–those beautifully written feelings–don’t deserve to be in the library, under the excuse that she’s “sensationalizing sexual promiscuity.” And what are we telling young writers? Your book will get banned if you’re honest, if you “write what your heart says you have to,” to quote Amy Reed, if you let your feelings out in a way that works for you, if you write about “bad stuff.” And what are we telling young readers? You don’t have the ability to pick what you want to read. You don’t know what’s good for you, you’re just a teenager.
Yeah, okay, teenagers make crappy decisions sometimes. But so do adults. It doesn’t mean there’s a board banning books for grown-ups, does it? (Don’t take my word for it. I don’t know; maybe there are grown-ups withholding books from other grown-ups and I just don’t know about it.)
Anyway, I just want to say one last thing: I know for a fact (I’m like, 99.9% sure at this point) that my books are all going to get banned. [“It looks like a giant red bullet!” is a line in a future book. Take your time, you’ll figure it out.] If they even get a spot in libraries at all, my books will most certainly be banned. I just hope I can handle joining the club as gracefully as Ockler has. Here, here!
P.S: For Sarah Ockler’s take on the whole thing, go here . Also Samantha is commandeering (and I am sidekicking) a Twibbon campaign on Twitter called “I Read Banned Books.” We’ll let you know when it’s available for adding. (Also, you can follow Samantha on Twitter here )
I think this merits a re-read of Twenty Boy Summer. If you haven’t read it yet, you MUST. Like, right now.