I received an e-mail yesterday from a school librarian in Florida, informing me that Winston Breen is being challenged by a parent in one of the schools in his large district. A parent has taken exception to the phrase “horse’s ass,” an epithet thrown at one adult character by another in the heat of anger. (It’s on page 113 for those of you playing along at home.) The parent is being steered towards a procedure in which the book is reviewed by a committee, and I have been invited to throw in my two cents. The librarian is clear that he and others support my work, and he believes there will be a “positive outcome” from this little episode, and even if not, it is one incident at one school, and it’s not like Florida plans to make Winston the featured guest at a statewide bonfire.
I am aware, of course, that challenges of this nature happen all the time — I read a lot of YA writers’ blogs, and sometimes it seems like a week can’t go by without one or another of them being raked over the coals somewhere.
There is always outrage throughout the writing world whenever one of these challenges crops up, but my feelings about the whole thing are decidedly more mixed. For starters, I think there should be a process by which a parent can comment and, if necessary, seek action against any facet of a child’s education. I wouldn’t want to see such a system become subject to abuse, but schools work for the parents, and when a parent has a problem, that parent deserves to be heard.
And it’s disingenuous, I think, to simply say, “If you don’t want your child to read something, don’t let your child read it!” Because how are you supposed to know you don’t want your child to read something, unless you first read it yourself? And who has the time (or the desire) to read every book a child might bring home? That is why we put our trust in our teachers and librarians to exercise some level of discretion — James Patterson’s kidlit novels are fine for an elementary school library (probably — I haven’t read them); Patterson’s Alex Cross novels, not so much. And if we discover that our sense of what’s appropriate is at odds with the people educating our kids, we as parents should have the right to express an opinion about where that line should be drawn.
That said, when we’re talking about removing a book from a classroom or a library — not just for the complainant’s child but for everybody — then the onus of proof should be heavily weighted against the parent. One parent cannot dictate standards for an entire community, nor should a school librarian be required to view the contents of his library through the eyes of the most conservative possible parent. Removing a book from a school library should not be impossible. It should, however, be very, very, very… imagine a great many more “verys” here… very difficult.
(And by the way, the concerned parent really needs to be aware of the Barbra Streisand effect, in which an attempt to censor only serves to bring more attention to whatever it is one is trying to suppress. I can’t think of a better way to get kids to read a particular book than to tell them they absolutely shouldn’t.)
As a parent of school-age children myself, I have some sympathy for the woman who is complaining about my book. We feel a natural inclination to protect our children… or, anyway, to hold some sway over what they experience and when. Eventually they are going to be exposed to the big, wide world and all its messiness — we can’t shield them from it forever — but I understand the instinct to try to preserve their innocence for one more day.
The problem is this: We also want our children to read, and reading necessarily exposes our kids to words and ideas and concepts that may be out of step with our carefully ordered plans on how a child should be raised. And even if a child reads only Dick and Jane, there is a galaxy of music and movies and television and other children, all ready to step up to drag that child off the parent’s preferred path.
You can’t block it all out, nor should I think you’d want to. The only alternative is this: To talk with your kids and teach them what is acceptable and what is not. There is a huge difference between reading the words “horse’s ass” in a book and using that phrase as an insult against someone else. In my opinion, reading those words is a touch naughty, and nothing more — if I thought the phrase was truly egregious, I wouldn’t have used it. You might disagree; we can debate it; it doesn’t matter now. But I would not expect any of my young readers to actually use that phrase, and if any of them were to try, I assume that a parent or teacher would be there to set them straight. My daughter uses expressions she picks up from books all the time, and some of these are annoying enough that we have to step in and put a stop to it. That’s just the way it goes. That’s a fair amount of what parenting is, isn’t it?
Here is my message to parents who want to remove Winston Breen or any book from their local library: No book could possibly match you as the most important influence in your child’s life. If you are a good example to your children — if you teach them well, through your own words and actions — then the book hasn’t been written that can lead your child away from you. You certainly needn’t worry about a single two-word phrase in a 200-page story.
One final thought: Irresistibly punny headlines notwithstanding, if this woman succeeds in getting Winston removed from her school, I still will not say my book has been “banned.” The books I wrote are available all over the country — I’d have a long way to go before I could legitimately use powerful words like “banned” or “censored.” Books that have truly been banned cannot be ordered on Amazon for next-day delivery.