Feb 132010
 

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.

  18 Responses to “I’m with the banned”

  1. See, here’s the problem — the idea of allowing every parent to be heard on any issue. Talk about bureaucratic nightmares. I don’t think all complaints should have equal weight and go through the same grievance process. This is like allowing the passengers to question every aspect of the bus driver’s driving … or allowing any senator to put a blanket hold on judicial nominations, for any reason. :) People whine all the time about how bad our schools are, how they promote mediocrity, how they’re more like prisons than places of learning, etc., and yet we allow one (let’s face it) oversensitive nutjob to set off a time-wasting, and thus money-wasting, bureaucratic chain of events. Schools end up with inoffensiveness as their highest priority. That is … death. School board in question should have issued a three-word official letter to said parent: “Suck it up.” That, or “You’re kidding, right?” I’m not serious. But I almost am. Sherman Alexie’s book got challenged on similar grounds in Chicago, though your book’s language makes his (Absolutely True Diary…) read like a Tarantino script. Chicago school board didn’t buckle at all. I hope the same thing happens here. Oh, and this kind of controversy, from a purely writerly/professional standpoint, is goooooooold. Best of luck. MDS

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  2. I’m going to ask that my commenters take it easy on the “nutjob” remarks. They’re not helpful.

    I wouldn’t want to see a system of parental feedback get abused, but I maintain that such a system has its place. Ideally, it would not be used lightly, and if too many parents were stepping forward with too many complaints, then obviously the structure of it would need to be rethought. In my perfect world, such a system would be closer to “open lines of communication between parent and teacher” and not so much a “bureaucratic nightmare.” I realize that might be asking for a lot, but a guy can dream.

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  3. I think it’s a dumb challenge and a very mild epithet. But here’s a different view I found interesting:

    The whole thing reminded me of my late father-in-law, who used the phrase in question constantly — so I brought up your story with Zoomer, my husband. He was surprisingly hesitant to condemn the complaining parent. “But you heard that all your life!” I said. Yeah, Zoomer said, but that was at *home,* not through a book from the school library.

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  4. Well, like I said: The inclusion of the phrase in a book is not the same as permission to use that phrase — that permission can only come from the parents and teachers. Winston is on the state reading list down there in Florida, and as such has been read by hundreds if not thousands of kids. Despite this widespread exposure to the dread phrase, I honestly doubt there has been a measurable increase in kids calling each other horse’s asses. My guess, in fact, is that the number of kids regularly using the phrase was at zero before my book arrived… and remains at zero now.

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  5. When reading Peter Pan to my kids, I took time out of the narrative each time Tinker Bell called Peter or Wendy an “ass” to explain that the word was rude. Then again, we also had to discuss the depiction of “Redskins” and women’s roles. But, as you say, that’s the part of “parenting” where the parent comes in.

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  6. But I would not expect any of my young readers to actually use that phrase

    Really? Not encourage, I could see; but not expect? That seems like not expecting one-year-olds to pick things up off the floor and put them in their mouths. Learning intriguing new words and phrases and then trying them out is what young readers do.

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  7. Actually, when Peter Pan says “ass” it’s not the same. In British speak “ass” is a milder vulgarity that refers only to the animal. If Peter called Tink an “arse,” we might never have heard of Mary Martin.

    Of course, this is silly because the challenging parents’ kid uses much stronger language with his friends. Do these parents really not know that?

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  8. Rubrick: I can only fall back on the experience of my own children, and I admit that my experience cannot be extrapolated to the entire universe. Nonetheless… Lea, at 7, uses certain phrases she picks up from books — this is true. But there are also phrases she doesn’t use because even she knows they go to far. (Nothing even resembling a serious epithet, I should note — just rude things that a “bad guy” might say to a “good guy.”)

    Sometimes she is incorrect about where this line should be drawn, and we have to say something about it. So perhaps she will use the phrase “horse’s ass” when she gets around to Winston. But a) I don’t think so, because she’s already mature enough to know better, and b) she won’t use it more than a couple of times before a grownup hits the brakes.

    All in all, not a problem that requires the complete elimination of the book.

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  9. When my son was 6, I read him the entire Narnia series, which I’d read as a kid and remembered fondly. I knew that some of the books weren’t as good as others, but he liked them, and I read him all of them. The last book, “The Last Battle,” is on the whole a pretty unpleasant book, very mean-spirited and absolutely full of racism, as are others of the Narnia books. This unsurprisingly had gone over my head as a child. But I read on to my son anyway–until I hit a word that I could not bring myself to say aloud, and certainly not to my first grader, and so I censored a book for the first and only time. That word was “darkies.”

    Is anyone clamoring for the removal of this literary classic from elementary school libraries? I don’t actually know, but I doubt it. Sure, finding a racial slur in a book written in the 50s isn’t the same as finding a mild curse word in a modern book; they’re almost apples and oranges. Lots of books have content that someone may have good reason to find objectionable. The great majority of these books still belong on the shelves.

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  10. Martin: Yes, I covered that detail with the kids as well, as part of my explanation of why it was ok for a 19c. British author to write “ass” and not ok for a 21c. American kid to say it.

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  11. Well, I am a librarian and thoroughly enjoyed “Winston Breen”. I’ve been recommending it to my students and so many of them really enjoy it and are asking for the sequel. Even better, I’ve now got kids who are interested in word puzzles – great for building vocab! So now I’m putting together a puzzle box. Would you happen to know of any other good websites for kids puzzles? I’ve visited the Winston Breen site and it is great. If you know of anything else like that, would you mind adding links to your blogroll? Thank you so much, we really do enjoy your book.

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  12. There are lots of interesting puzzles at ThinkFun, many of which are interactive. ClickMazes has a truly fantastic variety of mazes. Puzzability’s puzzle sampler has a few items for kids, and there’s no reason the more precocious students wouldn’t be able to handle their daily and weekly puzzles.

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  13. Well, while we’re plugging Puzzability, we have a big book for kids (“The Brainiest Insaniest Ultimate Puzzle Book”) and a new “Bananagrams for Kids” book coming out soon too.

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  14. Personally, as a parent of Winston Breen fans, I think its kind of cool your book got banned. It puts you in pretty elite company. Fight the good fight, brother!

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  15. With computerized library systems, it’s just a click (or two) away to mark this book as not available to the offended parent’s kid. The parent could do this with any book in the library. Now the kid could still read the book in the library without taking it out, but if the kid is this ambitious, I would take the suggestions of the other postings, and have the parent talk to the kid about what one reads and what one does.

    I remember my own Mother’s advice when I was a teen regarding pornography. She told me that I was probably going to read and see pornographic stories, but I should never forget that real life is a long way from what goes into these works. It was good advice.

    The parent probably means well, but he or she does not have the power to dictate to all kids what she or he may think is okay reading.

    On a lighter note, Kurt Vonnegut was my Dad’s age and “horses ass” were in both their vocabularies. I think the kids prefer “douche” over the quaint reference to the equestrian caboose (I know my kid does.)

    p.s. Great puzzle today with the President’s names. Worst puns I have seen in a long time. Loved it.

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  16. Well, this was interesting. I am impressed with the reasoned tone of the response, which I believe turned down the heat and pointed the way to solving the dilemma (unlike the ‘nutjob’ post.) I plan to read the book; since our kids are now out of the home, I rather miss my connection to literature for children and young adults. I have another reason for being quite interested in this discussion: I’ve been in the position of wanting to have my (then HS-age) daughter opt out of a reading assignment. The book in question was recommended by the 9th-grade Honors English teacher and billed as “an inspiring book about a wonderful young woman.” I am blanking on the name of the Irishwoman who wrote it, but it was her autobiography. The title *might* have been _Autobiography of a Face._ The writer had been born with (or acquired) a severe facial deformity, which condition resisted all attempts at improvement. (This was 15 years ago; memory no longer serves.)

    An aside: yes, I did get this book and read it immediately. This was not because I routinely vetted my children’s reading, but because I was writing extensively, at the time, on subjects related to disability, chronic illness, difference, and their impact on children’s social, educational, and medical experiences. Aside from my professional training and experience in special education, our daughter had been born with a serious heart defect and as a result of surgical error was partly paralyzed. There were a lot of issues and policies to explore, and I read anything relevant. So, that’s the background.

    The book is well-written….but. The author wishes to present herself as having ‘arrived’ in terms of accommodation and acceptance, but any discerning reader would notice significant omissions. She has an ‘identical’ twin who did not have the defect; this powerful fact is never explored. She had lived her entire adult life on welfare– and had done little to nothing in pursuit of an education or training. She engaged in extreme sexual acting out, but the detailed descriptions failed to explore her emotions–then or later–about this ‘phase.’ There was a good deal of disingenuous ‘honesty’ in the book. I was appalled, and (given the glowing recommendation) I was not at all sure that the English teacher was going to guide the students to bring enough critical consciousness to the discussions. After all, we are talking about 14/15-year-olds.

    I took the route of asking the head of the department if she thought the teacher would be open to discussing the book with me and hearing my concerns. The teacher was one of the ‘young tyros’ who was still, well, newly into adulthood; also, not yet a parent. Ultimately I did meet with the teacher, and I assume we reached a solution; I honestly don’t remember now. What I principally remember (aside from how appalled I was by the lack of reflection and self-awareness in the author) was how daunting it was to try and approach a solution. I prefer to persuade, not dictate. So many parents do come out swinging and go straight to the school board…which never helps develop rational procedure nor flexible attitudes–always important in a society with such diversity of opinion and belief.

    Sorry to be so long-winded. Thanks for starting the discussion.

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  17. I saw a special on PBS last night focusing on Zora Hurston. It appears the answer to 24 down in Sunday’s puzzle should be attributed to her and not Maya Angilou

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  18. Very well said! I am one middle school librarian who enjoyed Winston very much. I would be very surprised if the complaining parent even follows through with the challenge process. In my experience most parents are satisfied if you validate their concerns by listening to them and talking honestly about their issues.

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