You Can’t Read That!

You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.

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YCRT! News & Commentary:

In Asheboro, North Carolina, all within the space of a fortnight, Ralph Ellison’s award-winning novel Invisible Man was 1) challenged, 2) banned, 3) reinstated. Would the school board have reversed itself if its actions hadn’t made it a national laughingstock?

Teabagger politics are becoming an increasingly large factor in book challenges and bannings. More and more, parental challenges to books taught in schools or carried on library shelves have more to do with culture wars than with obscene content. It’s about suppressing books the right associates with the left.

This is becoming explicit with conservative opposition to Common Core educational standards. Conservatives’ main concern is that Common Core will erode states’ rights and act as a backdoor for the Obama administration to sneak its leftist agenda into the classroom.

In my own backyard, an Arizona school district has pulled from its reading list what conservative challengers call a “sexually explicit novel,” Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia, and they’re using the challenge to attack Common Core standards. Here’s what one of the book’s challengers had to say:

With Common Core demanding that teachers teach informational text from 50% to 70% of the time, the time-honored, character-building classics will be dropped because they take large blocks of time to teach.  In their place, offensive, sexualized books such as Dreaming in Cuban will take over students’ classrooms (and their minds).

Not only are such books highly offensive to those who hold traditional values (e.g., belief in personal responsibility, self- discipline, respect for authority, self-control, a solid work ethic, respect for other people, traditional marriage), but they also serve a purpose for those who are trying to indoctrinate this and future generations to hate America and to trash American exceptionalism.  A steady diet of portraying ethnic/racial characters always as victims and saturating these books with gutter language is bound to warp students’ minds.

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I don’t want to give this guy any more air time than absolutely necessary, but here’s his latest (click on the graphic to link to his article):

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I addressed the conservative talking point that Banned Books Week is a “hoax” in my last YCRT! post. What I want to highlight here is the conservative assumption that their own parenting decisions should dictate the parenting decisions of others. Controlling what your own child reads is parenting. Controlling what other children read is censorship and book banning. There, is that so hard?

From another right-wing site (warning: embedded sound track): “In 2006 the American Library Association gave its prestigious ‘academy award’ for Young People’s Literature (ages 12 – 18) to Looking for Alaska by John Green. The ALA award propelled this porn novel to popularity all around the country.”

As with assertions that Dreaming in Cuban, referenced above, is sexually explicit, claims that young adult novels like Looking for Alaska are “porn” should be taken with a massive grain of salt. I haven’t read Dreaming in Cuban, but I have read Looking for Alaska, and you can read my review here. Better yet, read it yourself, and explain to me where all this “porn” is, because I sure didn’t find it.

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Suck it, 50 Shades of Grey, Captain Underpants is more banned than you!

What an 11th-grade English teacher said when the book banners came after The Handmaid’s Tale.

The school library versus the school board: Board of Education v. Pico.

In two separate cases, popular young adult writers were invited, then disinvited, to address high school students. Ironically, both talks were originally scheduled during Banned Books Week.

And speaking of which, here’s my new favorite comic book, Myths of Banned Books Week!

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YCRT! Banned Book Review:

Ellen Hopkins is another YA writer who was once invited, then disinvited, to address high school students. I thought of her book, and my previously-posted review, when I read about the two writers who had similar experiences this month, referenced above.

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Ellen Hopkins
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Ellen Hopkins’ young adult novel is told in blank verse. This 400-page paperback is composed of short poem-like chapters, frequently with just a few words per page, with plenty of blank paper between short sentences and verse-like paragraphs. Compressed, the book wouldn’t amount to 100 pages. I started reading at noon and was done by seven in the evening, with multiple breaks and time out for dinner and the Rachel Maddow Show.

Which is not a complaint, mind you. Some of the verse chapters are beautifully done and indeed can stand alone as poetry. I’m just saying, to any teenager who sees this thick paperback on the shelf, don’t be intimidated by its size … it’s a quick read.

The story of Kristina and her alter-ego Bree was immediately familiar to me from my own teenaged reading. We had YA books like this when I was in high school in the 1960s, scary morality tales about teenaged boys and girls succumbing to temptation, the physical and mental horrors of going bad, and the slow climb back to redemption. Our books didn’t have meth, granted, but they did have alcohol, marijuana, and heroin. And our books had teen pregnancy and the dangers of falling in with the wrong crowd, just as Ellen Hopkins’ book does.

So other than the verse format, there’s nothing new here. The story pulls you in, horrifies you (or tries to) with the details of Bree’s plunge into wild girl behavior and meth addiction, and rewards you with her decision to have her baby, kick the habit, and become Kristina again. I think I caught a whiff of anti-abortion zealotry in the chapters about her visit to Planned Parenthood, but I could be mistaken. Nevertheless, that section of the book read like pro-life propaganda to me.

So why was Ellen Hopkins one of the most challenged authors of 2009 and 2010, according to the American Library Association? Why have some of Ellen Hopkins’ scheduled school appearances been cancelled at the last minute? Why was she so famously dis-invited from a teen literature festival in Texas, a festival that was later cancelled after other authors protested her treatment by school board officials?

I dunno. I’m stumped. There’s some sex in Crank, true, but no detail, nothing like the graphic and positive descriptions of sex you’ll encounter in, say, a Judy Blume YA novel. And Bree gets pregnant the very first time, a classic trope of moralizing teen literature. Yes, there’s the meth, but that too is presented from a moral angle, and as I mentioned, there’s plenty of precedent for books warning teenagers about the dangers of drug use by describing the gritty, wasted lives of junkies. The word “fuck” appears maybe three times in 400 pages. So what’s the problem?

The problem, it appears, is a growing hover-parent movement against “dark” YA literature (you can read about that movement in this Wall Street Journal article: Darkness Too Visible). There’s no denying Ellen Hopkins’ books are dark.  They’re also popular with teens. That puts them in the crosshairs of the anti-dark hover-parents. That appears to be the extent of it. Unless it’s that pesky f-word.

Psst, hover-parents: if I was a teenaged girl and I heard that Crank or any of Ellen Hopkins’ other books had been taken off my school library shelves, I’d run right down to the local public library and check out a copy. And if I was a parent with a teenaged girl living at home, I’d go check it out for her.  So whatever it is you think you’re doing? It ain’t working.

© 2013, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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