You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post about book banning. YCRT! features news and opinion roundups, commentary, history, and reviews.
Tricks (Tricks #1)
by Ellen Hopkins
Tricks, the 98th most-banned book in the USA between the years 2010 and 2019, jumped to 3rd place in 2022, a year when book challenges, censorship, and bannings mounted at a unprecedented pace. Ellen Hopkins, who wrote it, is arguably in the running for America’s most banned author, Tricks being but one of her young adult titles in the crosshairs of Moms for Liberty and similar groups.
A few years ago I read and reviewed Crank, an earlier Hopkins YA novel (you can read my review here). That novel, which came out in 2004, is a moralistic scare-‘em-straight story about a teenaged girl who becomes addicted to crystal meth and hits the proverbial rocky bottom before starting a slow climb to redemption. Crank was, and remains, widely banned. Tricks, published in 2009, is in many ways Son of Crank.
Tricks tells the story of five fictional high schoolers who through bad choices and misfortune find themselves homeless and on the streets, selling their bodies to survive. Teenaged prostitutes. The kids, three girls and two boys, come from different walks of life and different parts of the country. Through various twists and turns they find themselves abandoned and alone on the streets of Las Vegas, Nevada. None are over the age of 16; none ever dreamed they’d sink so low. Through sheer coincidence, these five sad lives converge toward the end of the story, which I gather continues in the second installment, Traffick (2015), where Hopkins, per the Goodreads blurb, “takes us on five separate but intertwined journeys through the painful challenges of recovery, rehabilitation, and renewal to forgiveness and love. All the way home.”
As with Crank, Tricks is written in what many call blank verse. What appears to be a very thick novel turns out to be mostly white space. There’s a narrow column of text down the center of each page, with wide margins on either side and triple-spacing between verses. The five teenagers speak in turn, their “poems” forming chapters. Actually, though, the poems have neither rhyme nor rhythm, and are formed of normal prose sentences. Once the reader cracks that code it’s no longer like reading poetry but a normal story. The 400+ pages of my paperback edition flew by and I could easily have read the entire novel in one sitting.
It can’t be denied: there’s plenty for book banners to latch onto with Tricks. There’s underage sex, gambling, drugs, and alcohol, complete with explicit first-person descriptions of each sin’s highs and lows. Bad words abound. Girls do the nasty … and worse. There’s even homosexuality! And (more of an issue with book banners than they’ll ever admit), these are white kids!
But did you read the paragraph where I described Hopkins’ earlier novel Crank as a moralistic scare-‘em-straight story? Tricks is that, too, and with a vengeance. Hopkins writes old-fashioned books, really, teen thrillers of a type that’s been around since the dawn of paperbacks, full of sin and degradation but with promises of redemption at the end. Hopkins can be graphic, but she’s never titillating. There’s nothing in her writing that would tempt a young reader to party with the devil. Who knows, Tricks might just scare some teens enough that they’ll stay on the straight & narrow.
Nevertheless! From its release in 2009 to the present day, Tricks has been challenged and banned at schools across the nation, objections centering on the aforementioned sex, drugs, and language. Parents, evangelicals, self-appointed conservative influencers, and politicians call it obscene, even pornographic. Pushes to ban or restrict access to the book have gone beyond middle- and high-school classrooms and libraries and now include public libraries, and the furor is only growing.
If you want to know how Tricks is being presented to the torch & pitchfork brigades, look no further that its entry on BookLooks.org, an online catalog of books for Moms for Liberty, Libs of TikTok, and other forces of darkness to target and agitate against (that is when they’re not busy sending anonymous death threats to teachers and librarians).
Booklooks rates Tricks as 5 of 5 for “aberrant content.” It doesn’t tell you what the book is about; there’s no blurb, no summary. Instead, there are 16 dense pages of out-of-context quotes, indexed by page number. Here are a couple of samples.
- page 291: “I totally wanted to pop your cherry. You were my first virgin, and you’ll probably be my last. Because…sorry, but virgin sex really isn’t very good.”
- page 441: “But now Jerome wants other things. Let me watch you touch yourself. Creepy things. Did you know guys like to use vibrators too? Like this. Downright disgusting things. Your period? I like the taste of blood. How I wish I could say no. But even if I thought he’d leave me alone, saying yes is how I have convinced him to make Father believe I am fit for small freedoms. Like working in the yard, pulling weeds and picking vegetables.”
At the end of BookLook’s long list of quoted material, there’s a “profanity count.” Would you believe Tricks contains 16 fucks, 6 bitches, 5 shits, 4 asses, and 1 dick? Where’s a fainting couch when you need one?
But wait, there’s more! BookLooks includes a “Slick Sheet” for Tricks, a one-page PDF document for angry parents to print and read aloud at school board meetings. Naturally, it quotes the most salacious, explicit, and disturbing sexual encounter in the entire novel (which, of course, happens to be a homosexual one). As with the other quoted material, this passage too is context-free.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Young adult literature is written for young adults, and young adults are … adult! Adult enough to read about the subjects they already talk about among themselves, adult enough to seek out information they feel they need and aren’t getting elsewhere.
Tricks occupies a long-established niche in young adult literature. It’s an old-fashioned morality tale, and even though it deals with drugs and sex, is middle-of-the-road compared to newer, more gritty YA literature. Teens who read a lot of contemporary YA novels might find Ellen Hopkins’ writing somewhat manipulative and even a bit preachy. That’s how it struck me, hence my lukewarm 3-star rating.
Sources & additional reading: