You Can’t Read That!

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

From my last You Can’t Read That! post:

Apparently it’s a widely-held belief in anti-gay Christian conservative circles that the government — particularly the jack-booted thugs who run public libraries and schools — foists pro-gay literature on young readers while hiding from them books promoting normal heterosexual values, as indicated by this article claiming California has banned all books that may reflect poorly on gays from public schools.

I must apologize.  It seems California really does have a new law banning textbooks that disparage gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender persons.  The law says California schools  “shall not adopt any textbooks or other instructional materials for use in the public schools that contain any matter reflecting adversely upon persons on the basis of … sexual orientation.”

When I wrote the previous post, I thought conservatives were reacting to some imaginary threat, as they do every year with their “war on Christmas” nonsense.  But there really is something here.  Granted, textbooks and instructional materials used in public schools should not disparage sexual orientation.  Frankly I’d be surprised if any of their textbooks did.  But there’s a very thin line between that and making students watch Brokeback Mountain in social studies class, and you know damn well some activist teacher is going to do just that.  The conservatives have a point on this issue, and their concerns are legitimate.

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The news roundup:

The Texas Civil Rights Project wins the 2011 National Intellectual Freedom Award for a report criticizing book censorship by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Not sure what this is meant to prove: conservatives make a video showing people at a book fair choosing which conservative books they’d ban.  People are stupid?  I didn’t think that was ever in dispute.

The Albemarle County School Board in Virginia is debating banning Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet from sixth-grade reading lists.  The reason?  Sherlock Holmes’ prejudiced comments about Mormons!

Here’s a brief online history of censorship in the USA.  Personally, I would censor any website that uses white text on a black background.

Heh.  A Houston, Texas school board removes Super Diaper Baby from an elementary school library after a kindergartener calls another kid a “poo poo head.”  Why?  Because Super Diaper Baby may be where the kid learned the word “poo” in the first place!

Schools are wrestling with students’ access to social media and other web sites; many are choosing to filter Facebook, Twitter, Google Images.  Okay, I can certainly see why they’re banning Google Images … you can find some pretty titillating stuff there, even with safe search set to “moderate.”

Two books have been banned from the libraries and curriculum at Republic High School after a parent complained that their content taught principles contrary to the Bible.”  Whoa.  Since when did that become a deciding factor?  Oh, right … Missouri.

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You Can’t Read That! banned book review:

Crank
Ellen Hopkins

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.

© 2011, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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