By Victoria Wattle | Contributing Columnist
Back in 2011, while writing for The Wall Street Journal, Meghan Cox Guerdon started a heated debate about whether YA was too dark and explicit. Put simply, YA fiction represented either a bastion against censorship or a destroyer of adolescents who might otherwise avoid foul language, absenteeism, molestation, or suicide.
That debate was a hassle compared to today’s struggle over children’s books. Book censorship has reached the national stage. While previous censors feared the violence of The Hunger Games, today’s censors want to erase reality. Sexuality, sexual abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, race, oppression and slavery are prohibited. Parents can search school library catalogs for words like “gay” or “lesbian” (like one Spotsylvania County, VA, parent did) and request removal of titles they’re not at all familiar with.
As a former college professor and librarian, I find this brave new world alarming. Speaking to the Tennessee House of Representatives, country music star John Rich likened school librarians to pedophiles for including “obscene books” in their collections. Virginia state encourages whistleblowers to call hotline to report teachers whose materials are “divisive.” Texas, under the supervision of State Rep. Matt Krause, has compiled a list of over 800 suspect books. Journalist Karen Attiah notes, “It’s like someone typing in the keywords ‘Black’, ‘racism’, ‘LGBT’, ‘gender’ and ‘transgender’ and just pouring the results into a spreadsheet.” (I guess “Sex” was included in the keywords because “Everything you need to know about going to the OB/GYN” is on the list.)
Book censorship is far more menacing than it was 10 years ago because it is wiping out anyone who doesn’t look or think like the censor. Although anti-censorship parent groups are forming, many stigmatized students will not find books that validate their experiences. This is important. As the character of CS Lewis in William Nicholson’s Shadowlands says, “We read to know we are not alone.” Silencing diverse stories translates into trying to protect teenagers from uncomfortable narratives. A parent’s objection to the assignment of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” in an AP literature class made me wonder: When should students learn difficult subjects? After all, the goal of AP courses is to earn college credit.
I recently did a random experiment with the last two YA novels I read, books I recommend to teenagers. Would they violate censorship? They are certainly in school libraries. Teacher librarians buy based on recommendations from professional journals such as School Library Journal. Both books received positive reviews. (Despite hysterical accusations, there’s little chance of truly obscene material ending up in the collection.)
Meg Haston’s The End of Our Story is about the breakup of a first love. But it also tackles family secrets, domestic violence, adolescent sexuality and profanity. “The End” creates a lot of uneasiness. It also creates empathy, an understanding that everyone is fighting a secret, difficult battle.
Released in 2017, the white characters in The End address issues that censors are now rallying against. However, I did not find it on the Texas Suspicious Books list, perhaps because it cannot be found by searching using the keywords listed above.
“Kirkus” called “Bitter” (2022) by Akwaeke Emezi “A compact, urgent and divine novel.” Through her artworks, the protagonist joins other students to protest against social injustice. In doing so, she unleashes an avenging angel that causes damage and death. The characters are generally black and queer. Her desire for social justice serves as an entry point into the discussion of the issue. Bitter also stimulates conversations about the role of creatives and their contribution to society. It would be a great choice for the young adult book club. It’s a prequel to “Pet” that was released in time to make the Texas suspicious book list.
Access to such novels offers teenagers the opportunity to develop a trifecta of life skills: compassion, imaginative thinking, and the ability to analyze and evaluate ideas. As Barbara Kingsolver observed, “Literature has a unique ability to bring difficult subjects to a wide audience… and to inspire in the reader’s heart empathy for the theoretical stranger. His ability to invoke moral and social responsibility is tremendous.”
A vocal minority can keep marginalized students away from books that validate their lives. That same minority can discourage all teenagers from accessing novels that empathize with historically underrepresented people. As a parent who raised thoughtful readers, I can’t imagine allowing those vocal few to make that choice for others.
Encourage your teens to read widely (read wild!) and introduce their school librarians who are a great resource for reader guidance. They welcome everyone and enjoy getting the right book in the right hands at the right time.
Victoria is the author of the short story collection Acts of Contrition. You can find her at VictoriaWaddle.com and SchoolLibraryLady.com.
https://www.ocregister.com/2022/10/05/censoring-books-means-censoring-empathy/ Censoring Books Means Censoring Empathy – Orange County Register