Must-Read Article on Censorship in the SLJ

Particularly self-censorship (i.e., we shall not include this book in our library collection for fear of the ruckus) and the topics that often provoke this action. Read now!

This article is the topic of much discussion amongst the YA writers I know. One writer, who has experience with her books being challenged, wondered if she should move to adult lit. Others reported that their editors stuck their oars in before publication, concerned about how certain words or topics in their books might “limit the audience.” The thing that is so insidious about self-censorship is the way it can’t be tracked. You don’t know if your books are being “limited” due to so-called objectionable content. A few choice quotes:

one 2007 study by the University of Central Arkansas shows that less than one percent of school libraries in that conservative state have books containing gay subjects or story lines.”

Interestingly, [David] Levithan says he intentionally wrote Boy Meets Boy as clean as possible so that if the book were ever challenged, the only logical reason would be because it features ‘happy gay characters in love.'”

My first four published novels are adult novels, and so these issues did not concern me during the writing, despite the fact that books contain many of the hot-button issues the article discusses: sex, homosexuality, religion, etc. They do enjoy a large teen audience and are often recommended for teen library collections. Given that, in my high school, we read classic works of literature dealing with rape, incest, sexual abuse, war, death, impotence, adultery, violence, racism, religious strife, murder, torture… I’m not sure exactly what teens can’t handle. The Crucible, The Magus, and The Sun Also Rises are way more intense than anything I’ve written!

Yes, there is a fear that saying that is going to cause some parent to run into a library and rip Arthur Miller off the shelf. Some dude gets tortured to death by having rocks piled on top of him in the last act of that play. I wonder if people forget sometimes that most of the classic works of literature touch upon these subjects. Romeo and Juliet weren’t playing Parcheesi that night. Neither were Calypso and Odysseus. (Penelope, of course, played Parcheesi and did her weaving. Poor girl.)

Which is not to say that I think my books are for everyone. I recently received a letter from a father who wanted to know if Secret Society Girl would be appropriate for his 13 year old. Personally, I wouldn’t give the book to middle schoolers, though I know some who read them. As I read Clan of the Cave Bear at twelve, I’m not going to freak out over that. I related to him the mature content in the book so that he could make his own decision. But it’s difficult. Asking whether a book is appropriate “for teen readers” (which he did) is a far different thing than asking if a book is appropriate “for a 13 year old” which he later clarified. I think my adult books are appropriate for older teen readers (let’s say 15-16 and up) but not for the younger, “tween” market. I recommended Ally Carter’s spy school series instead, as it has many of the same “classmate camaraderie, comedy, and zany antics” aspects as my books, but in a sweeter setting (with younger characters!) more appropriate to young teens.

But that is not self-censorship. I’m giving my recommendation to a parent. The books are adult books, not YA. (The characters are in their twenties, have been living on their own for years, and hang out in bars legally. Does the thirteen year old watch How I Met Your Mother? There’s a good litmus test.)* However, I’m not in charge of making the books available or not avialable to the reader, as well as there being no expectation that I wrote the book with that reader (middle schooler) in mind. The father is free to make his own decision. A friend of mine gave my books to her 13 year old with no problem. Parents get to make these decisions for their kids.

Of course, then you see in the SLJ article:

Librarians need to remember that it’s not their job to impose their own ideologies on the kids they serve or to parent or protect them, Scales says. And even though schools are required to act in loco parentis—Latin for ‘in place of parent’—the doctrine only applies to school librarians when it comes to the safety and health of their students, not when it comes to censorship, she adds.”**

Now, my YA novel is written for a teen readership. It’s about teens (the main character is 16), and it’s told in a fashion that takes that sensibility into account. It does deal with mature themes, such as death, violence, and sex, though it does so in a young adult tone, for a young adult audience. Unlike the heroine of the secret society girl books, who is an adult (a young adult, struggling with the trapping of adulthood, but an adult all the same), Astrid is a teenager, who very much lives within the world of childhood and being a minor. She is subject to the will of her mother, of her guardians, or her teachers. She is not ready to face many of the things in the adult world (though she is asked to face far more in terms of life-and-death choices, than the heroine of my comedies is!).

And of course, there’s that strong abstinence message. 😉

The word “edgy” is batted around a lot in YA circles. Books like 13 Reasons Why and Living Dead Girl are pronounced “edgy,” whereas there is also the “sweeter” fare of I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You or Twilight. I was having a discussion with another author last weekend who asked if my YA book is “edgy” or “sweet”. I didn’t know what to say. There are long battle sequences in Rampant, with a fair amount of blood and injury to the main characters. There’s a body count, both human and unicorn. The storyline deals with the question of sex (though, so does Twilight), though it does come down pretty strongly on the side of chastity (they are nuns, after all). A friend told me that in the US there is more tolerance to violence in books than sex, while in the UK, it is the opposite. I wonder, then, if my book would be considered more edgy overseas.


* Interesting note: it is published as a YA novel in Brazil. As I do not speak Portuguese, I couldn’t tell you if there is any substantive editing going on.

**Hee hee. Does anyone remember that scene in A Series of Unfortunate Events where Mr. Poe (I believe?) is trying to explain to the children what “in loco parentis” means and the kids are like, “drop dead? We know!”

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10 Responses to Must-Read Article on Censorship in the SLJ

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  2. KJ says:

    I would like to know the percentage of books that have gay subjects or storylines that are written for a teen or child audience before I jump to accuse any school or state of censoring reading material. Any numbers out there? Is it 1%? 2%? 10%?

    Just curious.

    Statistics can be so misleading sometimes.

  3. Diana says:

    KJ, that was not the “numbers” cited in the study. It wasn’t about what the percentage of books that include that subject, it was about the percentage of libraries that include such books.

    Less than one percent is a stretch, even if there are very few books. Many of the books are award-winning and are exactly what libraries tend to stock:

    ” Researchers Jeff Whittingham and Wendy Rickman asked media specialists if their collections offered the most popular gay-, bisexual-, lesbian-, and transgender-themed books published between 1999 and 2005, including Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys (S & S, 2001), Brent Hartinger’s Geography Club (HarperTeen, 2003), and David Levithan’s award-winning Boy Meets Boy (Knopf, 2003). Almost always, the answer came back no.”

    Do less than 1% of libraries contain information on any other topic, no matter how minor?

  4. KJ says:

    Yikes! I wasn’t being judgmental. I couldn’t care less how many gay books are stocked. I just wanted to know the percentages of actual published books on the topic to make a fair comparison of ‘censorship.’ As for other subjects, I don’t know. I’m no expert. That’s why I was asking.

    And school libraries are not public libraries in a county or town. School libraries have less money to spend on books and a smaller collection over all. If you had to make a choice over a book that is likely to have a large reading audience and one that might not, how do you choose what to spend your money on? I don’t know that answer to that either or who makes that choice. But it sure is different than your local library.

    Once again, I have NO issues with books on gay subject matter being in schools. NONE. It was just a question of actual real ‘censorship’ vs. perceived censorship.

  5. Diana says:

    I didn’t think you were being judgemental! I’m sorry if I sounded like that. And yes, school librarires are different, But that’s what the irony of “The Geography Club” is — it’s a book about gay students who are so scared of being called out for their sexuality that they call the club “The Geography club” instead, figuring that it’s so boring no one will want to join.

    And I think the excuse of “we aren’t going to have enough interest in THAT here” is the commonly held reasoning, but at the same time, I don\’t think they hand out surveys to the students asking them if they want more books about being a gay teen, vs more books about, say, falling in love with a vampire. 😉 And there might be a lot of students who would die before they would admit their interest, but would read it if it was in the library…

  6. I think Rampant is sweetly edgy. Or maybe edgily sweet.

  7. Nicola says:

    A father is trying to determine what is appropriate for his 13-year-old to be reading? Good luck with that, buddy! At 13 her reading level should be good enough to read whatever strikes her fancy, and she should be allowed to. If her father thinks there are issues in some of these books of concern, then he should talk to her about them, not censor her reading.

  8. Diana says:

    I disagree, Nicola. the father was looking to buy books for his daughter — does he not have the right to decide what is and is not appropriate to purchase for her?

    Of course she is going to be exposed to things that he’d rather her not be, and in those cases, yes, he should talk to her, but I think he was making the correct decision by doing research into the book first.

    I know too many parents who are under the mistaken impression that “young adult” means “for 8 year olds” rather than “for teenagers” and then act shocked by the content to take lightly any request about content and “ratings” for my adult books. There are things in my second book that are rated R. The father has the right to know that. I applaud him for asking.

    My other friend with the 13 year old daughter looked at my books, decided they were okay, and gave them to her daughter to read. (She says her daughter has a tendency to skip the sex scenes anyway.)

  9. Nicola says:

    I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one then! Perhaps I come at this from a different perspective to some people though. You talk about YA being for teenagers rather than 8-year-olds. By the time I was a teenager I’d already worked my way through the YA genre and was reading ‘adult’ books – but I was a bookish child. This meant, for example, that I did not enjoy ‘Gone With the Wind’ the first time I read it. I was too young at the time to appreciate a heroine who wasn’t typically good and a story that didn’t have a traditional happy ending.
    I certainly applaud the father you speak of for wanting to encourage his daughter to read though. I think for so many people a love of reading comes from parents. But I still remember well-meaning relatives buying me Sweet Valley High books when I was 14 and had already worked my way through everything ever written by Agatha Christie, J.R.R. Tolkien and Jane Austen. I guess it just saddens me that there are so many children out there (in the US, that is) who don’t have easy access to Judy Blume or J.K. Rowling because they have been deemed unsuitable.

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