Sunday, June 05, 2011

Kids are Smart, or who's afraid of the big bad censor

YA in its current form didn't exist when I was teen, which is a shame, because I often think of my teen years as a dark period, full of required reading and very few truly enjoyed novels.  Like most of my generation I read The Great Gatsby, Brave New World, and Romeo and Juliet in my English classes.  And for those keeping track, those books contain sex, drinking, suicide, cursing, violence, death, get the idea.

While I'm thankful for being introduced to these books in the classroom, the voracious appetite for books I'd had in elementary and middle school evaporated a bit.  It was replaced by a sense of belonging within the English classroom, where anything and everything could be discussed, and it put me on the path to becoming a teacher, which heralded the beginning of another period of required reading.

Between undergrad and graduate school, I got to do a brief stint as a high school teacher in my own alma mater.  There I taught the classics I had once been taught.  The kids were different though.  Cell phones were now as necessary as a backpack, everyone had access to the internet, and YA was just starting to take off.  I came in as a replacement for a teacher who's new job was to get kids reading, which meant she was reading a lot of YA herself and recommending it to kids.  By the end of the year, the department was discussing a change in curriculum to include several YA titles.

Meanwhile, I was in the classroom teaching Steinback and Homer and spending hours finding ways to get my students interested in the literature.  The key was always a way to make it relatable to them, which meant directly talking about sex, violence, family issues, love, and every other topic that adults have a way of patronizing teens about.

And then magic happened.  A local school district publicly considered removing a popular book from the curriculum.  You've probably heard of it: The Giver.  But what got the attention of my students was that our school district decided not to teach it that year to avoid the same thing happening there.  I mentioned as part of an exercise relating to the ALA challenged books list, and I will never forget the reactions.  The smart-ass kid (I say that with much love) who was more interested in girls and  playing class clown freaked out.  The morose teen in the corner, who rarely spoke up, started talking.  The girl whose nose was always in a book got vocal.  It seemed that every kid in all five of my classes had read that book the year before and been deeply affected by it.

And one thing became very clear: they didn't appreciate being told what to read.  They didn't want to be protected from the "ugly" storylines.  They understood what the book was about and, a year later, could discuss it at length.

That's when a very simple notion solidified for me.  It was something I was always aware of in the back of my mind, but that day it came full circle for me.  Kids are smart.  Trying to protect them from the world is not only pointless but dangerous.  Do you think Romeo and Juliet is on most 9th grade reading lists because it's Shakespeare's greatest love story?  Guess again.  But now YA gives teen readers a chance to explore new worlds, complicated ideas, taboo subjects, and even their own secrets.  And they aren't going to let anyone tell them what to read.

That week, my students wrote letters in defense of challenged books from Harry Potter to The Giver to Go Ask Alice.  These were handwritten and often pages long.  Their words were compelling and intelligent, and I was damn proud of them.  We called the little project Write to Read, and somewhere I still have those letters stashed in a cabinet.

This weekend, I've watched the YA community rise up in protest of a biased bit of censorship published by the Wall Street Journal that decries the darkness of today's YA books.  I'm damn proud to be part of  that community right now.  The words are eloquent, the logic sound, and once again I see teens standing up to remind the world that they're smart and mature, and that they have the right to books.  Bravo!

I guess what it all comes down to is that we can't pretend that darkness doesn't exist. But, more importantly, we won't be censored.  I've always had an affinity for the film Pleasantville, which directly addresses this topic, so to Meghan Cox Gurdon I quote that film: "I know you want it to stay pleasant around here, but there are so many things that are so much better. Like silly or sexy or dangerous or brief. And every one of those things is in you all the time if you just have the guts to look for them. "

And to the YA community: thanks for having the guts.


  1. I loved those moments in my classroom too. And books like The Giver hook even the most reluctant reader--we need them! I used to show scenes from Pleasantville during that unit... :)

  2. I love this! I can relate, that as a teen I didn't know what to read, there was "YA" in the library but it was silly. Anyway, the most exciting books were things like "Catcher in the Rye", with lots of references to taboo subjects. I haven't read The Giver yet, but I will now. I love seeing kids (or anyone) passionate about books!