In my last post, I discussed my plans for Banned Books Week. So far, I've read two of the three frequently challenged books that I checked out from my local library, and I'm pleased to say that they didn't disappoint.
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This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki
This book was the most frequently challenged in 2016 because it "includes LGBT characters, drug use and profanity, and it was considered sexually explicit with mature themes"
I was curious to see how these charges aligned with what I read. From the description, I fully expected this to be full of lesbian orgies and drug-fueled debauchery.
Here's the real story behind this one
First off, it's worth noting that this is a graphic novel. Graphic novels get a lot of guff because some folks choose not to view them as "real literature," but I'd challenge those people to read Art Spiegelman's Maus (also frequently challenged) and tell me it doesn't have the gravitas to be considered lit.
Graphic novels can be terrifying for grown ups because kids consume them with the same devotion with which they might devour a bag of Hot Cheetos. It's too much power for such a small amount of ink and paper, I tell you! Anyway, I made my way through This One Summer in about two hours.
Speaking of gravitas, this book definitely has it. The story takes us to Awago, where the protagonist, Rose, vacations with her family every year. Rose's best friend is Windy, and the two of them experience what may be their last summer of childhood together. They're still kids, but they're brushing up against the serious issues that come with growing up.
Rose and her family are in a difficult place, but I won't go into detail because you need to read this one for yourself. Let's just say that the combination of prepubescence, strife within the family, and local teenage drama makes for a gripping read.
I spent at least half the book saying, "Where are all the lesbians?" The word "lesbian" comes up twice in the book. The descriptor is applied to some people who don't even play a role in the story beyond providing some depth to another character's experience. One of the lines is, "My aunt is a lesbian." That's it. I challenge that challenge--not just because I think it's ridiculous, but also because it's false.
The charges of profanity are accurate. Taken in context, these could be offer powerful lessons for young readers. For example, Windy and Rose become fixated on the word, "slut." They say it over and over. Rose's mother intervenes and tells her that "slut" shouldn't be idly tossed into conversation. How many of us could have benefited from having a frank discussion over the damage that words can do?
Beyond that, the teenagers in this book do cuss a lot, but if you've ever been a teenager not surrounded by adults, you know that the teenage vernacular is peppered with all manners of colorful invective.
Drugs do make an appearance in this book. If we're being realistic, many people do them or are put in situations where people around them are using. The drugs aren't just in the book for kicks or anything.
Where was this book when I was 12?
When I finished this book, I felt so empowered. This story holds space for young people to talk about very real things that might be happening around them. One of the characters even regains her sense of self after a tragedy. Break out the popcorn! I'm all-in for that show.
As I've stated before, if parents don't want their children to read this book, that's their right. Maybe this isn't the right fit for a 5-year-old, but this story is relatable, realistic, and important for teens and preteens to read.
Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
Two Boys Kissing may be one of the best prose works I've read this year, and I've read some great books. This one was challenged because "its cover has an image of two boys kissing, and it was considered to include sexually explicit LGBT content."
Yes, there are two boys kissing on the front of this book. (Picture it: A title and cover image that are in perfect alignment!)
How many books can you find that have heterosexual couples kissing on the front? I suppose we are less concerned with the bodice rippers of the world infecting our children's eyes because they aren't classified as "Young Adult," but still. Straight people can find themselves everywhere in literature. Gay people have to look under all these layers of censorship and challenge and heteronormativity. Some young adults are gay, and they might like to see themselves represented in a book. Just sayin.'
The story centers around two boys trying to break the world record for the longest kiss. The kiss is the structural support beam that holds multiple stories of gay and trans characters together in Two Boys Kissing. As someone who has never had to go through the difficult process of coming out, this was eye-opening. (This is why this book isn't just for gay teens.)
This isn't X-rated--no matter what the challengers say
There are parts of this book with some heavy petting, but there's no actual description of sex. When I thought about the most damning (but not pornographic) passages in context, I recognized why they belonged in the book. The "sexually explicit content" was in service of the story at every turn. We learn about the ways that people can exercise consent, the reasons people might want to sleep with each other, and the awkwardness that teens face as they try to figure themselves out. Teens who can see this played out on the page might make better choices in real life.
Critics who focus on the spicy bits too much or feel compelled to bash everyone about the head with their morals miss out on excellent storytelling. One of my favorite things about this book is that it reminded me of the Greek tragedies I love so much. A chorus of deceased gay AIDs patients narrates the entire thing. Through their eyes, we see how much as changed and how far we still have to go where LGBT rights are concerned.
I can see why this book might have offended some uber-conservative folks, but it also does not need to be challenged. This is, above all, a story of hope. It's criminal to deprive the rest of us the right to read this book. This is good writing, and by-golly, it's a great story.
I'll admit that I have a bias
As a writer, I loathe censorship. I can control what I put into the world, but when a story is clawing its way out of my brain, it's best to just let it come out. As soon as I stop to think about how many people I might offend by writing x, y, and z, the idea turns to cardboard. I have a whole graveyard of stories killed by the mere thought of censorship. Kudos to these authors for putting the story first--even at the risk of ticking some people off.
Censorship does nothing for the reader in me either. I don't love every book (though it's rare to find a well-written one that I don't like), and there have been times that I have thought that an author went too far with something. Usually, it doesn't stop me from reading because I can see the merits of the story instead of focusing on one passage that made me uncomfortable. Art doesn't always need to make us comfortable. Sometimes, its job is to strike a nerve. That's why I love it, and that's why the world needs it.
People always have the option not pick up things that they don't like. There's nothing more annoying than the gadfly, who probably hasn't even read the book, telling me what I can and can't read.
I leave you with a line from Two Boys Kissing that sums up my feelings about stifling people's ability to exist and express. Though it was originally written to describe the experience of the characters in the book, it feels fitting for a discussion of banned books:
"They had no right to deny us. But they had every right to feel things."