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  • March 2010
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Fear and Censorship

Hey, teens! Want to meet Coe Booth?  There’s still space available!

TODAY, March 11th, 7pm

CLP – Allegheny, 1230 Federal St.

Go here to register.

Pittsburgh has received many accolades in the past few years, one of which was being rated one of the most literate cities.  Every day I see teens in the library, choosing books, reading books, talking to each other about books.  Occasionally teens come and talk to me about books, and those days are the best days because there are few things I enjoy more than talking about books and helping teens pick books.

So why, then, when I give teens the opportunity to meet the authors of books that I know they love, and give adults the opportunity to bring groups of teens that they work with to meet these authors, am I so often disappointed?

Let me be clear: I’m never disappointed by the visits themselves.  All of the authors we’ve had come as part of the Behind the Book: Authors Talk to Teens program have been fantastic, and all the teens, parents and other adults who’ve attended the programs have had a great time interacting with the authors.  What disappoints me is the response I often receive from adults when I offer them the chance to bring a group to the program, or offer to bring the author to a school for a program.

Here are some of the things I’ve heard:

  • There’s too much bad language in those books.  The word in questions was “piss,” by the way.
  • There’s too much sex in those books. Incidentally, nearly half of all teens have had sex, but the majority (74%) use contraception and teens are waiting longer to have sex for the first time than they have in the past.*
  • My students don’t read those kinds of books. This teacher was talking about “fun” books — apparently her students only read for school.
  • That book was too graphic. She didn’t say what made it too graphic, but this was from a program administrator at an afterschool program for inner city high school students and about a book about an inner city high school student.  You think they could have handled it? I do.

Of all the authors we’ve had come in, I’ve received the above comments about three.  When Alex Flinn came, a teacher canceled a scheduled school visit because of the language in Breathing Underwater.  When Lauren Myracle came, I wasn’t able to get any school visits scheduled because her books are (a) known for containing sexual content and (b) consistently listed on the list of books most banned or challenged.

Tonight, Coe Booth‘s coming.  A couple weeks ago, I took thirty copies of Tyrell to a local organization because they’d registered thirty students and I wanted them to have a chance to read the book in advance.  Yesterday the program coordinator called me and said they weren’t coming because the book was “too graphic” for them.  Now, I’ll have thirty empty seats that could have gone to teens who did read the book.  I’m just hoping I get the books back in time to give them to someone else.

Hence my disappointment.  I know that teens are living lives that are as bad as or worse than what these authors write about.  I know because teens have told me, after reading Tyrell, “this is the first book I read all the way through. It’s just like my life.”  I also know that reading about teens with rough lives, teens who beat their girlfriends, teens who have sex, isn’t going to make them go out and do it.  As one of my coworkers said yesterday, “it’s a little hard to get pregnant or rob a convenience store while you’re reading.”

So, if I know this to be true, why don’t other adults?  I think it’s because they’re afraid.  They’re afraid that if they expose a teen to a book about sex or violence and the teen does do something wrong, their school or their program or they will get blamed.  They’re afraid that teens will read about how somebody got the money to buy their little brother a coat they’ll get ideas — and follow through on them.  They’re afraid the teens’ parents will find out that the school gave them these books and get angry.  They’re afraid that they’re going to have to have a conversation with the teens about what’s in the books, and that’s going to be a dangerous conversation to have.

You’ll notice that I don’t name any of the teachers or the schools or the programs in my comments.  This is because I don’t bear them any ill will.  I don’t think any less of them, and I hope to be able to work with them all in the future.  However, I do hope that next time an author’s coming to town they’ll read that author’s books first.  And, after they’ve read the books, they’ll think about the good that author is doing by writing about issues real teens face and showing teens that they’re not alone, and that there are ways they can succeed, and doing it in a way teens can relate to and engage with.

I hope adults will quit allowing fear lead them to censorship.

*Guttmacher Institute. Facts on American Teens’ Sexual and Reproductive Health. January 2010. Accessed online: March 11, 2010. http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/FB-ATSRH.html

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