Why I Hope to Someday Publish a Banned Book

02 Oct

This is national Banned Book Week. For those who aren’t in the loop, it might seem odd to celebrate banned books. I mean, if you’re in favor of banning books, you probably don’t want to brandish their titles all over the place, and if you’re against banning books, what’s there to celebrate in that?

But the point of Banned Book Week is to point out how ridiculous it is to attempt to ban books in the first place. I believe that no one should attempt to tell others what or what not to read.

The term “banned books” is really a misnomer for the most part. Most of the books are “challenged,” that is, someone, often a parent of a school student, challenges the book’s presence in the school library or in the curriculum. Some are pulled from library shelves. Sometimes they are stuffed away and must be requested in person from the librarian, as if something is evil about the book. Very rarely, that I know of, is a book literally banned from being accessible if someone really wants it. But that’s all semantics.

The issue is one of fear. That’s why books are challenged or pulled from shelves. Parents (it usually is parents, although there are others who challenge books, and for other reasons, but I will focus on parents just for simplicity’s sake) are afraid of what their children might read in a book. What’s to be afraid of? Those who challenge books often refer to sexual content, drug use, racism, gay characters, f-bombs or other language they deem objectionable, and more. Huck Finn has been challenged because of the overt racism it depicts. A children’s book from several years ago, The Higher Power of Lucky, was challenged because of the word scrotum.

So why do these kinds of things make people afraid? Really? What’s so scary about the word scrotum? It is the correct anatomical word for a normal, everyday part of the body. In this case, it was referring to a dog’s scrotum. Aren’t we supposed to teach the correct anatomical words to our children? Don’t they do that in health class? Why is the racism in Huck Finn so scary? Could it be that folks are afraid to acknowledge that in parts of the country, racism so overt and embedded still exists?

Here’s what I think. People fear the truth. They fear real names for body parts, because then they might actually have to talk to their kids about sex, sexuality, and other scary topics. People are afraid of swearing because they are worried their kids might start using those words. I’ve actually heard parents object to depictions of sex because they don’t want to have their kids reading “how-to” manuals.

Ellen Hopkins is one of my favorite authors, as well as one of the most challenged authors in contemporary publishing. Why? Her books address scary, hard topics like addiction, prostitution, abuse, gambling, teen pregnancy, parental abandonment, and more. But she is also enormously popular with her teen audience. Why is that? Because real teens deal with these scary realities every day. Chris Crutcher, another of my favorite authors, is often banned for the same things. But he works as a psychologist with teens, so he knows first hand what kind of troubles they live with. Why shouldn’t they get to read about their own realities in books?

Here’s what I think: there is nothing so awful, so horrifying, so scary that it shouldn’t be in a book. For many reasons. First of all, look at all the atrocities human beings are capable of perpetrating. Genocide. War. Abuse. Corruption. If it’s real, it should be in books. Books are a safe way to experience scary things. Our hope is that our kids will never live through a holocaust, but I think they should read all about it, talk about it, live it through a character in a book, in order to feel and understand why we should never allow that sort of thing to happen ever again.

Second, kids see, hear, live this stuff daily. Nothing in books is a shocker to them. Spend some time in a real junior high if you don’t believe me. A novel would not seem realistic to a teen reader (for example) if it had absolutely no swearing. Not that it should have f-bombs in every sentence, but it should have a real voice, not a purified voice we parents would prefer. We cannot protect our kids from every bad word, act of violence, or sex scene. No matter how much we try. And I’m not sure we should try.

I’m of the first generation that grew up on rock and roll. Our parents thought that music was from the devil. Did it turn me into some sort of druggie, sex fiend? Nope. I just liked the tunes and the fun lyrics. My own children have been allowed to read and watch anything of their own choosing. They have all learned on their own that much of the raunchy stuff is boring. That a lot of the lame content of TV is worthless. They are all good, moral, responsible people, who know when it is appropriate to be respectful and polite, and when it might be okay to let loose a few swear words (for example, at the referee on TV).

My own books include white supremacists, hate crimes, teen pregnancy and abortion, abuse, death, a gay characters. They also include large doses of hope, caring, love, and growth. As do all the books I know and love that are often on the banned list. That is why I hope at least one of my books makes it to the banned book list.


Posted by on October 2, 2012 in books, Idaho, teen fiction


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9 responses to “Why I Hope to Someday Publish a Banned Book

  1. Amberly Smith

    October 2, 2012 at 6:48 AM

    One of my writing dreams as well, banned book.

  2. Janis McCurry

    October 2, 2012 at 7:10 AM

    I have nothing to add, Neysa, but that I agree. It would be one thing if the parents fully intended to address all these issues, but I don’t think that’s why they challenge the books. It’s because they don’t want their children to ask questions. Great topic.

  3. Judith Keim

    October 2, 2012 at 8:02 AM

    Wonderful blog, Neysa! I agree that books should not be banned. I love your line – Books are a safe way to experience scary things! It’s interesting to me to see adults hovering over their children, so afraid they won’t be in control of what their kids see, hear and do. As loving as it might seem, it certainly doesn’t prepare them for later years. Kids are smart. If there’s no swearing in the home, for instance, they aren’t going to suddenly start swearing if they read it in a book! Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. Clarissa Southwick

    October 2, 2012 at 8:50 AM

    What a great post at a time when Freedom of expression is in the news. I can’t think of any valid reason for banning a book. if I don’t think the topic’s appropriate, I just won’t buy it.

  5. Peggy Staggs

    October 2, 2012 at 1:05 PM

    As a recovering psychology major, books should absolutely be age appropriate.
    Children are not emotional mature enough to process all types of information. Brains do have levels of development. We’re doing our children a great disservice throwing any and all information at them without allowing them the joy of an innocent childhood.
    With the overflow of information everyone is subjected to now, we need to examine what our children read and have access to. It’s becoming more evident that adults aren’t able to process the information overload. How can we possibly expect our immature, unworldly, and hopefully, innocent children to have the emotional maturity necessary to cope? Subjecting a child to information they’re not ready to process can do significant damage to ego, self-esteem and may cause relationship problems. So tread lightly when you throw caution to the wind and remove all obstacles.

    • neysajensen

      October 2, 2012 at 3:00 PM

      Peggy, I absolutely agree with your comments. I in no way am suggesting that parents don’t provide guidance to their children’s reading choices. But they have no right to dictate to others what their children’s reading choices should be. Also:

      1) It’s been my experience that with kids who do read something above their maturity level, with content they aren’t quite ready for, the objectionable content just goes right over their heads. They may come back to a book years later and say, “Wow, I don’t remember that being in this book.” It seems to me that our brains have a filtering system.

      2) I’m going to use an analogy here. It may not be the best one, but it’s what comes to mind. I know many people who don’t approve of teenagers dating, especially going steady–or whatever kids call it these days. They say it’s just practice for divorce. I say it’s a way to learn what kind of person you can trust, connect with, and spend forever with. I feel the same about books. For example, I know that horror does nothing but freak me out. How do I know this? By reading it and being freaked out. Now I know enough to avoid that. I learned it myself. If someone had said, “Don’t read horror. It will freak you out,” I would have read as much of it as I could, because I’m a rebel that way. Then I would be permanently damaged, for sure. (Just kidding.) (But probably.) I remember once my mom read a biography of Sidney Portier in which opening scenes talked about his childhood in which sex with chickens somehow took place. She stopped reading because it offended her. I read the very same book, and it did not offend me, because I just took it as “well, that’s what happened.” Different things affect people differently, and how are you going to know how it affects you unless you read it? (Not saying that a six year old should be reading adult material to try it on for size. But within reason. . .)

  6. maryvine

    October 2, 2012 at 3:09 PM

    I work at a high school and I wish parents would worry more about their children using cell phones in school.

  7. Judith Keim

    October 2, 2012 at 4:09 PM

    I, too, did not wish to imply that parents should not help guide their children’s choices but I don’t think children should be kept from reading age-appropriate books because others tell them they can’t.

  8. Marsha R. West

    October 3, 2012 at 8:31 AM

    Tough topic, Neysa. Congrats for tackling it. Good points from everyone. It’s a balancing act. As a former elementary school principal, I hoped for involved parents. But not the ones who thought we should take Harry Potter off the shelves. LOL I read HP because I had parents at my church asking me about it and figured I needed first hand knowledge to know how to respond to them and my school parents. Most school districts have a process in place if someone wants to question a particular book. Thank God for the process. That generally means it doesn’t fall to one lonely principal to deal with the irate (and sometime irrational) parent.

    I agree that sometimes stuff that’s not age appropriate goes over kids heads, but I do believe in the power of the written word. Don’t we all? To educate, to entertain, to titilate, to persuade, to inspire. Don’t tell your kids don’t read that. Read what they’re reading, so you can talk about it. (A little like I watched the TV show One Day at a Time with my girls. I thought it dealt with subjects that were too mature, but they really wanted to watch it. We had lots of good discussions following those shows.)

    I don’t ever want someone to tell me what I can or cannot read. Nor do I believe I should tell someone else they can’t read something. In Texas, we have more than our share of nut cases who want to rewrite history and science in our textbooks. Vigilence is important to maintain our freedoms. Thanks again, Neysa for raising an important issue.


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