Thursday, March 13, 2014

Censorship, and How You Can Help

Hey everyone!

I don't often wear my blogging hat, usually because I can never get those pesky thoughts to align properly so I can write them down. But here I am, with an important message.


No no, that's not my message. That's the topic.

So over in Strasburg, Colorado, a situation is going down involving a proposed upper high school elective course. An enterprising high school English teacher has assembled a curriculum of some of the most popular Young Adult novels from recent years, along with a couple of classics, and wants to teach them in the classroom. This wouldn't be a problem, except a few local parents have taken issue with what they term "books...contain[ing]  excessive profanity, explicit sexual scenes, drug use and/or violence."

Here's the list for those who are curious (source: the incomparable John Green):

Feed, by M.T. Anderson

Thinner Than Thou, by Kit Reed

Delirium, by Lauren Oliver

Uglies, by Scott Westerfield

Taken, by Erin Bowman

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, by Mark Haddon

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes

Will Grayson, will grayson, by John Green and David Levithan

Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous

13 Little Blue Envelopes, by Maureen Johnson

Paper Towns, by John Green

If I Stay, by Gayle Forman

Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver

Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher

Looking for Alaska, by John Green

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

Clockwork Angel, by Cassandra Clare

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis

I don't know how many of these you've read, but I've read a fair few, and all that excessive mature content the petition references? It's there, sort of, but never excessive, and always in a way that makes sense in context.

In case you couldn't tell, this situation annoys me greatly, for a number of reasons:

1) Censorship, with which I take issue in any form;
2) Intellectual dishonesty on the part of the parents who submitted the petition;
3) Fearmongering coupled with said dishonesty, ie "teens have very impressionable minds";
4) My respect for and loyalty to the authors of books I treasure; and
5) My concern for the future state of US education.

If this situation makes you as mad as it makes me, please join me in taking action to save this course from censorship. You can email with your messages of support. Please address all letters as "To the School Board".

If you would like an example of the sort of thing to write, mine is below. Thank you for doing the right thing and taking a stand against censorship.



To the School Board:

I am writing to you upon learning of the petition to alter the proposed curriculum for the Young Adult Literature course.

I am a future educator who, having received a well-rounded education, desires nothing more than to pass it on to future generations. I have read many of the books under consideration, and I am desperately trying to understand how any of them are, in the words of the petition, "profane," "pornographic," "violent," "criminal and vile," or "crass and crude.”

Young adult literature is a genre that includes many classic titles dating to long before such classification, and it has a proud reputation for asking difficult and important questions. These books are no different. From the Pevensies' struggles with faith and trust in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to Hazel and Augustus' search for the purpose in terminal illness in The Fault in Our Stars, each of the books in the proposed curriculum explores some essential part of what it means to be human.

The people in objection to this curriculum claim to try to produce "responsible and productive members of society." I don't mean to malign their character, and I'm sure their intentions are good. However, it is clear to me that they do not understand what creates such a member of society. It is books such as these, presenting real facets of the human condition, that are vital to the growth of compassionate, well-rounded, tolerant yet discerning young people and adults. I appreciate the attempt to preserve the innocence of their students, but to remove books like these from curricula is to purchase innocence at the high cost of all these qualities.

Let me assume for a moment that these accusations are true. I say to you that each of the experiences the petition protests is one necessary to the growth I have just described. Strong language expresses strong emotion. Sexual content is a direct result of the nature of humans as sexual creatures. Violence can be the fruit of many things, but it is chiefly an outlet of normal human emotion. There are criminals and vile people in the world, just as there are those who are crass and crude. I ask these parents: would you rather your child read about and discuss these things in a guided context, or hide these things from your child until they are on their own in the world, and they encounter the full reality all at once? In the words of Australian author Mem Fox: "If we sanitize everything children read, how much more shocking and confusing will the real world be when they finally have to face it?"

All these statements assume, however, that these books contain the abundance of things they are said to contain. In my experience - and again, I have read the majority of the titles - none of the accusations are true.

Do some of the books contain strong language? Yes - but none more than a few instances, and certainly far less than your young adults hear in the hallways or in media on a daily basis.

Do some of them contain sexual content? Yes. In fact, in The Fault in Our Stars, the fact that the two main characters have sex is a highly effective way to show that those with terminal illness - even and especially young people - are still human and still have the same needs and qualities of being human as healthy people. Is it pornographic? Hardly. No mention is made of anatomy, and the act is not glorified. It is portrayed simply and without fanfare.

Do some of them show violence? Yes. Thirteen Reasons Why is about a girl who commits suicide. However, like the way in which The Fault in Our Stars portrays sex realistically without glorifying it, this book through its narrator seeks to understand why someone would make that choice - a choice that far too many people make every day - while neither demonizing nor lionizing the one who made it. It is overwhelmingly compassionate; a portrayal of violence does not a violent book make.

This content, in terror of which the petition is presented, is nothing to fear. In fact, your young adults are privileged to benefit from frank study and discussion of this material. Should any of the parents in your community desire nonetheless that their young people not be exposed to these books, the course in question is an elective, and their children do not have to take it. For the rest of your community, however, there is no reason to ban or alter this course, and those parents who would prevent other parents' children from taking this valuable course are acting beyond their authority. The petition, while well-intentioned, is ultimately without merit, and further, advocates censorship in place of good parenting and honest education.

Young adult literature is a beneficial lens through which adolescents and adults may critically examine the world, and I count myself a better person for having read each of the contested books. I applaud the brave educator standing by her curriculum, and I would like nothing more than to one day stand in her shoes. I trust that your board will choose intellectual honesty and freedom by choosing not to censor this course.

Yours sincerely,

Samuel M. Snyder

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