Saturday, November 15, 2008

Thoughts on Naughty Bits

Now that I have the opportunity to acquire books for children of all ages, I spend a lot of time thinking about what children and young adults use books for. My son, for example, is less than a year and we read to him many times a day. He is beginning to grasp the mechanics of reading and being read to. But mainly he enjoys chewing on the book's corners. In this way, a book is useful. This is amusing but I look forward in the coming months and years to the other roles books will play in entertaining and educating him. This weekend, I particularly look forward to the role books will play when he is a teenager.

I am fairly sure, after several years of working on books for teens, that it is absolutely vital that older children and teenagers especially see books as potentially dangerous, often provocative things. I think that the book's utility and ubiquity is also its curse. A book will never be novel. Even if you don't come from a family of readers, if you go to school, you will have books, and thus by the time kids start making choices about their entertainment and leisure time, books are at a disadvantage. But they can recover if, at some point, a child realizes that she's only been given the partial story about books, and that the whole story is that books have caused controversies that the most profane music and movies can't begin to touch. Knowing this, I am convinced, has made more than a few kids reconsider reading.  I believe at some point, every kid needs to feel like reading is a subversive, rebellious act. I was confirmed in this belief a couple times this weekend.

First, one of my favorite radio shows, On the Media (you really should listen), did a piece on former Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset. You can listen to the story here. The National Book Foundation honored Rosset recently for his contributions to literature, among which are publishing books like Tropic of Cancer, Lady Chatterly's Lover, and The Naked Lunch for the first time in the United Image:Lady Chatterleys Lover.jpgStates. Not only did he publish them, but he fought to the Supreme Court for the right to do so. There's one anecdote Rosset reveals in the OTM interview I found particularly fascinating. Rosset himself had to tip off the postmaster that he was shipping copies of Lady Chatterly's Lover so that they would confiscate one so he could then sue. And all of this with D.H. Lawrence's book was deliberate groundwork for the book he really wanted to publish--a book he'd read as a freshman in college--Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. Here is a man with a sense of how important a book can be.

Me, PenelopeShortly after I heard the OTM segment, I ran into a couple bits of news on accomplished author/illustrator Lisa Jahn-Clough's Facebook page: from a Florida newspaper and from local Orlando TV news. The TV news piece is particularly interesting as counterpoint to the OTM piece. The gist is that her young adult novel Me, Penelope has caused some considerable controversy after a 12-year-old checked it out. I know Lisa so even though I haven't yet read this novel (something I probably share with everyone involved in the news stories), I suspect it is not nearly as shocking or lurid as the article suggests. I don't at all object to the parent's right to speak to a librarian and ask that her daughter not be allowed to check out certain books or to ask that she be informed first--I can imagine doing that myself. Such steps would not, however, require news conferences or bizarre close-up shots of the text of the book as though it were a crime scene (seriously, watch the clip) or school board members grandstanding about standards and systemic reviews and "all their years . . . "--all things I find nauseating. 

But here's how I come out of all of this an optimist, though (and how I get back to my point). It's not because Rosset is getting an award. The people who are giving him an award always agreed with him. What makes me an optimist is this preposterous, post-literate remark from a school board member in Florida and the result I believe it will have: "No wonder our kids our so messed up. Look at the garbage we put in front of them."


Thank you, sir, for doing your part to insure books retain their rightful place as dangerous, provocative objects. Thank you, as I am sure you have helped more than a few kids reconsider reading.


Maggie Stiefvater said...

Not to mention that I always have the feeling that adults writing these things forget what they themselves were reading at that age.

I have to catch myself -- as an adult, I see 12/13 year olds reading LAMENT and I get all dizzy and have to have a lie down . . .until I remember that I was reading Crichton and D. Koontz at that age.

Pat Schmatz said...

I vividly remember the feeling I had as a kid when I read something that I knew was subversive - sexual, political, violent, taboo-breaking.

It was exciting, freeing, thrilling, and made me kind of gasp and look around at the every day world with a new vision.

Also, those words in those books made me feel so incredibly less alone.

For your son, I wish a lifetime of dangerous, provocative books.

Lisa Jahn-Clough said...

First off, thank you Andrew for posting and including my book in your discussion! As my first challenged book I feel as though I have entered a very fine club of excellent writers.

Me, Penelope is listed as 14 and up, and although I do not think it is graphic compared to many YA novels, I am hesitant to suggest it for 11 and 12 year olds unless I know they are mature and that their parents are okay with them reading it. I am totally for parents reading the books their kids read and making the final call (though kids will likely get their hands on what they want/need without parents knowing.)

On the other hand, when I think of my own years at that age, I was reading and thinking some very graphic stuff (remember Forever, by Judy Blume, or VC Andrews, or Valley of the Dolls?) As a teenager with a wild imagination and fantasy life, I was extremely smart, shy, and cautious. I truly believe that the more "trash" I read the less likely I was to engage in bad choices. Sometimes I actually wish I'd read less and did more bad things, but then I always have the books to read (and to write) where I and many young people can live vicariously. Thank god for books or we'd all be a mess.

Much of the challenge hub-a-bub has very little to do with content, and more to do with one person trying to set standards for everyone!