We’re right in the middle of Banned Books Week, which lasts from September 24 through October 1 this year. And whether you think devoting an entire seven days to books that have been banned—or, more commonly, challenged—is just hype, or disingenuous, or a good excuse for a party, it’s still something worth thinking about. Those of us who were inspired to start drinking after reading A Moveable Feast in eighth grade English class, or to fornicate via a swiped copy of our best friend’s older sister’s Memoirs of a Beatnik, or to smoke whatever we could get our hands on once we’d sampled all those awesome, dead serious anti-drug novels that our parents left nonchalantly on our desks, know that kids will always find what they need to read in order to become citizens of the world, and more power to them. But really, the easier we make it on them the better.
I think most of us know what it’s like to be inspired clandestine readers. But this week the LA Review of Books is letting some challenged writers tell their stories about what it was like on the other side of the equation. So far YA authors Ron Koertge, Ellen Hopkins, and Susan Patron have weighed in, with more to come throughout the week. While the pantheon of banned and challenged books is an honorable one spanning most of the last century—Mark Twain’s short story “Eve’s Diary” was only formally unbanned last week, after 105 years on a Massachusetts library’s blacklist—the most recent offenders have been by and large YA books. If you’re writing for and about teenagers with any kind of credibility, the gloves need to come off, period. Or as Ron Koertge—author of Stoner and Spaz, which I would have read when I was 13 for the title alone—puts it,
S&S was challenged all over the place, often for “advocating drug use and foul language.” I’ll let you in on a closely held YA author’s secret, which is our standard response to this particular concern: Are you fucking kidding me? The novel is, among other things, a cautionary tale. I’m a novelist, okay? Not a polemicist.
But they’re not the only authors who’ve felt the rancor. The Open Road Integrated Media Blog just reposted a letter written by Pat Conroy to the Charleston Gazette in 2007, upon hearing that parents were attempting to suppress two of his novels, Beach Music and Prince of Tides, in a West Virginia high school, in which he waxes appropriately outraged and sly:
The school board of Charleston, West Virginia, has sullied that gift and shamed themselves and their community. You’ve now entered the ranks of censors, book-banners, and teacher-haters, and the word will spread. Good teachers will avoid you as though you had cholera. But here is my favorite thing: Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because bookbanners are invariably idiots, they don’t know how the world works— but writers and English teachers do.
So this week you have full license to go out and read something bad for you—go to it! Flavorwire has some racy suggestions, and if you want to hear other people doing their parts, there’s the really charming assortment of readings on the YouTube Banned Books Read-Out channel. But whatever book you choose, remember that you’re committing a righteous act by picking it up and by making sure that other, more impressionable minds can do the same. As challenged author Ellen Hopkins says,
I steadfastly maintain that the truth isn’t corrosive. But fear is. And truth is a formidable weapon against fear.
(I have one of those Banned Books bracelets and yes, I’m wearing it.)