On Tuesday I spoke to a packed house in Columbus, Georgia. I talked about my journey to New
York Times bestselling author -- a road pitted with pain. (My first novel, "Crank," was inspired by my daughter's descent into the hell that is methamphetamine addiction.) Afterward, I signed books, and as the room emptied one lovely young woman remained. She came forward and when I asked her name, she crumbled into tears.
Then she shared her own story. How she started getting high in middle school, mostly as a way to deal with her alcoholic mother's absence. Didn't care about the trajectory she was on -- straight down into the same hell my book represented so well. But one day, she found that book.
She saw herself in those pages, and suddenly knew she didn't want to be there. That book turned her around. Today she's been sober two years, is graduating high school and has embarked on a modeling career.
This wasn't a rare encounter. After almost every talk, one or more people wait until the room clears and tell me their story. And I have received tens of thousands of messages from readers,
thanking me for turning them around, giving much needed insight, and even literally saving their lives. So I am more than a little saddened when my books are pulled from shelves, or even worse, when I am "dis-invited" from a speaking engagement.
Some call my books edgy; others say they're dark. They do explore tough subject matter -- addiction, abuse, thoughts of suicide, teen prostitution. But they bring young adult readers a middle-aged author's broader perspective. They show outcomes to choices, offer understanding. And each is infused with hope. I don't sugarcoat, but neither is the content gratuitous. Something would-be censors could only know if they'd actually read the books rather than skimming for dirty words or sexual content.
My first dis-invitation was last year in Norman, Oklahoma. I had donated a school visit to a charity auction. The winning bid came from a middle school librarian, who was excited to have me talk to her students about poetry, writing process and reaching for their dreams. Except, two days before the visit, a parent challenged one of my books for "inappropriate content." She demanded it be pulled from all middle school libraries in the district. And also that no student
should hear me speak.
The superintendent, who hadn't read my books, agreed, prohibiting me from speaking to any school in the district. The librarian scrambled and I spoke community-wide at the nearby Hillsdale Baptist Freewill College. (The challenged book, by the way, was later replaced in the
middle school libraries.) The timing was exceptional, if unintentional. It was Banned Books Week 2009, and my publisher, Simon & Schuster, had recently created a broadside of a poem I'd written for the occasion. My "Manifesto" was currently being featured in bookstores and libraries across the country.
Segue to August 2010. Simon & Schuster repackaged "Manifesto" just about the time another dis-invitation
took place. Humble, Texas is a suburb of Houston, and every other year the Humble Independent School District organizes a teen literature festival. I was invited to headline the January 2011 event. The term "invitation" would later be debated, as no formal contract was signed. But through a series of email exchanges, the invitation was extended, I agreed, we settled on an honorarium, and I blocked out the date on my calendar (thus turning down other invitations).
This time it was a middle school librarian who initiated the dis-invitation. Apparently concerned
about my being in the vicinity of her students, she got a couple of parents riled and they approached two members of the school board. Again, no one read my books. Rather, according
to the superintendent, he relied on his head librarian's research -- a website that rates content. He ordered my "removal" from the festival roster, despite several librarians rallying in my defense.
According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, removing an author from an event because someone disagrees with their ideas or content in their books meets the definition of
censorship. And in protest, five of the seven other festival authors -- Pete Hautman, Melissa de
la Cruz, Matt de la Pena, Tera Lynn Childs and Brian Meehl -- withdrew. Our books are all very different. But our voices are united against allowing one person, or a handful of people, to speak for an entire community.
This year's TeenLitFest was canceled. None of us authors wanted that, or to punish the teens who wanted to see us. But this is a valuable lesson to the young people who are our future. Censorship cannot be allowed to flourish in America. If you don't like content in a book, don't read it. If you don't want your child to read a book, take it away. But you do not have the right to decide "appropriateness" for everyone. What's perhaps not right for one child is necessary to another. Ignorance is no armor. And those whose lives are touched by the issues I write about deserve to know they are not alone.
And so, in honor of Banned Books Week 2010, I give you:
To you zealots and bigots and false
patriots who live in fear of discourse.
You screamers and banners and burners
who would force books
off shelves in your brand name
of greater good.
You say you're afraid for children,
innocents ripe for corruption
by perversion or sorcery on the page.
But sticks and stones do break
bones, and ignorance is no armor.
You do not speak for me,
and will not deny my kids magic
in favor of miracles.
You say you're afraid for America,
the red, white, and blue corroded
by terrorists, socialists, the sexually
confused. But we are a vast quilt
of patchwork cultures and multi-gendered
identities. You cannot speak for those
whose ancestors braved
You say you're afraid for God,
the living word eroded by Muhammed
and Darwin and Magdalene.
But the omnipotent sculptor of heaven
and earth designed intelligence.
Surely you dare not speak
for the father, who opens
his arms to all.
A word to the unwise.
Torch every book.
Char every page.
Burn every word to ash.
Ideas are incombustible.
And therein lies your real fear.