Last week, the fabulous folks of the American Library Association announced the top ten list of this year's most frequently banned and challenged books.
Though my books have shown up on this list before, I was surprised when I received a heads up email from Nanette Perez, Program Director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom. "Congratulations?" read Nanette's subject line. Then, within the body of the email, this: "We finalized our numbers for the top challenged books list of 2011, and I am 'pleased' to announce that you are #1 again with ttyl, ttfn, and l8r g8r. HOORAY?!?!"
Hooray, indeed. I'll take "Hooray" over "Boo! Boo on you!" any day. My books first appeared on the Naughty List in 2007, and that time, when I was given the news, I cried. My gut clenched, my heart pounded, and I experienced that bizarre phenomenon of feeling both sweaty hot and freakishly cold at the same time, a combination of physiological responses that in Lauren's Body Language equals shame. People don't like you, whispered my personal Shame Spokesperson. You are bad. You have misbehaved. People want to draw a thick, black X through you and your books. THEY WANT YOU GONE.
But...surprise! I'm still here, and my books are still being banned, and guess what? An unanticipated perk of being a Bad Girl in the eyes of those who get skittish around topics like PENISES and PUSSIES and CONDOMS and COMING OF AGE is that it's forced me to grow up a bit over the past several years. I've thought long and hard about the issues surrounding intellectual freedom, I've thought long and hard about what I strive to do as a writer (and why), and I've developed coping skills to combat the instinctual tsunami of shame that threatens to wash over me every time I'm informed of my lurid depravity.
Being an author of banned books is cool, I've decided. My thirteen-year-old son sure thinks so. He got seventeen texts on the day the list was made public, all of them from girls (!!!), and all congratulating him for having a bad-ass for a mom. (I'm actually not a bad-ass, but if it gives my adorkable son some street cred, I'm happy to play along.)
What I find cool about being a banned author is this: I'm writing books that evoke a reaction, books that, if dropped in a lake, go down not with a whimper but a splash. And for the record? At least one upset adult has flung a book of mine into a lake, her school library's copy of ttyl, which her twelve-year-old daughter checked out and almost finished before making the mistake of asking her mom what a "queef" was.
Me? I would have told her. Hey, queefs happen.
The adults--and it's always adults, never tweens or teens--who get worked up about the issues my books bring up aren't evil, nor are they stupid. (Well. Sometimes they're stupid, or rather, sometimes they act stupid. When it comes to offering moral guidance to your child, is throwing school property into Lake Lanier more or less effective than talking to your kid about biology, or, if you just can't speak of such things, getting on the computer with your kid and heading to the Urban Dictionary?)
The adults who'd prefer my books TO JUST GO AWAY are scared, that's all. They want to keep their kids safe. They want to slip their sons and daughters (mainly daughters) into body-sized condoms so that the big, bad world can't contaminate or impregnate them with, ya know, ideas. Frightening ideas. Dangerous ideas. Thrilling, invigorating, provocative ideas. But, too bad. I'm done worrying about the grown-ups who take offense at my books; my allegiance is to the tweens, teens, and--yes--grown-ups who choose to read my books. Ideas matter. The world matters. Our lives matter, and the choices we make as we navigate our lives perhaps matter most of all.
(Quick note: Learning what a queef is? That's fairly insignificant when it comes to living an authentic life, I'll admit. Though not entirely insignificant. "It's just biology, people!" I often want to tell censors. It could be queefs that fall into the line of fire; it could as easily be the mystery of erections, the particular sort of cramps that accompany a girl's period, or simply the care and maintenance of lady parts. It's just biology, people!)
But my books, and oodles of awesome books by other writers, address a range of topics: biology, sure, but also racism, sexism, classism, and pretty much any other "ism" you can imagine. They address bullying, suicide, homophobia, and social injustice. Drug use. What color bra to wear beneath a thin white T-shirt. How to stand up for yourself when someone calls you a "mountain nigger." How to find the strength--hopefully--to never be the sort of person who would call someone a "mountain nigger."
Back to the "top ten" list announced by ALA at the beginning of this week. What does it even mean? Well, the Office of Intellectual Freedom--a division of the American Library Association--tabulates all of the officially filed book challenges made across the country, some of which are successful (the book is removed from the shelves) and some of which are not (yay for brave and discerning librarians!). This year, the Office of Intellectual Freedom received 326 reports regarding attempts to remove or restrict materials from school curricula and library bookshelves; using that data, the list of the top ten most frequently challenged books was compiled.
Keep in mind, however, that for every documented request to have a book removed from a library's shelves, the head honchos at the Office of Intellectual Freedom estimate that four to five additional challenges go unreported. I believe it, simply because of how many angry letters and emails I receive from adults who feel threatened by my books. I'll share a few, from the hundreds I've collected:
"Ms. Myracle: Just because you were apparently a girl with loose morals early in life, doesn't give you the right to influence young girls to follow in your horrible footsteps."
"My principal recently read the vulgar parts of your book ttyl to our faculty. We were appalled and pulled your books from the library. What a shame that you have to lower your standards so far to sell books."
"I find it absolutely amazing that you as a mother find it appropriate to inform young innocent minds of such things as thongs, French kissing, tampons and erections. Can our children remain children longer??"
"My daughter loves your books, and I, her father, have allowed her to read the age-appropriate ones. However, she was online and found that you have authored other books. Much to her and my astonishment, she read a summary of a book that included a drunken party--not a good choice--and then the kissing of best friends. I have felt uneasy and robbed of my daughter's innocence since she read that. I thought I had an open mind until that moment."
"I am a mother of a girl who just turned 12 years old today. She received a copy of your book, TTFN, from her Grandfather. My daughter was absolutely thrilled, but not for long, because thanks to you, I ruined my daughter's 12th birthday by taking your book away from her. You see, I did a little research, and realized that your series is all about sex, drugs, and other superficial matters. All I can say is YUCK. I am completely disgusted."
And one last one:
"lady your sick. what's the matter with you. you make me feel dirty. maybe you got a brain infection. please keep writing books so you don't ever use your infected brain to act with. I wouldn't want anybody getting hurt. by your demented interpretation of sense making."
I don't like getting those letters. Sometimes I can't help but laugh, but for the most part, they just make me feel sad. But then I'll get a lovely, passionate email from a young reader, and I'll remember why I write, and why, in particular, I write for kids, who are smack in the throes of navigating this crazy-awesome path we're all traveling together.
As an example, here's an incredibly sweet, articulate email that landed in my inbox around the time my latest young adult novel, Shine, was published:
"Hi Ms. Myracle,
I am Grace, a 12 year old daughter of two gay parents. Thank you so much for the beautiful book you wrote, and for addressing homophobia and gay-bashing among teens. Shine was poignant, hopeful, fascinating, deeply emotional, and insightful. Parts of the book made me want to burst into tears, and others caused me to smile and laugh.... Once again, I cannot tell how grateful I am that someone has addressed the issues of homophobia, self-hate, drugs, and violence in such a lovely and emotionally poignant way.
Ah, I sure do like that Grace. Hi, Grace, if you're out there! Keep on keeping on!
As for me, I'll try to take my own advice, and when I hit a rough patch--as I always do, as we all always do--I'll remember this lovely quote from Chris Crutcher, an amazing author and one of my heroes:
"When we turn away from tough material in stories that kids face every day in real life, we take ourselves off the short list of people to turn to. Kids would much rather we found ways to discuss those tough issues than to pretend they don't exist. They will always come up in real life, it seems to me we want to be there when they do. Kids say over and over that we don't understand. Why don't we see if we can prove them wrong once in a while?"