Autumn brings falling leaves and boisterous school board meetings, which may be why the American Library Association (ALA) schedules Banned Books Week for the end of September. True to form, a challenge in the heartland has the literary blogosphere buzzing on both sides of the Atlantic.
Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, was published 10 years ago to wide acclaim and numerous awards. The story concerns 13-year-old Melinda, who attends a party at the beginning of her freshman year and is raped by a popular senior. She tries to report the incident, but the consequences fall on her instead of the perpetrator. The rape and its aftermath are so traumatic that Melinda becomes a virtual mute for most of the school year (hence the title).
Last summer, Wesley Scroggins, concerned parent and associate college professor, brought a challenge to the Republic, Mo., school board about three books, including Speak. The board agreed to address Dr. Scroggins' concerns, but it wasn't until late September that the issue blew up, partly because of his editorial in the local paper: "Filthy books demeaning to Republic education." His challenge closely followed on another controversy in nearby Stockton. The novel in that case was The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, concerning a Native American teenager's efforts to break out of his impoverished life on the reservation.
The apparent epidemic of "book banning" in southwest Missouri drew national media attention, but when Laurie Halse Anderson reported the story on her blog and asked for support, the battle was truly joined. "My fear is that good-hearted people in Scroggins' community will read his piece and believe what he says. . . . And then the book will be pulled and all those kids who might have found truth and support in the book will be denied that. In addition, all the kids who have healthy emotional lives but who hate reading, will miss the chance to enjoy a book that might change their opinion."
Fat chance. All the momentum is on her side. Besides attracting more readers, any proposed "book ban" gives opponents a chance to jump on the yahoos who are trying to impose their values and wouldn't know good literature if it slapped them and don't appreciate what kids today are going through and don't apparently realize that the Bible has plenty of R-rated material. The zeal with which they pile on suggests a relish for the martyr role, especially when it doesn't cost them anything. Though I disagree with Dr. Scroggins that Speak is soft-core porn (I dislike it for other reasons), he's the one showing real guts here-and ironically, he's the one being told to shut up. Some are even suggesting he's not fit to teach at the local university.
Small-town America is not about to blaze with book-bonfires, and any teenager can get a library card if she wants to read a controversial novel. There are plenty of them, especially in the Young Adult division. I've read much worse than Speak, including an ALA-honored novel that I had to stop reading halfway through because the profanity was so bad. If book challenges don't work, is there an alternative?
Overcoming evil with good (Romans 12:21) may apply here. There are times when Christians have to stand up and say no. But more often, they have opportunities to say yes. For example, a group called We Are Not Waiting (wearenotwaiting.com) is trying to address the crisis in education by enabling churches to adopt a local elementary or high school. Volunteers lend a hand as tutors, advisors, classroom enrichment speakers. The purpose is not to evangelize or "impose our values," but to serve the community.
Adopting a school won't solve the problem of low standards and inappropriate literature, but it begins a gentle push in the opposite direction. At the very least, it can be a practical antidote to the social chaos that teens see portrayed in YA literature, and too often in their own lives.
Email Janie B. Cheaney