Conservatives calling for the banning of 'controversial' literature in schools is nothing new. But what happens when fans, teachers and authors fight back?
It's always interesting to keep up with the lists of books which are most challenged or banned by public libraries and schools. Just recently I came across a list of the 100 most challenged books from 1990 to 1999 and it read like a catalogue of the sort of books most people consider a 'rite of passage' for young adult readers. Making last year's top ten were novels such as The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird and The Perks of Being A Wallflower. These books appear on the 'most challenged' list year after year. But this autumn, teachers, fans and authors alike are leading the charge in showing their support for one challenged novel in particular.
That book is Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. Published in 1999, this New York Times bestseller tells the story of Melinda, a high school freshman who becomes a victim of date rape after attending a party. Since publication the book has often been challenged, leading Anderson to speak out against censorship and show her support for all books which deal with such difficult but very real issues.
But in September this year, a man called Wesley Scroggins began denouncing the book. Dr Scroggins, a business professor at Missouri State University, wrote an opinion piece for the Missouri News-Leader in which he called for Speak to be banned in schools, along with Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. He wrote:
"In high school English classes, children are required to read and view material that should be classified as soft pornography. One such book is called Speak...This is a book about a very dysfunctional family. Schoolteachers are losers, adults are losers and the cheerleading squad scores more than the football team. They have sex on Saturday night and then are goddesses at church on Sunday morning. The cheer squad also gets their group-rate abortions at prom time. "
Now this Wesley Scroggins is apparently a fundamentalist Christian. So I think it's safe to say that whenever a book contains material related to sex, alcohol and angsty teenagers, he's probably going to be against it. It's just how these things seem to work.
Those who believe that young people should think and behave a certain way usually see these things as likely to lead them astray and encourage them to live the 'wrong sort' of life - much like those who believe in banning sex education because it might encourage teens to have sex.
But I wonder if he realised how instant and how major the backlash against his remarks was going to be? On her blog, Anderson denounced his actions, quite rightly picking up on the somewhat disturbing fact that Scroggins is making out that rape is simply a matter of 'pornography'. She called upon fans to speak out and tell their stories, to tell of how the book had impacted their lives and the damage that 'covering up' the fact that abuse happens causes.
And speak out they did. Many students at MSU were quick to condemn Scroggins. Judy Blume, herself a mainstay on the banned books list (I think we all know that Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret? and Forever are pretty much essential reading for young girls) wrote to the National Council Against Censorship to express her support for Anderson. A campaign website, Speak Loudly, and accompanying Twitter hashtag were started up by a group of teachers, librarians and authors. And blog post upon blog post has been written by people who were deeply affected by the book.
In an interview with School Library Journal, Anderson herself said:
"I have heard from many survivors of sexual assault who told me that they didn't dare tell anyone about being attacked. They held in the physical and emotional trauma, sometimes for decades. Often they turned to drugs, alcohol, or cutting to cope with the emotional pain. Then they read Speak. Melinda gave them the courage to speak up for the first time, to tell what happened, and to get the help they deserved."
That's why it's important that books like Speak are accessible to all. Young adult fiction which deals with 'issues' isn't a bad thing. It raises awareness, helps people feel they're not alone and gives them the courage to tell people about what they're going through.
Banning such literature won't help anyone - in fact all it will do is push 'issues' under the carpet, which is perhaps what people like Scroggins want. The education of young people about abuse, about relationships and about the problems they might well go through is vital and keeping them in the dark achieves nothing (cheers for that, abstinence-only sex education).
The school board which received his complaints has yet to make a decision on the matter. Personally I'm hoping that the uproar surrounding the matter has made a big enough impact to make sure Speak - and other books which address important issues - stay on the shelves. It's great to see people mobilising against narrow-mindedness in such a way and I wonder if it could affect decisions on censorship in a more major way in the future.
Hannah Mudge writes about all things news and feminism-themed for BitchBuzz. You can also read her blog, We Mixed Our Drinks or follow her tweets as @boudledidge.
Image via covs97's Flickr.