Banned Books Compromise: “I’m not touching him!”

If you have a sibling, you know what I’m talking about.

You’re crammed into the backseat of the car, or maybe stuck side-by-side at the table at Applebee’s, and you exercise your natural right to torment your younger brother. Within seconds, he’s screaming. “Mom! Sarah’s touching me!”

“Stop touching your brother,” Mom says.

“Fine,” you say, raising a threatening eyebrow. Then you wave your hands directly in front of his face, blow in his ear, give him creepy looks, and otherwise annoy him to the greatest extent possible while still following Mom’s directive, proudly proclaiming, “I’m not touching him! I’m not touching him!”

Still with me on the tangent-coaster? Good. Because the whole I’m not touching him thing? That’s how I view the Republic school board’s “compromise” on recently-banned Twenty Boy Summer and Slaughterhouse Five. Last night, the board voted to put the two books back in the school library… in a “secure area” where only parents will be able to check them out.

(Remember those old school video stores—you know, pre-Netflix—where they had all the “adult” stuff in a separate back room behind a curtain? I really hope there’s a curtain at the library. Just saying.)

From the article in today’s Springfield News-Leader:

“It does keep the books there in the library, and if parents want their kids to read the book, by all means come and check it out,” said Superintendent Vern Minor. “…It still puts the decision in parents’ hands.”

With no discussion — and only board president Ken Knierim commenting on the change — the board voted 6-0 to adopt a revised draft of the book standards originally approved earlier this year.

It merely changed the way “challenged” books — the two in question and any others removed in the future — would be accessible in the district.

“…That’s what has come under scrutiny, that if parents want their children to read a book that has not met the district standards, they have to get the book from somewhere else,” Minor said. “It’s not in our library. That’s the issue that seems to have surfaced.”

In other words, we’re still censoring books by limiting access, but since everyone complained about the books being removed from the library, we’ve addressed that by putting them back in the library. You can’t get to them unless you’re a parent, but they’re technically in the library. Problem solved.

While I’m glad that the school board was willing to reconsider the original ban, I don’t believe this compromise is the answer. I’ve stated before that my biggest issue with Mr. Scroggins’ complaint is that he took the decision and discussion away from other parents. So I totally support parents who want to be involved with their kids’ reading and want to make decisions on appropriateness for their own families. The thing is, I’m not sure this should be happening at the library, before the book is even checked out. Do all parents have time or inclination to go to the school and request the books from the secure area (ahh, visions of secret parental cabals whispering together behind that curtain!)? Is the school library staying open beyond school hours to accommodate parents’ work schedules? What about the parents who’ve already made the decision to let their teens read whatever they’d like? Now those parents have to go down to the school just to check out a book? And what about the parents who just aren’t involved, one way or the other? The books are not accessible to those teens. And even if one teen has parents who can’t or won’t make the trek? She might be the one who most needs to read those books. And that’s what kills me.

Parents, what do you think? Should teens need you to check out their books from a public school library? If not, how do you get involved in your child’s reading (if you do), and what do you do if you feel something might be inappropriate for him?

Teens, what are your thoughts on this?

I’d love to hear your opinions. Because while I don’t pretend to have the answers on this, for me, the issue still stands: Limiting reading options for all teens on a broad institutional level is not the way to go.

Banned, But Never Shamed

I woke up this morning to the news that TWENTY BOY SUMMER, along with Kurt Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, has been officially banned from the Republic, Missouri school district.

That’s right, the crazy train has finally derailed. You all might remember the SpeakLoudly issue from last fall, as it took up lots of blog space here after the book was initially challenged in the district by Wesley Scroggins, a parent whose own kids don’t even go to the public school, along with Vonnegut’s book and Laurie Halse Anderon’s beautiful novel, SPEAK.

Not surprisingly, the whole thing caused a major uproar (particularly among the great citizens of Republic, most of whom find Scroggins’ actions as deplorable as I do). But that was just a challenge. Last night, nearly a year after the challenge was issued, after convening committees and discussion groups and who knows what else, the board made their decision. SPEAK stays (thankfully!), but Vonnegut and I are out. You can read the whole article in the News-Leader, but here are a few juicy tidbits:

“We very clearly stayed out of discussion about moral issues. Our discussions from the get-go were age-appropriateness,” [Superintendent Vern Minor] said.

Minor also stated:

“Most schools stay away from this and they get on this rampage, the whole book-banning thing, and that’s not the issue here. We’re looking at it from a curriculum point of view.”

Um, okay. Let’s just get this on the record right now: Twenty Boy Summer was never part of the curriculum. It was simply available in the school library for students to check out and read on their own time. So clearly, this wasn’t about the curriculum.

The article goes on:

Minor said feedback [from the committee] for “Twenty Boy Summer,” available in the library, focused on “sensationalizing sexual promiscuity.” He said questionable language, drunkenness, lying to parents and a lack of remorse by the characters led to the recommendation.

“I just don’t think it’s a good book. I don’t think it’s consistent with these standards and the kind of message that we want to send,” he said. “…If the book had ended on a different note, I might have thought differently.”

So… just so I’m clear on this (forgive me for not catching on right away — I’m a little slow, since my brain is so addled by the long hard hours it puts in each day devising ways to sensationalize sexual promiscuity and questionable language and whatnot), you’re staying out of a discussion about moral issues, yet stating that if the characters in Twenty Boy Summer had been remorseful about sex, language, or lying to parents, then you might have thought differently? That it’s not consistent with messages you want to send?

Again, I’m a little fuzzy on how morals work, obviously, since I’m so busy making sure my books influence teens not to have any morals, but… how is that not a moral discussion? How is that not a moral judgment?

Look, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a million times more. I get that my book isn’t appropriate for all teens, and that some parents are opposed to the content. That’s fine. Read it and decide for your own family. I wish more parents would do that — get involved in their kids’ reading and discuss the issues the books portray. But don’t make that decision for everyone else’s family by limiting a book’s availability and burying the issue under guise of a “curriculum discussion.”

But you all know my views on banning books — any books. What I really want to say today is this (close your eyes, Dr. Scroggins, as you’ll likely find this content alarming):

Not every teen who has sex or experiments with drinking feels remorseful about it. Not every teen who has sex gets pregnant, gets someone pregnant, or contracts an STD. Not every teen who has sex does so while in a serious relationship. Not every teen who has sex outside of a relationship feels guilty, shameful, or regretful later on. And you can ban my books from every damn district in the country — I’m still not going to write to send messages or make teens feel guilty because they’ve made choices that some people want to pretend don’t exist.

That’s my choice. And I’ll never be ashamed of my choice to write about real issues.

You know what, just for Dr. Scroggins, I’m giving away 2 copies of TWENTY BOY SUMMER to random commenters. Happy reading, all. And thanks for speaking loudly! Update: the winners have been chosen and notified by email, but please keep those comments coming! I appreciate the discussion and I’m so grateful for the outpouring of support! THANK YOU!

Banned Books Week Roundup: Group Hug!

[tweetmeme source=”sarahockler” only_single=false]As Banned Books Week draws to a close this weekend, I’m taking a step back. I’m taking a deep breath. I’m looking back on everything that’s happened since the Wesley Scroggins book challenge news broke, conveniently right before the start of BBW, and I’m saying two little words to everyone involved: thank you. If you’re reading banned books, tweeting about SpeakLoudly, making sure your schools and libraries support free choice, talking to your friends about the books you love, visiting this blog — even if it’s your first time here — you’re involved in the conversation, and YES, I’m talking to you. So I’ll say it again, just so we’re clear: thank you.

ALA Banned Books Week 2010What a week. What an incredible, enlightening, exhausting, crazy, emotional, tough, amazing week — a week for which I’m more grateful than any words in the English dictionary can convey. Still, I’m a writer — I have to at least try to find the right ones, no? Here goes.

I don’t know what will happen in Republic — whether the books in question will remain on the shelves of the school library, in the curriculum, or on the recommended reading lists, or whether they’ll be yanked. But thanks to you, I do know that regardless of the outcome of this particular challenge, people came together, and wonderful things happened. News of the Republic challenge reached outlets all over the world, including news and print media across Missouri, the Guardian UK, the New York Times book blog, Huffington Post, Slate, Jezebel, and tons of other places online and in print. Hundreds of bloggers helped spread the word about banned books, participating in and hosting giveaways of Speak, Slaughterhouse Five, Twenty Boy Summer, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, and other recently challenged books. People wrote editorials and emails and letters to the school board. College students staged protests and public readings. And the most heartbreakingly wonderful thing of all — people shared their personal stories about how Speak and books like it touched their lives, even decades after their own horrifying experiences with rape and abuse left them silenced.

The universe works in mysterious ways. By trying to hide our books, Wesley Scroggins pushed them right out into the light and brought authors, bloggers, librarians, teachers, readers, parents, publishers, and everyone who loves literature together in support of free choice. (And check this out… just a few nights after the news broke and the SpeakLoudly campaign took off, I was waiting to board a red eye from Denver. Just as we approached the gate, the door next to us opened to deplane an arriving flight. I watched the passengers march by as I told my husband about Speak, and the universe suddenly smiled down on us… Laurie Halse Anderson passed by me in the crowd. I couldn’t be certain it was her, because come ON! So I boarded my flight without saying hello. The next morning, however, I confirmed with Laurie via Twitter that it was in fact her — she’d been en route to Denver for a conference, and her plane was three hours delayed, causing us for a brief moment to be in the same place at the same time.

Laurie and I live like 2000 miles apart. What are the chances, right?!

Then again, what are the chances that because someone despised my work, I made tons of new Twitter and blogger friends, all of us standing up to support challenged books and continuing to bond over favorite reads and other literary hot topics? Yes — hate, hypocrisy, and censorship can be extremely divisive, but they can also be great unifiers, bringing people together who may not have otherwise met. Good chances or not, that’s exactly what happened last week.

You were all a part of it, and now I’m sending a special shout-out to you and everyone who made such an incredible difference in my life this week.

To my friends and fellow authors of the 2009 Debutantes who took a unified stand against censorship mere moments after the Twenty Boy Summer challenge news broke with the Debs Speak Loudly contest, thanks for having my back. If we lived in the wild West, you’d totally be my posse. Only instead of gunfights, we’d organize literary slams and reading duels. And rather than those uncomfortable old corsets and chaps, we’d rock our work PJs and yoga pants (I’m sorry I just outed everyone, but that’s the truth of the life as a glamorous author)! By the way, the winners of Debs Speak Loudly have been announced, so if you entered the contest, be sure to check your email or LJ messages to see if you’ve won!

Debs Speak Loudly

To my friends at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers who jumped in to support Debs Speak Loudly by donating even more copies of Twenty Boy Summer, thank you for your ongoing support, encouragement, and virtual hugs. Jen and Victoria, Anna and Frankie would definitely call you the cool Moms.

To Paul Hankins, who supported Twenty Boy Summer from the first whispers of a challenge and started the #SpeakLoudly campaign that quickly became an international movement, you are a rock star of a teacher. Together with David Macinnis Gill, Paul ensures that the hard work of supporting intellectual freedom and the right to speak loudly will continue long after the Republic challenge is resolved via Go check it out!

To the teachers of Republic and other school districts who tirelessly work for intellectual freedom in and out of the classroom, you’re an inspiration to students and readers everywhere, and I thank you for your passion and dedication. You may not be able to speak loudly about what’s going on behind closed doors, but we know you’re fighting for us, and we are grateful.

To the parents and readers of Republic who emailed their support and formed banned book clubs and discussion groups, who are creating blogs and films and editorials about speaking loudly, who encourage reading and free choice in their homes, thank you for showing us that Wesley Scroggins doesn’t speak for you.

To the bloggers, readers, booksellers, librarians, publishers, authors, friends, and book lovers everywhere who support authors and books through your blogs, your jobs, your hobbies, your recommendations, your words, thank you. As long as you’re here taking a stand, reading books, sharing them with the world, censorship will never get a firm hold in our communities.

To Ellen Hopkins, Sherman Alexie, Lauren Myracle, Chris Crutcher, and contemporary young adult authors everywhere who continue to write the important, hard stories even in the face of bigotry, hypocrisy, name-calling, and censorship, thank you for refusing to be silenced.

To Wesley Scroggins, who brought us all together despite his best efforts to divide. Thanks for reminding us how important it is to take a stand for intellectual freedom.

And finally, a special message for Laurie Halse Anderson: Speak is and will always be an inspiration, a voice, a truth, a lifesaver. Thank you for Melinda’s story. Thank you for speaking loudly.

Group hug, everyone. Group hug.


Yeah. That’s what I’m talking about. 🙂

Now, how about those Wesley Scroggins Filthy Books Prize Packs? Stay tuned for my next post to see who won!

Think Authors Profit From Book Banning?

[tweetmeme source=”sarahockler” only_single=false]Lots of people think that authors want to have our books challenged. We’ve all joked about the merits of stirring up a little controversy to boost sales, right? I know I have, because on the surface, yeah, it’s pretty cool to write a book that pisses someone off so badly he wants to hide it from everyone else. And that’s often the fastest way to ensure it will never be hidden. Banned books are discussed in the media, through social networks, in bookstores and libraries, in schools, at home, and soon people are flocking to stores and libraries to see what all the fuss is about. Sounds great for authors, right?


When Ellen Hopkins recently blogged about the experience of being booted (i.e., censored) from the Humble Teen Book Festival, some people accused her of intentionally trying to profit from the situation. I was shocked. I mean, Ellen obviously cares about teens. She cares about sharing powerful stories in ways that save lives. Why would she try to profit from a situation that was preventing her from interacting with the very teens who so desperately need her work? Why did these people find it appropriate to personally attack an author who’s trying to do some good for teens in this world? Baffling.

Ellen, of course, handled (and continues to handle, each time her books are challenged) the whole thing with class and determination, an example to us all. But it really got me thinking about how I might react if my book was ever challenged.

I never expected I’d get to test that theory so soon.

In reading about Ellen’s struggles against censorship, I came across a story about a conference in which Judy Blume spoke about book banning. An author in the audience jokingly asked her for tips on how to get his own book challenged, and Judy replied something like:

“Your book will be challenged. And you won’t like it.”

People laughed. But you know what? Aunt Judy was absolutely right.

Book Challenges Actually, Um, Suck

When I heard about Wesley Scroggins challenging Twenty Boy Summer as part of his 29-page manifesto against sex education, separation of church and state, evolution, and groundbreaking books like Speak and Slaughterhouse Five, I wasn’t excited at the prospect of increased sales. I didn’t do my happy dance at the thought of increased media exposure. Instead, my heart sank in a way I didn’t think possible over one man’s personal agenda. He said my work — something I’d put my heart and soul and years of my life into creating — was immoral, filthy, and un-Christian (the implication being that I personally am immoral, filthy, etc.). Ouch.

I don’t deny him the right to his opinion, and if he would’ve shared it in an email to me or a public book review on Goodreads, I would’ve shrugged it off, like I must with any negative review. But Scroggins didn’t post a review or give me the dreaded one-star rating on Amazon. He didn’t even read the book. He’s simply attempting to remove it — along with the other books — from the public school library. He’s attempting to infringe on the intellectual freedoms of the student body, parent children who are not his own, and disempower teens by sweeping the discussion and validation of their very real issues under the rug.

Essentially, the message he’s sending to kids in Republic, Missouri — including his own kids, who don’t even attend the public school — is this:

We don’t care about you. We don’t want to discuss your problems because they don’t exist. If you’re the victim or rape or assault, it’s your fault. Shut up. Do not SPEAK of it. And if you’re a “good, clean, moral, Christian kid,” you obviously aren’t capable of reasoned thought, because reading these books will brainwash you into experimenting with alcohol and sex when you otherwise wouldn’t have known these vices existed.

When the dust settles and this issue is resolved, whether the books are burned in the Republic school parking lot by Scorggins and his cronies, or put front and center on every bookshelf in the state by champions of literary choice, Scroggins’ attitude still disgusts me. It infuriates me. Hate me and my work all you want, but in this country, you don’t get to do it for other people. Calling for institutionalized censorship of any kind is an outrage, and Judy was right. I don’t like it one bit.

Now on to this so-called financial profiteering. I was inspired to blog about this today after reading this post: Book Banning for Profit.

I agree with the author’s point that the teachers standing up for our books in Republic should absolutely be involved in the conversation and in sharing their important perspectives on what’s going on inside the school walls. What incenses me about the article, however, is the assertion that Wesley Scroggins “might as well have written a check to those authors.” That the controversy has resulted in “money for a beautiful webpage called ‘Speak Loudly.’ Moving up 2,000 spots on the Amazon seller list.” The author goes on to say:

“Frankly, shouldn’t some of those who have co-opted this issue for their own profit write a thank you note to Mr. Scroggins and to the teachers of Republic. I think they can do better than send 20 books. These authors and supporters of YA lit do believe in protecting our right to read, but let’s not overlook the profit to be made from being a part of this conversation.”

Profit being made? I know that the Speak Loudly web site is a labor of love for founders David Macinnis Gill and Paul Hankins, who host and maintain the site out of their own pockets. Same goes for Paul and the #speakloudly campaign he so bravely spearheaded.

And as for my personal profits from this, well…

*scratches head*
*looks in wallet*
*looks under couch cushions*
*scratches head again*

Fuzzy Math

Donating copies of challenged books is not something authors do for profit or fame. We do it to ensure that readers still have access to books that are being challenged or banned and to meet a library’s newly increased demand for books that are suddenly being debated and discussed in the local media.

Consider the numbers here. I can’t speak for Laurie, but for me, to donate 20 paperback copies of Twenty Boy Summer out of my own pocket, I’d have to sell more than 200 paperback copies at full price at my current royalty rate to cover my purchase and shipping costs. To donate hardcovers, I’d have to sell almost 400 of those copies. And since Twenty Boy Summer is my first book and I haven’t yet earned out my initial advance, I won’t see any royalties for quite a while, despite the momentary jump in sales this controversy may have sparked. So while I’m grateful that Wesley Scroggins has brought my book and the others into the spotlight despite his attempts to bury them, thereby earning me some new readers who might never have otherwise heard about Twenty Boy Summer, that spotlight won’t last forever, and it won’t pay my bills. If it did, I certainly wouldn’t be celebrating the long-term notoriety and increased cash flow. I’d be stocking up on duct tape and canned goods because folks, if a quiet little book like mine can be challenged or banned on that level, free society as we know it is over.

Time is Money

I’m self-employed. Writing, whether its fiction or corporate freelance, is my sole source of income. My corporate rates are upwards of $100 an hour. Since Scroggins publicly voiced his opinion, I’ve spent entire work days — going into week two, actually — not working on my usual income-generating projects, but responding to emails, phone and print interview requests, Tweets, blog posts, news article commentary, and other information requests sparked by the news in Missouri. I’m happy to be involved in defending intellectual freedom and proud to be in such good company as Laurie Halse Anderson and Kurt Vonnegut, and I won’t deny that all this effort has increased visibility for my book. But to earn back my full investment on the time I’ve spent managing this issue, I’d have to sell over 5,000 full price copies of Twenty Boy Summer (and counting). When you’re not Stephenie Meyer or J.K. Rowling, that’s a lot of books, my friends.

War is Good for the Economy

Yes, book challenges are controversial and controversy increases publicity, which often increases sales. But saying that authors are eager to profit from challenges or bans is a bit like saying war is good for the economy. Whenever a book is challenged, someone — either in an official capacity or not — is advocating the challenge of basic intellectual freedoms and free choice. Someone is advocating his or her personal right to make reading decisions for other people. Someone is advocating censorship. It doesn’t matter if challenged books see a bump in sales when the sole reason for that bump is a potential loss of freedom, realized or not.

As an author of a recently challenged book, I will not trade freedom for profit. And I wouldn’t trade freedom for profit, even if the math was on my side.[tweetmeme source=”sarahockler” only_single=false]

I Speak Loudly for SPEAK: Video

[tweetmeme source=”sarahockler” only_single=false]
After sharing many thoughts on the Wesley Scroggins wingnuttery here and here, I have a few more things to say today as part of Hot Topic Tuesday with The Contemps, specifically in defense of Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK.

(Cheers to fellow writer, friend, and Lighthouse faculty member Jennifer Itell, who introduced me to SPEAK several years ago as part of our young adult novel workshop curriculum. Jenny knows a kick ass book when she sees it, and thanks to her, so do I.)

Here’s what the Anderson’s bookshop sexy librarian and I have to say about SPEAK:

Hugs to all of you for your ongoing support and encouragement!