Keep Safe, Read Dangerously: Why We Need Provocative YA More Than Ever

by Lauren Saft

So it’s Banned Books Week, and I feel like I have heard more about banned books in the last three months than I have in the last ten years, which seems counterintuitive when you think about how time is supposed to be related to progress. In 2015, you’d think that banning books would be an adorable piece of nostalgia, entombed in cautionary tales about towns that don’t allow dancing, but alas, there is still a town in Kentucky that doesn’t allow dancing, and books are still being banned. Just this summer, Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers was banned at West Ashley High School in Charleston after one, yes one, mother penned a letter to the principle deeming it “smut.” And just within the last few weeks, New Zealand has banned Into the River by Ted Dawe on the grounds of “offensive language” and “gratuitous sexual imagery.” You know, things that are otherwise unavailable to kids who ever leave the house. Over the course of the last decade, a decade in which fame and fortune is found as a result of a sex tape — a universally available, downloadable sex tape — more than 5,000 books were challenged. There were 311 challenges reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2014 alone. In the same world where Kim Kardashian’s fully naked body is as easily accessed as the weather, the wisdom and words of prolific and important writers like Sherman Alexie, Toni Morrison, and Stephen Chobsky are being ripped from the hands of children.

In the same world where Kim Kardashian’s fully naked body is as easily accessed as the weather, the wisdom and words of prolific and important writers like Sherman Alexie, Toni Morrison, and Stephen Chobsky are being ripped from the hands of children.

Let me just state for the record that I do not have children. I, however, do write books, arguably provocative books, for young adults. I do this, and write articles like these, because I was once young and curious about and voraciously entertained by the salacious underbelly of adulthood that inevitably seeped up into my adolescence whether I was ready for it or not. Melanie MacDonald’s main argument for why Some Girls Are is not a valid summer reading choice is because it is “smut,” as if the word itself is synonymous with “dangerous.” For the record, it’s not. Smut’s actual definition is “a small flake of soot or other dirt.” That’s it. That’s what it actually means. It’s just a little bit of soot or dirt. The term that’s come to describe work that provokes outrage, ignites campaigns for its extermination — is actually, etymologically, something that never hurt anyone; something necessary, something inevitable, and something that kids are told to put their shiny screens down to play in. Dirt, as well as being innocuous, is also an unavoidable part of life on a planet covered in it. It’s natural; it happens, and really, is almost so on the nose as a metaphor that I feel puerile extrapolating it. By banning “smut” this women is saying that we should ban dirt, rather than take the time to teach children not to be scared of it, and thus how to deal with it by say, handing them a broom and a rag. Do I need to take this all the way by pointing out that banning dirt would be impossible and ridiculous? Good, I didn’t think so. Dirt, a.k.a. the unpleasant mess that existence makes, is inescapable, normal, and something that everyone will have to deal with eventually. Smut = dirt = shit happens = important things for kids to learn.

New Zealand didn’t use this exact word when banning Dawe’s book, but the idea that “offensive language” and “gratuitous sexual content” would be grounds for banning a book is equally as moronic when you break down the meanings of those words too. “Offense” is defined as either “a breach of a law or rule; an illegal act” — last time I checked, cursing wasn’t against the law, so not that one — or “annoyance or resentment brought about by a perceived insult to or disregard for oneself or one’s standards or principles” — so, that one. Okay, let’s break that down. A book has been banned because someone has been “annoyed” by someone else’s “perceived disregard for [their] standards or principles.” By this standard, slow walkers, Anne Hathaway, rap songs with children’s choirs in the background, inspirational quotes, adult women obsessed with pink, vaguely racist memes, and hashtags like #helikeditsoheputaringonit #immarryingmybestfriend! are all banned.

All you have to do is perceive insult to one’s standards or principles, and ban! Man, if only I’d known this rule sooner! Bye-bye duckface selfies and bread baskets served with cold butter — see ya never!

Second, Melanie Macdonald hadn’t even finished the book before she started her smear campaign! By page 74 of this award-winning novel, MacDonald had claimed that she “objected to the book’s depiction of underage alcohol and drug use, sexual assault, a lecherous male teacher, ‘body shaming about the size of the lead character’s breasts, and then a sexual reference so explicit that [she] will not reference it here.’”

At page 74, she’s seen about a corner of the author’s full painting. That’s like saying you hate a whole country when you haven’t even made it out of the airport.

The most serious item in her laundry list is her casual objection to the depiction of sexual assault. This is one of the matters of controversy in Dawe’s book too, and to me, this is where the idea of banning books crosses over from dumb to dangerous. What MacDonald fails to understand is that by depicting sexual assault at all, Summers and Dawe are taking a stand against it.

What MacDonald fails to understand is that by depicting sexual assault at all, Summers and Dawe are taking a stand against it.

We are so deeply drowning in our rape culture at this point that simply talking about it is a heroic act and should be applauded and lauded as positive for both young girls and boys. The worst and most dangerous part of the culture surrounding sexual assault (especially the high school brand) is the shame associated with it and that people are encouraged not to talk about it. Authors need to depict it, kids need to see it in pop culture, in books they read, in movies they watch to know that this happens and it is not your fault; you’re not alone. By introducing books and guided, educated conversation about sexual abuse into schools, kids learn that their teachers and parents are not afraid to talk about it — so they shouldn’t be, either.

She also objects to the depiction of “underage drinking, body shaming, lecherous teachers, and the sexual reference so explicit” she wouldn’t even dare grasp her pearls and utter such devilry (for the record, said devilry is a blow job). New Zealand had similar problems with “offensive language” in regards to topics like racism and bullying. This particular string of objections brings me to the idea of safety. Because isn’t that the big thing, parents? Safety? Isn’t that what parents ultimately want for children? I’m going to let all you parents in on a little secret: a book is the absolute safest place your child can wrestle with these topics.

You can ban all the books you want, put your parental controls on the cable and the Internet, keep your children ignorant of society’s evils, but you cannot stop these things from existing. You can try to stop your kids from hearing about these things, seeing these things, but you can’t stop them from existing, and realistically, you probably can’t really stop your child from seeing or hearing about them either. Even if your child knows better, has a stiff moral code, would never, could never, there will always be kids who drink, teachers who cross the line, assholes who will slut-shame and body shame and race shame your daughters and sons, and there will always be, and I’m gonna utter it, blowjobs. And of all the ways that your child could first encounter these things, of all the ways they could go about satiating their curiosity about these things, which despite your moral opposition to them, I promise you, they do have — isn’t a book your most appealing option? When asked about his book being banned, Dawe said, “There comes a stage in the life of a child where they make the transition to adulthood, they have to walk free of their family, have to walk into spaces which may be dangerous.”

A YA book is the first place a child can really be independent; it’s a place where they might see and hear about things that might scare them, but luckily for parents, it’s a place where a child literally cannot get hurt.

Summers’ book was replaced on the West Ashley reading list by A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which is a gloriously wonderful book, and everyone should read it — but it was written in 1943 about a girl growing up in an immigrant community in the midst of the industrial revolution and World War I. This is a worthwhile book in many ways that still has much to teach us today, but there are a lot of things that kids today will face that are dealt with nowhere in this, I reiterate again, wonderful book. There is not only room, but a necessity for both books in today’s classrooms.

The final pillar of my opinion editorial here is that teenagers should be encouraged to read almost regardless of subject, particularly about matters and people they won’t ever encounter or don’t encounter in their daily lives. West Ashley said that what drove them to choose Summers’ book in the first place was its entertainment value and readability, and I applaud them for putting value in entertaining their students. Entertainment is a powerful tool, and can be used to education’s advantage. An institution dedicated to teaching should encourage kids to be curious, to find relatable characters, as well as ones with whom they have nothing in common, and will most likely never meet in real life. Through a book, a teenager who’s never left their mostly white high school in their mostly Christian town has the opportunity to meet a diverse group of people suffering from and reveling in experiences he or she might never have access to. That in itself is an education. In a Tumblr post responding to the ban, Summers said:

…gritty, realistic YA novels offer a safe space for teen readers to process what is happening in the world around them, even if they never directly experience what they’re reading about. This, in turn, creates a space for teens and the adults in their lives to discuss these topics. Fiction also helps us to consider lives outside of our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic toward others.

No novelist intends to write a How-To book — they write books to be windows; windows out which parents and teachers should look with their students and ask, What do you think? How does this make you feel? What is your opinion? How would you handle something like this? Insisting that books must teach is a red herring. Because all books, no matter the subject, do. Every book has something to say about someone else’s experience that we did not know before, and that in and of itself, is educational. If a book scares you, if a character’s experience in it makes you uncomfortable — all the more reason why it’s important to read.

So in conclusion, banning books is dumb and dangerous, as proved by the pure lexicon of its troubadours. I’d like to wrap up with a call to the kids out there to take a stand against banned books — read a book this week that someone told you not to! When you read it, think about why they didn’t want you to, what in it scared them, and what that means to you, going forward in a world where you know this scary thing exists. The adults in your life just want to keep you safe from harm, so look both ways when you cross the street, always wear a helmet when you ride your bike, and don’t be afraid to read dangerously, because it’s literally the safest thing you can do.

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