Thursday, March 4, 2010

Deja Vu All Over Again

Key West - they're at it again and this time right in my backyard at the Sugarloaf School, on Sugarloaf Key, about 20 miles from Key West on US 1. That's right -- a parent has challenged Forever, charging that distributing the book to minors is a felony under Florida law and that it also constitutes sexual harassment. Huh? She doesn't believe in censorship, she says, but she wants the book removed anyway. She's holding the librarian responsible, as a student checked the book out of the school library, then read aloud passages from it on a school bus.

Welcome to the world of school buses. What your child doesn't learn at home, he/she is sure to learn on the school bus. This parent doesn't want any student to have access to Forever. Sugarloaf School goes through 8th grade. The best time to read Forever is before a student is sexually active. Then there's time to talk, to think, to weigh the pros and cons, to consider the consequences. There will be a hearing in the next weeks to decide what to do -- remove the book from the school library's YA collection; limit (by age/grade) the students who can access the book; or leave it on the shelf where it is.A reporter from the local paper, the Key West Citizen, called me for comments. I explained to him that the book is a love story about two 18 year olds, seniors in high school. The first sentence in his article in the next day's edition of the paper referred to Katherine and Michael as pre-teens. Was he listening? I mean, what's going on? I thought about writing a letter to the editor but don't want to escalate the situation. It's not as if we haven't been through this before.

I've put the teacher who contacted me, and the school media specialist, in touch with Joan Bertin of the National Coalition Against Censorship. And I've sent them a letter, along with some recent e-mails from readers about the book. I asked if I could attend the meeting but was told it probably won't be open to the public. The school seems to have its policy in place for dealing with challenges to books. I applaud them for that.

A couple of the best teachers I know lost their jobs for defending books and their students' rights to read them back in the 90's. Two were in the state of Florida. One, Gloria Pipkin, wrote a book about her experience - At the Schoolhouse Gate: Lessons in Intellectual Freedom.

And now, today, comes news from Riverside, CA that there's been a challenge to the dictionary for including the words oral sex. They're considering removing all the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionaries from classrooms. Gee, Forever doesn't even include those words. When I wrote the book in 1975 oral sex wasn't winning any Teens Choice award. No rainbow parties for Katherine and Michael. Katherine and Michael were in love, they acted responsibly, and now they're being bashed for it.

Update: The committee at the Sugarloaf School voted to retain Forever in its YA collection. Thank you to everyone on that committee who stood up for the students. And thank you to Joan Bertin and the NCAC for their thoughtful letter.

And can you believe this one? Barnes&Noble online has contracted with an organization called Common Sense to rate books for parents who have concerns about contents. Read a great post about this on

got the green light for kids 14 and up! Readers younger than 14 received the yellow light -- proceed with caution. Most kids are reading Margaret at 10. I can't imagine a 14 year old reading it for the first time. I wish parents could make these decisions for themselves, not depend on some rating system. Common sense is the tool every parent needs. Not an organization calling itself Common Sense.

Some people think the Common Sense website is fundamentally misguided, in creating categories that essentially label certain kinds of content “inappropriate” for kids under a specific age. I will have to check further but at this point I agree. And this isn't about only my books. Your favorite books might get a yellow or red light, too. It's all about fear, about not trusting your own judgment, and certainly not trusting your young readers to choose the books they want to read.

When my daughter was 12 she wanted to read Portnoy's Complaint, recently published and endlessly discussed in our family. She was a reader and she was curious. I suggested she wait a few years when it might make more sense to her but she really, really wanted to read it now. What to do? I gulped and told her okay, but to please come to me with her questions. She took it from the shelf and ran off with it to her bedroom. Ten minutes later she was back. Bor-ing! she said, putting the book back on the shelf. I knew what that meant -- there's something in this book that makes me uncomfortable. I don't want to read it.

Meg Cabot has also blogged about Common Sense and Meg is the one who alerted me to the situation.

If it's true that has removed or revised the Common (Non)Sense info
for parents, as the Salon story suggests, then Yay! And thanks to all the writers who got involved (Sarah Dessen, Rachel Vail, Meg Cabot are three I know who took a stand). And thanks to Kate Harding at And to the librarians who've spoken out on behalf of young readers everywhere.

Next post -- soon, I hope! How I Spent My Birthday. And no, it wasn't blowing out all those candles on a cake.
xx Judy