Saturday, September 25, 2010

SPEAK Loudly (and Banned Book Week)

On September 18, 2010 an opinion piece was printed in the Springfield, Missouri News-Leader. The post was by a man named Wesley Scroggins (a Dickensian name if I've ever heard one).

In it, Scroggins, an associate professor of marketing at Missouri State University*, criticises several books: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler, and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. He labels them "filthy" and advises the Republic school district get rid of them (never mind the fact that he homeschools his kids, so this has no effect on him**).

I could recount the entire sordid business for you, but instead I am going to send you on a little scavenger hunt, here to read what Scroggins wrote and to read Laurie Halse Anderson's response on her blog, "This Guy Thinks SPEAK Is Pornography" and Sarah Ockler's reaction, "On Book Banning, Zealots, and Ostriches". I'd give you a link for Kurt Vonnegut too, but he passed away in 2007. He can't speak up about this anymore, so the rest of us will for him.

The book world sprang to action. Indiana English teacher Paul Hankins started a Twitter feed #SpeakLoudly to protest Scroggins' desire to ban Speak, Twenty Boy Summer, and Slaughterhouse Five. Sarah Ockler held a contest challenging people to Speak Loudly in their community and online and tell her what they did in support of the Speak Loudly campaign for a chance to win a "Wesley Scroggins Filthy Books Prize Pack!" I love her sense of humor. Speak Loudly has since evolved into a larger movement. Hankins now has a Speak Loudly website dedicated to fighting book banning. Among other things, has compiled as many anti-Speak-banning blog entries as possible and their collection is still growing. He's done an amazing job on this. Paul Hankins is now added to my list of Book Heroes.

I should have written this entry up last week, but I confess, I was in shock.

I mean, I get Slaughterhouse Five. Mostly because it's been banned before. Widely. It's about a war and it's pretty violent. But it was taught in three separate college courses I took AND I read it in high school, because that's how good it is. Sure, it's rough. It's a book about war. And poor Billy Pilgrim has a rough go of it. He's sent overseas, he fights in the Battle of the Bulge, he's separated from his unit, and he's taken prisoner by Germans. Who steal his shoes! So he's barefoot--in WINTER! From that point, Billy is moved to a P.O.W. camp in a former slaughterhouse in Dresden. Dresden is then bombed. Extensively. The city is reduced to a smoking crater, comparable to the surface of the moon. This actually happened during WWII, and Vonnegut was there. In fact, he was cut off from his unit and taken to the same POW camp Billy is sent to. Then he witnessed the bombing of Dresden. He called the experience, "utter destruction" and "carnage unfathomable." Vonnegut's novel reflects the brutality he experienced. It's hard to read, but it HAPPENED. Slaughterhouse Five is a classic. Students read it, study it, and walk away with a greater understanding of war. But it still gets banned a lot.

I don't even get the whole Twenty Boy Summer banning. Why? I don't even think Scroggins read the book. But then, I doubt he read any of them. It sounds more like he had someone point out all the scenes that they had problems with, and he just summarized them. But Twenty Boy Summer is about the loss of a loved one, not wild teenage party fun. There are books dedicated only to partying teenagers, but Twenty Boy Summer isn't one of them. Sarah Ockler explains:

I’m not going to spend a lot of time defending my book other than to say what those who’ve read it already know — despite its lighthearted title, TBS is not about parties and sex. It’s about two girls struggling in the aftermath of a major tragedy, with grieving parents and unfamiliar situations and secrets that threaten to kill their friendship. It’s a scary world for them, and my job as a writer is to tell their story honestly, without judgment. And I know I’ve done my job because I hear from teens who’ve experienced devastating loss, and they tell me how much the book meant to them or how they could relate to the characters more than they can relate to their own friends sometimes. One email like that is all I needed to know that I did what I set out to do.

And Speak?

Of all the YA novels I've read in my lifetime, I can think of not one other novel that has had a more positive impact than Speak. Rape isn't an easy thing to talk about. Some victims go years before ever sharing their experience with someone else or getting help. In the novel, Melinda begins her freshman year alone, shunned by her friends because she called the police while at a party over the summer. What her friends don't know is that Melinda made the call because she was raped. She begins the school year a selective mute, unable to admit what happened to her. By the end of the year, Melinda finds the strength to speak out against her attacker and opens up to her art teacher (I love her art teacher).

Speak is one of the most vitally important works of young adult literature out there. It opens a line of dialogue in the home, the classroom, between friends, and I've even heard of it being used therapeutically. Reading many of the blogs Speak fans have posted this week, I have been awestruck at how much good Speak has done. Now more than ever, it is clear that no library should be without it. Melinda didn't just get her own voice back; she gave others back their voices too.

Laurie Halse Anderson wrote a response to Scroggins' opinion piece. It's a must-read.

The fight to keep Speak in Republic Schools is making good progress, thanks to Speak Loudly and the hundreds of blogs individuals have contributed. You can read another News-Leader article, in which Scroggins tries to convince us he didn't call Speak pornography, despite the fact he did, both in his editorial (link up above) and in his original complaint to the school board. But we can't just stop caring about this issue now that things are looking up.

Books are banned all over our country constantly. Textbooks are rewritten to avoid hot topics (Maureen Johnson was just talking about textbook censoring yesterday). Authors are uninvited to speaking engagements (it's happened to Ellen Hopkins twice). Banned Book Week starts today. It's our yearly reminder that we can't just shrug our shoulders when someone tries to take a book away from us. Books are ideas; books are powerful. No one should ever be able to take away the freedom to read.

Have you seen my bookshelf? Good luck taking my books away. They go with me to the grave. Maybe if someone is really nice, I'll give them away in my will instead of insisting that they line my coffin so I can take them with me to the afterlife, ancient-Egypt-style.

To Wesley Scroggins, I give my favorite piece of U.S. war propaganda:

Even though I am a pacifist, I really like this poster.

This week I encourage you to celebrate Banned Book Week by reading Speak, Twenty Boy Summer, Slaughterhouse Five, or another banned book (I recommend Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian). You can find a title here, on the ALA's list of challenged and banned books from 2009-2010. Here is their list of banned classics.

You can also get involved in Speak Loudly by visiting the organizations website and by using the #SpeakLoudly tag on Twitter, writing about how Speak and other banned books have changed your life, and by talking to your teachers, parents, and friends.

I hope to see lots of banned books getting checked out next week!

*What does that job title say to me? It says, "Smart enough to be a college professor means smart enough to KNOW BETTER."

**This is according to every resource I've found, including the Springfield News-Leader and Sarah Ockler's website. If I discover otherwise or can clarify this further, I'll let you know.

Picture courtesy of Creative Commons, was a WWII propaganda poster released by the U.S. Department of War Information.

Note: This is my personal rant. As with all the other blogs I write here, I'm sharing my own opinions, not the library's official stance on any issue. Sorry I have to put this in here, but such is the world we live in.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this with your patrons and for taking a stand. Happy Banned Books Week! :-)

Sarah Ockler
Author of Twenty Boy Summer

wabashteens said...

Sarah, you are amazing--Thanks so much for reading and commenting! Happy Banned Books Week to you as well!