It does not go away.
Last week I received an email from wildly-popular YA author Ellen Hopkins (Crank, Impulse) letting me know that she had been “uninvited” to the 2011 Teen Lit Fest in Humble, Texas. Ellen made it clear that she was majorly pissed-off about it.
The biennial Teen Lit Fest (TLF) in Humble (a suburb of Houston) has become one of the premier teen literature festivals in the country. By all accounts, it is a friendly, well-organized event where teens can meet their favorite authors, and authors can connect with their teen readers. The high school and middle school librarians behind the event are a passionate and dedicated group with a deep love of teen literature.
Events like TLF are one of the best ways to encourage reading in teens, and they are important to authors as a way to get exposure for their books. When I was invited to be one of the featured authors at TLF 2011, and offered a generous honorarium to do so, I was thrilled.
Then I got that email from Ellen.
Censorship of children’s literature can take many forms. In its most blatant incarnation, books are removed from classrooms and libraries. Thankfully, this does not happen often. But there are more insidious forms of censorship.
In Ellen Hopkins’ case, she was invited to TLF, she accepted…and then, a few months later, the invitation was rescinded. Apparently, “several” parents were disturbed by the content of Ellen’s books, and objected to having her at the festival. They brought their concerns to the festival organizers, and one (one!) school librarian agreed with their concerns, and recommended to the school superintendent that Ellen be asked not to come. The superintendent went along with the one (one!) librarian’s recommendation. I believe that virtually every other librarian in the Humble ISD was embarrassed and furious over this decision.
Although Ellen might understandably take this matter very personally, it really has nothing whatsoever to do with the content or quality of her work. Whether she writes well or responsibly is immaterial. I wrote a post a couple of years ago addressing that issue.
What is important is that a handful of people – the superintendent, the one (one!) librarian, and “several” (three? five?) parents – took it upon themselves to overrule the vast majority of teachers and librarians and students who had chosen one of the most popular YA authors in America to be their headliner.
That is a form of censorship as damaging and inexcusable as setting fire to a library.
Over the past fifteen years of visiting schools and libraries I have been “uninvited” on two occasions. It is a terrible thing to be told by educators that your life’s work is “inappropriate” for its intended audience. In both cases, I did nothing. I didn’t want to further embarrass the librarians who had invited me - they were already mortified. I just wanted to leave a sour experience behind and get on with the next thing.
I now believe that was a mistake. The political and philosophical problem of censorship, in all its forms, harms all of us, and each of us has a responsibility to fight it. I cannot help but think that those same people who objected to Ellen Hopkins’ work might find some of my books equally disturbing.
And you know what’s really scary? Here is how the Humble ISD superintendent responded to a letter from one of the librarians who objected to his decision:
“…there are more authors that we would want at our Teen Lit Fest than we could ever have enough Teen Lit Fests to accommodate.”
Apparently he subscribes to the commodities model of educating our children. Creeps me out something fierce.
A few years ago, at a National Book Awards banquet, I met Judy Blume. She had just delivered a passionate speech about censorship. I joked, “Hey Judy, how do I get MY books challenged? I think it would be good for sales.” Judy was not amused. She looked at me and said, in a voice as dry as ash, “It will happen, and you will not like it.” She was right on both counts.
And so, as one of the other participating authors, I felt that the right thing to do was to withdraw from the festival, and so I did.
At least one of the other authors, Melissa de la Cruz, has also withdrawn from the festival. I don’t yet know about the other five.*
This whole business makes me sad. There are, I don’t know, maybe a hundred thousand or more good people in the Humble school district. They should be mad as hell, every one of them.
*UPDATE (8/16): Tara Lynn Childs has also withdrawn from the festival.
UPDATE (8/17): Matt de la Pena has withdrawn.
UPDATE: Festival canceled. Very sad.
UPDATE: I have decided to give up writing to become an actor. Click here for a sample.
The illustration above was created in five minutes on my iPad using a really cool little app called Brushes.