Archive for July 8, 2011

Bad Words in Books: Censorship, and Self-Censorship, in Children’s Literature

I recently did an interview — honestly forget where, but it was with a middle-school reader — who asked the following question about Bystander:

Q. What was the reason you added some questionable or inappropriate words?

I replied:

I don’t understand the question. I think the word “ass” is in the book a couple of times. Was there anything else? Given what’s on television, and in PG movies, and in middle school buses and playgrounds, I’m sure the language in my book is extremely restrained and tame. When someone smashes his thumb with a hammer, the typical reaction is stronger than, “Oh, gee, golly darn,” and as a writer you have to decide whether to be true or false to that moment. Often it’s a matter of degree. In Bystander, again, there are no curse words — and I contend that it’s far tamer than most middle school playgrounds.

I don’t know that my answer is all that great. I find myself unable to give pithy answers to deep questions, since as a thinker I tend to circle and circle back, over and again, nuancing the damn thing to death. I faced this issue far more seriously with my debut YA novel, Before You Go (Spring, 2012), where there were no rules governing what could be included in the book. I was free to color outside the lines, because there were no lines. “Anything goes,” my editor, Liz Szabla, told me. Ultimately, I had to decide what I needed for this particular book, and what I personally wanted to put out into the world. And, yes, certainly: I had to at least consider the gatekeepers, whether certain choices might keep my book out of classrooms and school libraries. This included issues not only of language, but drug use, sex, jokes, interior thoughts, etc. It becomes a balancing act of “how true,” and “how much,” and “why.” I ended up following the basic principle of, a little bit goes a long way. But I respect writers who take it as far as they need to go to get it right, to be true, or real, or relatable.

Tricky stuff involving censorship, self-censorship, and our responsibility (the ethics) of being an adult working in the broad, vast, ever-expanding field of “children’s literature,” whatever that is. I don’t have the answers. But I am learning the questions.

By the way, I have to recommend that you check out this link, from a blog post by Laurel Snyder, that addresses many of the above issues (as they pertain to the recent YA brouhaha caused by this WSJ article by Meghan Cox Gurdon). Great job, Laurel, balanced, poised, beautifully said.

Overheard: “I Love You, Maggie!”

Maggie is amazing. She’s in the summer of her life, between 4th and 5th grade, healthy, strong, happy, popular.

She’s my third child, after two boys, so there’s always a degree of otherness to Maggie. She’s from the other side, across the tracks, an exotic creature, a girl. I don’t and can’t relate to her in the same way as I do with her brothers. With Nick and Gavin, I can sometimes crawl into their skin and say, “I know exactly how they feel. I’ve been exactly there.” But with Maggie, there’s always a little leap, even if it’s only a synaptic gap.

Which is why I’ve always identified with this page from Charlotte Zolotow:

Lisa overheard our daughter talking with her friend, Jenna. They’d been going to basketball camp together, arranging play dates, sleep-overs. Entwined. And as they were parting, Jenna called out, “I love you, Maggie!”

Maggie answered, “I love you, too!”

It was natural, relaxed, immediate, real. I mean, there was nothing phony about it. Nothing premeditated. That’s how they feel about each other and, so, they said so.

How nice.

This has never happened with my boys. No judgment, I’m just saying. If Gavin or Nick loved one of his friends (which is entirely possible, even probable), 1) I don’t think he’d say so, and; 2) I’m not sure he’d know it exactly in that way or in those words. Wired differently, I guess.

I’ll have to think about this one some more. Is it harder for a boy to tell another boy that he loves him? As men, is that something we lack? I love you, dude. Right back atcha, bro.

Thoughts, comments?

Poetry Friday: “Forgetfulness” by Billy Collins, as read by Bill Murray

I discovered this poem in a curious way — a clip of Bill Murray, ever cool, reading it aloud at some event somewhere. I mean to say, I clicked on it to hear Bill Murray recite a poem, because he’s always interesting in subtle ways, but came away with this incredible poem, “Forgetfulness” by Billy Collins.

Hey, I am 50. I know that’s not supposed to be a big deal nowadays, it’s the new 37! Oh please, spare me. It’s 50, don’t deny me those years, these lines on my face. And as my friend told me, while we both toiled under barbells at the YMCA, “Look at it this way. You’re more than halfway to dead.”

Murray does a fine job reading it, though the audience strikes me as too keyed to the humor — it’s Bill Murray, they are dying to laugh — and I read it more wistfully. That sense of things slipping away, my past: my future.

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The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.