Normally I’m not too interested in entering political debates over literature and culture. Suffice it to say that most literary scholars are firmly left of liberal and that I usually agree with their politics; but when it comes to discussing cultural theory and interpretation, I’m often the conservative in the room. More on that some other day. Maybe.
I’m also not too interested in young adult literature. I don’t have children, and Harry Potter, for some reason, just doesn’t speak to me. My idea of great writing for young people runs from Shirley Jackson’s psycho-horror to Uruguayan Horacio Quiroga’s brutally naturalist tales. (His most famous, “Juan Darién,” portrays a boy changed to a tiger who is literally hunted down, tortured and left for dead by the rural community that fears him.) When I read Lord of the Flies at age 16, I thought it was too cartoonish to be taken seriously.
Today I make an exception because, well, who can escape it? The madness possessing school boards and parent groups to ban books in an effort to “protect” their children has more or less engulfed us all. Why should I care about a bunch of arguably paranoid (and more arguably bigoted) parents in Tennessee who want Maus kept out of their schools? Why should any of us? Because, to paraphrase Martin Niemöller regarding the Holocaust, I want there to be someone to speak out when they come for me.
The specific case that really caught my attention was All Boys Aren’t Blue by George Matthew Johnson, a black gay author whose personal memoir seems to have instantly turned high school and middle school librarians into criminals conspiring to pervert the youth of America. This title erupted onto my Facebook page when a deeply conservative friend of mine posted an excerpt from it, declaring it “the single most depraved thing I have seen, maybe ever. Indoctrinating children into accepting incest, let alone gay incest, as normal?” I quickly ascertained that neither my friend nor any of the score of concerned parents on her thread had actually read the book. Her criticism was based on that single half-page excerpt describing the narrator’s forced seduction by his older male cousin. (Which, I might add, is one of the most remarkable passages in the book, not so much for its content as for its being in a second-person accusatory narration.) And since it is not enough to object to the book’s supposed smuttiness, these critics have determined that Matthews is a contributor to the Great Critical Race Conspiracy aimed at indoctrinating the nation’s children.
So, unlike my Facebook interlocutors, I read the book. Not only is it not particularly explosive or shocking, it is not particularly new, novel or revelatory in any way. It is unevenly written at best; parts of it are funny, parts are far too preachy and much of it is tedious. Why would anyone care that the author’s identity was somehow profoundly shaken by discovering that his first name was George, not Matthew? A childhood friend of mine, now retired after a forty-year career teaching high school English and deeply interested in the problem of school book banning, agreed that 95% of high school students would never pick up the book, much less find anything objectionable in it.
Ah, but that other five percent. They would certainly find nothing titillating in that ostensibly pornographic passage, and I should know. But for the kids who find nobody with whom to talk about their “differentness”—because she’s black in a 95% white community, because he’s gay in a community where Evangelical Christianity is the norm, because they feel God played a dirty trick on them by making them a boy—this book could save a life. I should know that too.
This is precisely why the book belongs in a high school library—for where else would a desperate kid be likely to find it? It is precisely why a school board, superintendent of schools or parent group has no moral authority to demand the book’s removal. Because the people who really matter—the kids for whom the book is written and the teachers and librarians who teach those kids—understand its importance. This is why, forty years ago, the Supreme Court, in Island Trees v. Pico, determined that the First Amendment limits the power of junior high and high school officials to remove books from school libraries because of their content, and the students themselves have the standing to sue the school board over book banning. (Full disclosure: Steve Pico happens to be a friend of mine.) And no, my conservative friend, the argument that I don’t have children and thus don’t understand the authority parents should have to “defend” them doesn’t cut it. I know plenty of children I would lay down my life for, quite literally—I’m sure we all do. It is because I care for these children that I want their teachers and librarians to be the gatekeepers of their intellectual and yes, moral, well-being. Not only should the kids have legal standing, the books themselves should have it. Which is why we need to keep reading them.