Save a Book, Burn a Village! It’s Banned Book Week!






As a person who abhors censorship and supports free thought and expression in all forms, Banned Book Week is one of my top favorite holidays. This is the time of year when we highlight those books that may terrify a small percentage of the population because of what they fear may happen if the information held within their pages is shared.

The horror! Run for the hills! Grab your pitchforks and torches! We must destroy what we don’t understand!

I obviously disagree. Knowledge isn’t inherently bad or good, it all depends on how you use it.

But I digress.Slaughterhouse Five

I’ll be celebrating this fantabulous holiday in a few ways, first by listening to a free audio version of Kurt Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, read by the author himself. I actually read it the first time when I was in high school. My dad had it lying around, probably found it falling out of an overstuffed bookcase, and the title or cover must’ve appealed to me. I don’t remember much except the last line of the book. If you’ve ever read it, I’m sure you know why. (I actually remember peeking ahead to see if it really ended like it said it did. I’m sure I’m not the only one.) I look forward to rediscovering this story, again. Listening to the tale in Vonnegut’s own voice will be an extra treat.

Learn more about Kurt Vonnegut here.

For the second way of celebrating, I turn to the American Library Association, who just released the yearly list of top ten frequently challenged books with the CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS (series) by Dav Pilkey in the number one spot. Reasons? Offensive language, unsuited for age group. Now, I’m pretty sure there are no curse words in CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS, so what could this offensive language be? And unsuited for age group? I can’t think of anyone that would be more suited to read a story about a superhero named Captain Underpants than kids. Who do they think would be more suitable? Adults?

What are they talking about? Someone please explain this insanity.

Capt UnderpantsHere’s the book synopsis from the author’s website:

Meet George and Harold, a couple of wise guys. The only thing they enjoy more than playing practical jokes is creating their own comic books. Together they have created the greatest comic-book superhero in the history of their elementary school – CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS! But George and Harold’s principal, mean old Mr. Krupp, doesn’t like their pranks OR their comic books. He’s cooked up a plan to catch George and Harold and stop their shenanigans – once and for all! This book is about what happened when that plan backfired, and Captain Underpants leaped off the page to save the day!

And here’s the story behind the story from the author’s website:

This book is based on a superhero that Dav Pilkey invented way back in 1973 when he was a second-grader. The comics that Dav made were very much like the comic book that George and Harold sell on the playground in Chapter 3.

When I began making children’s books in 1986, my goal was to one day make a book about Captain Underpants. I wrote several different versions of this story, including a 48-page comic book, but every publisher who saw it turned it down. When the book was finally accepted in 1996, it was a real dream come true!  Dav Pilkey

Many of the things in the book are taken directly from Dav’s childhood: the practical jokes, the comics, even the cheesy animation technique called “Flip-O-Rama” (Dav and his friends used to amuse themselves by making these flip-action animated pictures in elementary school).

Dav Pilkey had dyslexia when he was a kid. He was always discouraged by wordy texts, small type, and lengthy chapters.

My goal with The Adventures of Captain Underpants was to make a chapter book that SEEMED like a picture book.   So I wrote incredibly short chapters and tried to fill each page with more pictures than words. I wanted to create a book that kids who don’t like to read would want to read— Dav Pilkey


Nope. Just not seeing anything diabolical mob violence-worthy there. Guess I will take a chance and actually READ THE BOOK before passing judgment. Yes, in solidarity of Mon Capitan el de Underpants, I shall BBW14_Poster_200x300read the first book of this series, and maybe even while in my underpants. Cape optional.

Learn more about Dav Pilkey here.


What are you reading to celebrate?

Read Rebelliously! It’s Banned Book Week

Slideshow I was raised in a house where I was allowed to read whatever I wanted. When I ran out of books of my own, I perused my dad’s bookshelves and grabbed books from Vonnegut, Camus, and Updike to name a few. Nothing was off-limits and I’m so glad for that. I think one of the most patriotic things we can do in this country born of rebellion, born of independent thinkers who demanded to be heard and to be represented, is to always question things. Always quest for knowledge. Knowledge shouldn’t be denied because it isn’t pretty.

Catcher in the RyeThis year, to celebrate all of those lovely banned books that helped shape this rebellious country, I read The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. My husband bought it for me a few weeks ago after I mentioned the number of authors I admired who have discussed this book or the main character, Holden Caulfield, in their own books. I also mentioned that I’d never read it, myself.

Although I didn’t fall immediately in love with this book, I grew to appreciate it.

In these days of three act plays and definitive story and character arcs, I really struggled with where this story was taking me. I did find Holden’s character nicely flawed. Still, it was a very unusual portrayal of a teen. At first I didn’t know whether or not to find his stream of conscious ramblings endearing or annoying. It felt like listening to a one-sided conversation with my daughter when she’s off her ADHD meds. Not pretty.

By the second half of the book, I let go of any expectations and went along for the ride. Holden’s later more pensive and philosophical questionings I found insightful and worth exploring – many of these things we all think about, especially at that age. At least I know I did. Though, maybe I was a weird kid, too.

One thing that never bothered me was the use of strong language or discussion of sex. These issues always stayed within the context of character and relevance of the issue being discussed. Granted, I’m not easily offended by such things to begin with.

I enjoyed the book overall, enough to read it again. I actually think I need to read it a few more times, just to see the story as a whole, and then once more for it’s great little moments of insanity.

What book will you read for Banned Book Week?

Need suggestions? Check out these sites for some ideas:

Banned Books Week

American Library Association Banned & Challenged Books

Online Computer Library Center

List of 100 Most Banned Books

Teaching Kids Bad Manners Through Literature

When trying to write the kind of story you want to tell, and the kind of story kids want to hear, all sorts of pesky things can get in the way; rules of society, parents’ ideas of a “proper” story, censorship nazis, the list goes on and on.

JonScieszkaDuring the SCBWI Summer conference, John Scieszka (pronounced chess-kah), talked about this problem in his keynote address entitled The Importance of Being Subversive in Writing for Kids: Not Every Book Should Put You to Sleep. He said there are a lot of people between you and your audience; You have to get creative to sneak your ideas past them.

He told about how in his book, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, he told the tale from the wolf’s point of view. Nothing could be more subversive. He got to mess with everything – that’s what was so fun. little_pigsMy kids loved this book when they were little. Maybe that’s where they got the idea for the stories they told me whenever they got into trouble. It wasn’t me, Mom. Aliens used mind control and took over my body to make me spread peanut butter all over the television. I wouldn’t do something like that!

Just in case you haven’t read this book, here’s a quick summary:

“You may think you know the story of the Three Little Pigs. But you don’t know the whole story until you’ve heard A. Wolf’s side of the story. Mr. Wolf huffs, and he puffs, and he has a very bad sneezing cold. He also needs a cup of sugar to make a birthday cake for his dear, sweet granny’s birthday. Read and learn. Then decide for yourself–Big Bad Wolf . . . or media frame-up?” (Plot summary from author’s website.)

It may seem like just a funny story, (which it is) but I also think it plants the seeds of critical thinking and realizing there are two sides to every situation. Also, just because someone tells us we should believe them, doesn’t mean they are telling the truth. Scieszka manages to pull all of this off without beating kids over the head with a sickly sweet moral story. Fascinating.

stinky_cheeseDuring his talk, he also told about how The Stinky Cheese Man (a collection of subversive stories) received a monumental amount of rejections. One of the harsher rejections asked him to “please don’t send us anything ever again”. Ouch. Another suggested that “this isn’t really a great story to put kids to sleep.” He said he didn’t want to put kids to sleep.

The first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature (who won a Caldecott medal for that monumentally rejected book) told us this:

“You’re born being subversive. It gets beat out of you.”

Our duty is to stir kids up.

He says that you can get kids excited about reading by giving them the kinds of stories they want to read. One way he did this, besides writing a few subversive books himself, was to establish GUYS READ, a web-based literacy program for boys meant to address the declining interest in reading by boys. His GUYS READ website has a list of many books approved by boys themselves.

So the next time you find yourself censoring a crazy idea or trashing a storyline because no parent will buy it, think of Jon Scieszka and be subversive. Our kids need you to stir them up and get them excited about reading.

Shine on You Crazy Diamond – Some Book Love for Lauren Myracle’s Shine

Lauren Myracle is no stranger to controversy. She has been called Satan, Satan’s handmaiden, and many other colorful things, but lucky for us, she continues to write amazing books and with such a great attitude. Even when her book Shine was erroneously nominated for the National Book Award because it so closely resembled a similar title Chime by Franny Billingsly and all nomination discussions were conducted via telephone. After the initial announcement including both titles, Myracle was asked to withdraw her nomination to uphold the integrity of the award. While many of us may have cried foul and stomped our feet in anger, she handled the situation with grace.

Even when Myracle gets a book placed on the banned list, it doesn’t hover somewhere near the middle, trying to blend in with the other books, embarrassed to be there, like the prom queen caught out at 2 AM partying with the hard edge stoner girls, oh no!  It stands up tall and whoops out at the top of its lungs, “Yeah, I’m a free-spirit who can’t be contained, what of it? Now, who wants to party?!!”

In 2009 and 2011, her books were THE MOST challenged books in the country. Myracle said, “If you’re gonna be on a list, you might as well be No. 1.”  She doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects like sexuality, homosexuality, and alcohol abuse. She writes complex teen characters that explore these topics and respond like real teens would. Just the thing to get some parents seeing red. When asked about why she thought she was on the banned list, Myracle responded:

…most people who challenge a book haven’t actually read it. If you’re skimming it, words jump out at you: “fuck,” “penis,” “condom.” It triggers a set of reflexes.

I understand why parents worry about books—they’re worried about their kids. They want to keep their kids safe. But parents aren’t always realistic. One said to me, “I can’t believe you introduced my 13-year-old daughter to thong underwear.” I’m pretty sure she knows about them already. She probably owns a pair.

This reminded me of a story my daughter told me about a friend that actually made her own thong underwear out of the respectable panties her mother bought for her. I asked the only rational thing that popped into my head when given such classified information, “Wasn’t she scared that her mom would find them in her laundry?” I was then informed that the young girl in question started doing her own laundry. I’m sure her mom thought she had taken a responsible turn and didn’t think twice about it. Ah, the mind of a teenager. So devious. So resourceful.

Parents aren’t the only ones who try to protect our children from what they deem as harmful topics. Sometimes even well-meaning librarians who should know better than to censor books that could be helpful to the right student just can’t help being judgmental. Myracle recounted one incident in particular:

I remember going to a library once in Ohio. They had invited me, telling me, “We’d love to have you talk here.” But when I got there, a librarian said, “We don’t have your dirty books on display here.” I didn’t want to get into a fight, but I thought, “You should serve your population—kids have different needs.” I asked if they had a book called Thirteen Reasons Why, about a girl who commits suicide. She said, “Heavens no! It’s pro-suicide.” But it’s the opposite. The book shows how horrible it is for everyone when you take your life.

Kids are smart. Knowledge is power. Let them figure things out. Don’t turn into that grown-up who they won’t come to. (All quotes from Daily Beast article, April 11, 2012. See full article here.)

I wanna be this gal when I grow up!

Hell, yeah! that is my kind of author. I so wanna be Lauren Myracle when I grow up.

I was first introduced to her books a couple of  years ago when I picked up one of her “internet girls” IM series to see what all the fuss was about (and because I like to support banned book writers). After reading ttyl, the first in that series that is written entirely in texting dialogue, I was slightly underwhelmed. It wasn’t so much the texting format itself that bothered me, you adjust to it pretty quickly, I think it was more because all the action was happening off-stage, so to speak. We kept hearing about everything that was going on through the texting, but not really “seeing” it. For me, l liked it well enough and I could see the appeal to teens – it was almost like it was written in code just for them, talking about things they actually discussed when alone with their friends – but it didn’t hold the emotional punch that I desired. Undeterred, I decided to give her another try when Shine came my way and I’m so glad I did.

Emotional impact achieved.

This book , which is not written in text dialogue, but in a very convincing teen voice, follows the story of Cat, a young girl living in poverty in a rural North Carolina town. Her estranged best friend Patrick, the only openly gay teen in this backwater town, has just been beaten within an inch of his life in what appears to be a hate crime. The local law enforcement is intent on pinning it on unknown rowdy out-of-towners, but to Cat, it feels too personal. She thinks someone closer to home is responsible and she plans on finding out who. In a place where most folks want things left well enough alone and where even the kids are armed, that may not be the best idea she’s ever had.

All of the characters and all of their relationships have such depth. There are no caricatures of southern hicksville here. It feels like a place I’ve been before and didn’t want to return, in most instances. The level of poverty only felt in rural areas with no future of growth in sight and the emotional despair of the people – some struggling to eek out a livable existence, some trying to blot out the pain through drug use – are palpable. I could relate to Cat’s emotional state as well, having been through a rough estrangement with one of my very best friends when I was in high school. The reason she is estranged from Patrick is a familiar one, too. My situation wasn’t anywhere near as severe – Cat experiences a sexual assault from a family friend – but I must say that closing myself off from everyone I knew was a natural response . When something happens to you that you can’t talk about, even to your best friend, you push the world away and embrace a world of solitude and silence. When Cat’s closest family members choose to turn a blind eye rather than see she’s been hurt, this teaches her to bottle it all up, shut off from the rest of the world, and close her own eyes to what others are going through. It takes this awful incident with Patrick to reawaken Cat and to start forcing the truth to light.

As I read this story, I began to wonder about my own situation back in high school and my estrangements from the people who loved me. Would I have risked everything to find out what happened to my best friend if something like this happened? Would I have done the right thing? I hope so.  Any book that touches me emotionally and makes me think long after I put it down is brilliant and one I wouldn’t hesitate to let a child of mine read.

Here is the book trailer for Shine. It is truly beautiful.

To keep up with everything Lauren, follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

Censorship? WTF! How Much Should We Shelter Children from Reality?

One of the most fascinating topics of discussion I have with people once they find out I’m a writer – second only to “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a story! (Can you help me write it?)” –  is that of censorship. This is especially popular with the YA crowd. I love a good probing discussion, and while I do understand that some people think certain topics are unsuitable for children, I must say that I am firmly against censorship in any form. Period.

This stance of mine makes for a lively debate. Sometimes the challenge of my view comes from other writers – which I must say is so odd. I would assume that all writers would be completely open-minded and fully against censorship in all forms, but that is just not the case.  Maybe they would take these words literally:

 “Obviously, the danger is not in the actual act of reading itself, but rather, the possibility that the texts children read will incite questions, introduce novel ideas, and provoke critical inquiry.” Persis M. Karim (The New Assault on Libraries)

I’ve had some enlightening discussions to say the least – some within my own local writing chapter. Here’s a fictionalized version of how one of these conversations might go:

My Fellow Writer: Do you think children/teenagers should be allowed to read books with so much violence, especially a book about children killing each other?

Me: Absolutely. Whether that book is Lord of the Flies or The Hunger Games or some other book.

MFW: But don’t you think the violence is gratuitous?

Me: No. I actually think it’s toned down compared to reality. Haven’t you heard of the Invisible Children? This kind of thing is actually going on today, but on a much more brutal scale.

(Side note: This isn’t all happening in Uganda either, despite the wonderful media coverage Kony has received. According to Amnesty International’s website, “worldwide, hundreds of thousands of children are recruited…” And according to another website, this one for the SOS Children’s Villages, “Since 1998 there have been armed conflicts involving child soldiers in at least 36 countries.” )

MFW: Okay, but what about books with frank discussions of sex and characters making bad choices? Would you let your daughter read them?

Me: Definitely. I think books like Twenty Boy Summer and Beauty Queens (or whatever Ellen Hopkins book we’re talking about) encourage interesting conversations with her.

MFW: You talk to her about sex? ACK!

ME: Of course! Don’t you talk to your child about sex? If not, where does she go with her questions? The internet? Her friends? I’d much rather she felt comfortable coming to me and getting accurate information than risk her going elsewhere and believing that she could get pregnant from a toilet seat or something stupid like that. Or worse…having her end up pregnant. Period.

Let me expand on this a bit more.

Reading about violence isn’t going to traumatize your child unless it’s a badly written book – then who wouldn’t be traumatized by it? It’s also not going to turn your child into a sociopath. Millions of kids read The Hunger Games. I have yet to see a spike in youth violence directly correlated to it. The killing in that book wasn’t relished over by the characters, it wasn’t seen as a badge of honor or something to be proud of. In fact, the death of one of the most innocent, endearing characters was felt deeply by many communities within the book – and I’m sure most readers had a hard time getting through that particular scene without tearing up.

What better way to teach kids the horrors of war?

Would you rather your child actually live through one or experience those same emotions vicariously through a fantastic story that really moves them? Isn’t THAT the way it should be?

And on the sex front, trying to keep a teenager from making bad choices when they are all hopped up on hairspray and hormones? You gotta be kidding. The only people who even think that is possible have effectively blocked out all memories of what it was like to BE a teenager. Every parent with a teenager should be doling out sex ed information like it was candy. According to the latest research, (surprise, surprise) abstinence-only education does not work. In fact, the states where that is still being taught as the main form of birth-control have the highest rates of teen pregnancy. Hmm, I guess information IS power.

We can’t protect our kids from every bad thing that could ever happen, keep them ignorant of reality forever, or hope that they never discover that they are indeed sexual beings. It is not only doing them a grave disservice, it will keep them from developing vital coping skills they will need to become healthy adults.

So when I am asked if I allow my daughter to read questionable books, I say hell yes! I want her to explore her world and ask me all the hard questions she wants. I try my best to answer them. I don’t shelter her from anything. She can handle it.

So where do you stand on the censorship issue? Are there books/topics you think are too much for kids to handle? Do you think some forms of censorship are okay?


And with that controversial post…I’m off on vacation for a week! I’ll get back to your comments as soon as I can and I look forward to all of them.

Great Writers are Great Readers; No! You Can’t Just Skip That Part!

Artist Tyree Callahan’s work inspired by writing.

As a writer, you can learn so much about the art of writing by reading. That seems like such a simple thing to do, but I’ve met people who want to write books – or say they do – but don’t like to read. I’ve also met people who want to write children’s books or write young adult books who don’t like young children or teens.


I can’t grasp these concepts.

Maybe some people think writing a book is easy. Maybe some others just want to ride the coattails of a hot market trend. Both thoughts are ludicrous. Writing is the hardest thing I can think of where the pay is lousy, until you actually get published and then don’t hold your breath or quit your day job just yet, friends! (Unless you’re Stephen King or J.K. Rowling; I’ve tried getting my name changed to Stephene King or J/K Rowling, but no dice. Besides, their actual bank accounts don’t come with the new names. Curses!) Those of us mere mortals who write, do it because we love it; because we have to. Also, anytime you write to try and capture a trend – vampire/pirates/werewolves/ghosts – you have already missed the trend, my friend. Editors acquired and planned release dates for years before those titles came out. If you really want to be a good writer, you should write from the gut-wrenching bottom of your soul the only story that you, your unique self, can tell. If it happens to be about a vampire pirate with a werewolf ghost best friend he must fight the urge to kill, but it comes from your heart, then by all means, write it.  Write what you’re passionate about. Trust me, you’ll be with this story a long time; you don’t want to hate it. Write from what inspires you.

And don’t forget to read.

While it is important to read current books within the genre you are writing in – so you know that there are already a million-and-one vampire/pirate/werewolf/ghost stories out there, for one thing – that shouldn’t necessarily be all you read. After all, even eating the best tasting truffliest chocolate every day could possibly lose its appeal after a week or so. (I try to fast on Sundays so I don’t EVER have to find out.) I may have mentioned before that I was not the best student in high school – quite the devious slacker, in fact – and so I now find myself reading some of the books I faked my way through that I should have read back then. Call it high school survivor guilt. While I do read a healthy portion of YA, I also make it a point to read a good selection of classics and banned books every year, just to round out my own personal education. Last year, I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time, which fulfilled many of the previous mentioned categories. I cannot believe such a beautifully written book – one that still stands up today – was ever banned anywhere. This is definitely a must-read for anyone who wants to read a perfect book. (A separate rant on my anti-censorship views will follow another time.)

In the end, it doesn’t matter so much what you read, just that you do read. No reading is wasted; you can learn something even from the worst book ever published, and yes, I’ve come across a book or two that I couldn’t imagine how they clawed their way out of the slush pile. When you find something you really love, read it once for enjoyment, then read it again and again as a writer. Ask yourself: What makes this work? How does the plot progress? Study it. Tear that book apart until you truly understand it. That is a master class in writing all by itself.

To encourage more reading from all of you, I’m starting a new page entitled What I’m Reading. There I will post every book I’ve read so far this year with a little snippet about each one to entice you. I also welcome all of your reading suggestions as I am always looking expand my horizons and discover new authors, myself.