Seeing as how BFFs – even Future BFFs – should support one another no matter what, I’m extremely tardy weighing in on the issue of whether or not my FBFF John Green is, in fact, a pornographer.
For the record? He’s not.
Two teachers at a high school in upstate New York want to teach Looking for Alaska to their junior English classes. They sent home a permission slip saying that if the parents were cool with their kids reading Alaska sign here, and if not, sign in this other place and your kids can read something else. Okay, cool, except a couple of people in the community decided that they think no one should be able to teach or read Looking for Alaska because it is pornographic and disgusting. The school board met Tuesday to discuss the issue, during which it came out that, surprise surprise, some of the people protesting the novel hadn’t even read it.
What a shock.
Looking for Alaska has a BJ scene in it, which is the part that people tend to object to. The thing about that scene, though, is that it’s totally weird and uncomfortable and awkward, NOT pornographic. And honestly? By the time you’re seventeen, if you haven’t had a weird, uncomfortable, and awkward sex scene of your own, you’re at least aware that they happen, and reading one in a book isn’t going to make you go: hey! We should try that! Let’s go get it on!
As a writer, as a teacher, and as an adult who generally believes that teenagers are way smarter and more thoughtful than we generally give them credit for being, of course I always think it’s better to let teenagers experience the world than try to shelter them and lie about what it’s like. If it’s a part of the world that’s scary or upsetting or just plain gross, I think it’s far better for kids to deal with it in a safe setting with a trusted adult than to hear rumors and mis-information on the playground or in the locker room. In college, Ali and I used to talk about how much of what we’d heard about sex and the body was just rumors and lies passed on in whispers and scratched on the walls of the bathroom stalls. Parents, is that REALLY a better way for your children to encounter ideas about sex? Would you rather your daughter learn about BJs through some moron on the football team who manages to convince her that “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” than from an honest classroom discussion (and believe me, classroom discussions = the opposite of sexy) about how this scene in the book shows a physical encounter without an emotional connection, and how it’s ultimately meaningless and unsatisfying, particularly in contrast to the non-sexual but emotionally intimate scene a few pages later. So much of being a teenager is about being confused about sex and sexuality and identity, and maybe we forget just how much teenagers see and know when we get too far away from them. But as a parent, I would MUCH rather my child be reading about these kinds of issues and then discussing them with me and learning to think critically about all kinds of situations and events than to be so sheltered she gets herself into dangerous situations without even realizing what she's doing.
And in general, the question of what does or does not get challenged or banned seems so arbitrary. Last year, one of my favorite students from when I taught in Iowa was in the papers for challenging Of Mice and Men, on the grounds that it was anti-Christian. When I taught, I dealt with parents who were fervently against Lois Lowry’s classic dystopia The Giver, because of a scene where a baby gets euthanized, but strangely enough, no one had any problems with To Kill A Mockingbird, in which a dog gets shot, a woman describes being raped, a black man is murdered, and the n-word is tossed around by the ugly and ignorant characters (but not by Saint Atticus! Sigh… I love him). So… killing babies, bad; killing black men, less bad? Or is it just that TKAM was published almost fifty years ago and the parents read it when they were in school, and so regardless of objectionable or offensive moments in the book, it’s an accepted part of the canon, whereas The Giver, only published in 1993, still has about thirty five years before people stop questioning its place in the classroom? Will Looking for Alaska one day take its place alongside The Catcher in the Rye as not only not-that-objectionable, but even sort of cute in its antiquated use of slang and imagined sexual deviance?
Again, as a writer, as a teacher, etc etc, I generally come down on the side of freedom of expression, of truth in literature, of encouraging kids to read as much as they can get their hands on, even if it’s, as I read in middle school, soft-core Caveman eroticism (big thanks to The Clan of the Cave Bear series for introducing Young Molly to the phrase “throbbing manhood.” Awesome). Nevertheless, it doesn’t take much for me to imagine myself on the other side of this issue: if I were a parent and the schools wanted to teach any book from the Left Behind: The Kids series, I would have a VERY hard time being okay with that. VERY HARD. Because I hate those books with a passion, I hate their message, and I hate everything they stand for. The very idea of having to face such an issue makes me sound, in my mind, exactly like the people protesting the use of Looking for Alaska in the classroom. Ironically, if a teacher wanted to read the wretched Left Behind books in the classroom, I wouldn’t be concerned about my own kids reading them as much as I would be worried about the other kids, the ones without thoughtful parents with whom they could discuss the books…. So yeah, people in Depew, I think I can imagine where you’re coming from. It’s a complex issue.
Still, as a teenager, I read everything I could get my hands on, and I think adults make a big mistake when they assume teenagers are so dumb they’ll try anything they read about. I read Native Son when I was fifteen, and so far I haven’t killed any white women and shoved their bodies in furnaces. I read Hamlet when I was sixteen, and I haven’t yet forced any of my uncles to drink from poisoned cups. Ethan Frome has not yet led to any suicide-by-sled attempts.
As caring, worried adults who love our teenagers, of course we’d rather protect them from sadness and difficulty and hurt in the world. But let’s give teenagers some credit for being able to distinguish between what they see in literature and what they do in their lives. Let them make their own decisions, and their own mistakes. Let’s allow them to read about life as it is, in all its ugliness and beauty and complexity. Because as much as we’d like to be able to protect our kids forever, the sad truth of the world is that we can’t, and we shouldn’t, and the best literature might just help our kids to be a little stronger, a little more thoughtful, a little better armed against the world as it really is, meaningless BJs and all.