One of the most frequently banned authors of the 21st century explains.
On September 4th of this year, HarperCollins published my seventh young adult novel in verse, The Opposite of Innocent. It’s loosely based on the sexual abuse my sixteen-year-old sister Diane endured at the hands of a close friend of my parents. He coerced her into keeping it a secret by threatening that if she told anyone, he’d take all his money out of our father’s business and our family would go bankrupt. When I think of the terrible pressure she must have felt to save our family, my heart stops.
Writing this novel was the opposite of easy, but I felt compelled to do it because I wanted abuse victims to feel less alone. I wanted to assure them that there is a way out, and that it’s never the victim’s fault. And I wanted to help teens who are being groomed by a predator right now, to recognize what’s happening, and to get out of the situation before they are actually assaulted.
I’m hoping that The Opposite of Innocent finds its way into the hands of as many readers as possible. So I guess it seems counter-intuitive when I say that I’m hoping it will be banned. But I’m speaking from experience here.
It was never my intention to write a controversial book, but in 2004, my novel, What My Mother Doesn’t Know, earned a place on the American Library Association’s list of the Top 10 Most Frequently Challenged Books of the Year. The Intellectual Freedom Committee cited “sexually explicit” as the reason most often given. I was astonished, because nothing more than kissing happens in the book.
But I suppose I should have seen it coming, judging from the outraged letters I’d been receiving since the book was first published in 2001. I’d grown accustomed to opening my email box with trepidation, bracing for yet another missive from an outraged parent calling What My Mother Doesn’t know vulgar and disgusting.
I soon realized that the people who try to ban books don’t actually read them. They just read the “dirty” parts. Their letters ranted about how horrified they were when they read “excerpts” of my book. If these indignant, self-righteous people had taken the time to read the whole book, they’d have seen that when the narrator, 14-year-old Sophie, is pressured by her boyfriend to have sex, she refuses to let him push her further than she wants to go. In fact, his sexually aggressive behavior is the main reason Sophie stops dating him. This is a message that, sadly, seventeen years after the book was first published, is more timely than ever.
Many of these livid parents filed formal complaints called “challenges” to attempt to get it taken off the shelves in school libraries. There are apparently a plethora of narrow-minded parents out there who think that if a book isn’t appropriate for their own child, then no child should be allowed to read it. It would be lovely if we could just ignore these people, but alas, we have to give them the respect they don’t deserve.
When a formal complaint is made, members of the community meet to talk about whether or not to grant the request, following the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom guidelines. Librarians, teachers, students, and parents present their arguments in an open forum and reach a decision.
What’s good about these meetings is that they get people talking about important issues — like freedom of speech. What’s bad about them is that sometimes they result in books actually being banned. And when that happens, everyone loses. Because, as the former United States Ambassador of Children’s Books, Katherine Paterson, once said, “All of us can think of a book…that we hope none of our children or any other children have taken off the shelf. But if I have the right to remove that book from the shelf — that work I abhor — then you also have exactly the same right and so does everyone else. And then, we have no books left on the shelf for any of us.”
In spite of this, I was thrilled when What My Mother Doesn’t Know made the ALA’s Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books list again in 2005, 2010, and 2011. I was delighted when it earned a spot on the ALA’s list of the Top 100 Most Banned/Challenged Books of the Decade. And I was even more delighted when the ALA listed me as one of the Most Frequently Challenged Authors of the 21st Century. That’s an honor I might want chiseled on my tombstone someday…
In truth, whenever the annual Top 10 list is published, I keep my fingers crossed that my book will be on it again. Because experience has taught me that this means I’ll get invited to speak at schools about why books shouldn’t be banned, and this will give me a chance to lead a student in the right direction, before they’ve been dragged too far down the wrong path by a misguided parent.
Experience has also taught me that if a book is banned, it will result in more people wanting to read it — because it’s forbidden, and readers want to find out why. In fact, of the all the novels I’ve published, What My Mother Doesn’t Know is the most popular.
And that is why I’m hoping my new novel, The Opposite of Innocent, gets banned. I want it to reach more readers so that it can help more victims of sexual abuse.