Sunday, May 31, 2015


At IRA14, the Crazy Reading Ladies had the honor of leading a group discussion centered around Young Adult literature. The participants were teachers, librarians, literacy professionals, and several YA authors.  As we chatted about recommendations for reluctant readers, tried-and-true favorites, and upcoming releases, the word "appropriate" came up.  

Teachers and librarians dove right in, sharing their own stories about books they could or could not recommend to students, what they had been asked to censor at a parent's or administrator's request, or what their current permission slip looked like.

The authors were positively gobsmacked. Seriously, mouths hung agape. 

"Wait, you guys have to pre-screen stuff?" 

All around the circle, teachers' heads nodded as the moment of mutual shock set in. These authors had no idea that one sex scene, f-bomb, or allusion to drug use could remove their book from a child's hands. While we were overjoyed that a light had been shed on a very real problem, we couldn't really give the authors much assistance in making their books more marketable without crossing the line into censorship.

That's right.  We said it.  The C word.  

It's a fine line between determining appropriateness and censoring.  A mighty fine line.  

Determining what is and is not appropriate requires the teacher to look at the  big picture - identifying themes and ideas and matching those things up with potential readers.  Discussions take place around how the conflicts are developed, how far into the book one goes before the protagonist redeems herself, and the overall impression the reader leaves with.  When books are seen not as a arrangement of individual words but rather as a collective message, it becomes much easier to forgive certain sins. As public school teachers and educated professionals, we feel empowered to judge literature and determine it's relative appropriateness for our wide middle school audience.  Appropriateness includes grey area; something might be fine for a mature 6th grader but not a good choice for a sensitive 7th grader.  Appropriateness is flexible and fluid. 

Censoring is a different beast entirely.  Censorship pays attention to the power of individual words and phrases.  The idea here is that, while the overall message may be positive, the book itself is polluted by certain letters arranged in a certain order.  As ELA teachers, we understand the power of individual words.  Mary recently spent a full 15 minutes with her students teasing out the significance of the word "my" in a passage from To Kill a Mockingbird.  If a two letter pronoun can change the interpretation of an entire fictional relationship, then what can a four letter curse word do?  A lot.  If you're living in one of the less enlightened areas of the country, that four letter word can remove the book from library and classroom bookshelves.
Oh, stop.  He's singing "Where is Thumbkin?" 

Herein lies the problem. There is not one universal standard deeming language - or anything for that matter - offensive. It is a personal decision. What is upsetting for one person may be perfectly acceptable for another. 

Some authors have taken it upon themselves to help us out by altering the language that they use.  For example, in response to the John Green lovefest that recently swept our Middle School, we picked up a copy of AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES. Scattered throughout the book was a word we had never seen before: fug. In case you too are a bit kwanfused, let us put it in context. It can be used in the following ways: Go fug yourself or Mother fugger.  

First of all, was the original word (we think we know what he was going for...) so "offensive" it was deemed "inappropriate" for young adults?  If so, is the changing of that final consonant sound really fooling anyone? Are parents and publishers breathing a collective sigh of relief because of the absence of a certain expletive?  Are we the only ones who think that the connotation is loud and clear? Isn't the intent obvious? Come on, if you are going to say something, SAY IT!  You really aren't doing us any favors.  Really.

Now, we understand that some language is so offensive that parents feel the need to protect their children from it.  We understand that some scenarios in The Hunger Games or Divergent are upsetting to less mature readers.  And we have fully supported parents in their right to say no to their child.  Recognizing that each person has her own comfort zone, the CRL developed our policy regarding what to do when a parent is offended by our book choice: 

"The decision lies with the family. We will support you 100% in deciding what is best for your individual child." 

Sometimes, that is all it takes to mollify an upset parent.  Unfortunately, it is more frequently the case that parents are not content with choosing what is right for their child.  They want to decide that their standard should be applied to everyone.  And that's not okay with us. 

Ultimately, we Crazy Reading Ladies have decided that censorship is the mountain upon which we are willing to die.  

That is, we will listen to parents who disagree with our choices, we will talk them through our decision making process, we will listen some more while they list the thousand of other books we should have chosen instead.  We will encourage them to do what is best for their child and listen even more while they inform us of their various degrees in literature and child psychology.  We will thank them for their input, and we will relay their concerns to our principal, but we will not remove an otherwise appropriate book from the hands of 499 other middle schoolers simply because it has a word, a phrase, a scene, or a character that offends them.  We will not take that book from our shelves or wield black sharpies in an attempt to protect all our students from the material that one parent deems offensive.

We certainly aren't here to incite riots, wave flags, or further an agenda.  We have always sought to put good books in the hands of students and get them excited about reading. We are here to create lifelong literature lovers, nothing more.

That's not to say that we haven't somewhat caved to pressure.  This year we went to unprecedented lengths to get parent buy in, announcing the book to parents a full six weeks before it became available to students, allowing parents time to read and decide for themselves.  We chose a book we thought no one could possibly object to - the inspiring true story of a WWII hero.  We chose to adopt and promote the YA version of the book to further provide a buffer for those who felt the subject matter too upsetting.  And still...STILL...parents complained.  Frustrated and irritated by the request to choose a book better aligned to conservative family values, Mary exclaimed, "What do they want!?  Charlotte's Web?"  Erin replied, "That will upset the vegans."

I guess that's our take-away.  There is no such thing as the perfect book.   There will always be something to upset someone.  The best we can do is choose good books for our kids.  

And if they don't like it, fug 'em. 


Monday, May 25, 2015

Choose Wisely

We aren't that old. Really, we're not. We weren't in middle school that long ago; how did things change so fast? One of the most peculiar signs of our current times is The Power of Words.

On the one hand, if you turn on network television at 8:00 or listen to the Top 40, you'll hear words that were deemed "inappropriate" as recently as the '90s.  On the other, words "offend" with ease and, almost weekly, leave someone in court or out of work; or, at the very least, delivering a half-hearted and highly-scripted public apology. 

Four years, four books
Words matter. And we make our living putting pages of them in the hands of children. The stakes are high; very high. 

So where does that leave us - two Crazy Reading Ladies who are often tasked with endorsing books for a few hundred adolescents? Want to know what goes through our minds as we consider what to put in the hands of our cherubic charges? Yeah, so do we. 
  It has been almost five years since we started our All In! adventure. Over one thousand readers have devoured the pages of four very different books. And by most standards, we've picked a winner every time. So why is it so difficult to explain how we've chosen them? 

It's surprising - even to us as we sit here and type - that we don't have a clear answer. There's no rubric, no formula, no Russian judge. It's just us.

"No book for you."
Whether planning a school-wide reading initiative or simply shopping for our classrooms, The Crazy Reading Ladies read widely and frequently, and always with a few hundred middle schoolers on our hearts. We read with a purpose: is this the right book for our kids? Mary often compares this process to the Film course she took in college; once she knew how movies were structured, she viewed them through a completely different lens. She knew about lighting and music and camera angles and dialogue and reaction shots. And after a while no one wanted to go to the movies with Mary anymore, because she'd talk her way through the entire thing.

We are put in a similar situation. We read while thinking about relatable characters, assessing developmental appropriateness, analyzing messages presented, dreaming up activities, imagining costume potential, and responding to hypothetical parental and administrative inquiries. And if it gets our blessing, we go with it.

That's all.

Though it may be hard to believe, as frighteningly alike as we are, the two of us have different barometers. But we respect (and admire) each other to such a degree that if a book raises even one of our eyebrows, we put it aside; however, if we both think something is okay, we'll go with it and stand by it, which is not without risk for two ladies who love their jobs and work in an increasingly litigious society. 

We know our students think we have read every book that has ever been written (or at least the ones in our classrooms) but we haven't. We rely on casual recommendations, Top Ten lists, and online reviews just like everyone else. But what to do when the ALA-honored book you ordered for your 8th graders features both four-letter words and a certain toothpaste-tube tutorial? You go with your gut - and if you're us, you're sending that puppy back to Barnes and Noble. As Mary once famously said, "If I can't figure out how to write the permission slip, I'm not putting it on my shelf."

So I guess we can't tell you how we know it's right, but it's easy for us to identify when it isn't. 

Without expending too much end-of-the-year energy, we can easily rattle off the following honest-to-goodness charges we have received when people have deemed our book selections "inappropriate": 
  • too long
  • too difficult
  • too easy
  • too violent
  • anti-American
  • pro-American
  • furthers liberal agenda
  • too sexual
  • contains inappropriate language
  • is psychologically disturbing
  • too real
  • too fake
  • too religious
  • anti-Catholic
  • characters are too old 
  • presence of drugs
We believe in fairy tales
Jodi Picoult's new YA book OFF THE PAGE (co-written with her daughter, the lovely Samantha VanLeer) has spurred some recent commentary on social media: Which of Ms. Picoult's "adult" books can you recommend to young readers? 

Perhaps we're just far too verbose, but the CRL could not respond to that inquiry in 140 characters; there's no easy answer to that question. We've suggested THE STORYTELLER to some very mature 8th graders who are passionate about the Holocaust and seem ready for such an experience; on the other hand, there are several adults in our building who have yet to "go there." We've talked to an elephant-obsessed 7th grader about LEAVING TIME, but haven't given it to a friend who is mommy to a toddler. Everyone is different. It's about knowing your audience. 

We're not saying that our standard is perfect, but it has yielded some pretty stellar results and, even with 20/20 hindsight, we wouldn't change a thing.