Controversies over what books are taught in class or shelved in the school library typically start when an adult—usually a parent or community member—feels that a book selected by teachers and librarians is inappropriate, offensive or objectionable. Most often, the objections relate to sexual scenes, offensive language, or depictions of drug and alcohol use. Concerned adults worry that the book promotes ideas that conflict with their personal values and beliefs, or that children will imitate fictional characters and engage in undesirable behavior.
Ironically, some of the most frequently challenged books are the very books that young readers say are especially important and meaningful to them. Unfortunately, their views are rarely heard in the over-heated debates that often accompany book challenges. Instead, the adults – parents, school administrators, and school board members – make decisions about what kids should read without always appreciating how books with "controversial" content help young people learn and mature.
To explore the significance of controversial books for young readers, we asked authors of frequently challenged books to share messages they've received from their readers. So far, eight authors whose books we've defended – frequently, in some cases – have shared letters and messages they've received from readers: Chris Crutcher, Matt de la Peña, emily danforth, Ellen Hopkins, Lois Lowry, Wes Moore, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and Rainbow Rowell.
As a result, we have received hundreds of messages testifying to the positive effects of reading the very books that are frequently challenged and sometimes censored. These are books that confront issues that many young readers worry about but may be reluctant to discuss: issues like race and ethnicity, bullying, sexuality, body image, drugs, self-harm, anxiety, social isolation, violence and abuse. Teenagers are often acutely aware of these issues in their own lives and the lives of their friends, and they struggle to make sense of them.
At the same time, some adults, perhaps with the best of intentions, seek to shield students from the very books that many teenagers seek out, precisely because they grapple honestly with issues that concern them. However, as the comments from readers demonstrate, these books help them negotiate the transition from childhood to adulthood, by introducing them to fictional characters dealing realistically with the complex and confusing world that young people confront.
Some themes emerged from the responses:
● This book made me more empathetic, tolerant, and accepting, of myself and others. It helped me relate better to others and talk to them about things we never would have discussed otherwise.
● This book made me realize that I'm not the only one with problems; it helped me feel more normal and less alone.
● This book saved my life. It helped me confront a serious issue and deal with it.
● This book turned me on to reading. It was the first book I ever read all the way though.
● This book understood me the way no one else does. "I don't know how I'd have gotten through adolescence without it."
● This book inspired me to want to do something with my life.
Here, in their own voices, is a small but representative sampling of the hundreds of comments of young readers to authors (Minor editorial revisions have been made).
Comments on books by Ellen Hopkins (Crank, Tricks, Impulse and others):
'Crank' saved my life, opened my eyes to the world I was exposing myself to and rapidly getting drowned in. And then, two years later it did the very same for my little brother…. He was doing meth the night he read it, with his at-the-time girlfriend. They quit the very next day. You've touched our lives forever- and I'll always be more thankful than you'll ever know.
The only thing that's made life bearable this month was having the opportunity to read your books, relate to them, and realize that I'm not alone and I never have been…. [Sexual abuse] really happens and [your books help me realize] I'm not going through it by myself.
Crank … helped me out by giving me a voice to tell someone one what happened to me…. By the time I was 5, the only thing i knew was abuse. When I got put into foster care… I didn't speak, i couldn't find my voice I don't know why I picked up your book, but it seemed to be the key to my voice…. Please stay strong and keep looking out for us, the kids without a voice.
[Your book] made me realize how many more people out there go through what I have been through …. If it weren't for reading the graphic truth about drugs, sex, and even self-mutilation who knows where I would have ended up.
Comments on The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily danforth:
[The Miseducation of Cameron Post] helped me, the confused 15 year old I was, understand the feelings I was having. And I can't thank you enough for that. Your book changed me.
I was browsing a website a few months back, and found out that there were in fact novels about teenage girls, experiencing the same things I am going through. Up until that point, I had no idea this type of literature even existed. I stumbled upon a description of your book, and I could immediately relate.
I finally feel like it's not some dirty secret that I'm attracted to girls. I finally feel like I don't have to be ashamed off this secret that has been sitting on my shoulders for so many years. I can't thank you enough, you changed my life. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Comments on the Alice series by Phyllis Naylor Reynolds:
If it wasn't for these books, I'd still be carrying a lot of guilt.
Your books have made me laugh, have made me think, and most importantly, have made me feel more normal. I consider your series to be some of the most pivotal books that I read as a pre-teen and teenage girl. Without the series, I would have felt a lot more lost and confused….
The Alice books relate to all the problems girls have. I was sincerely grateful for them when I got my period at nine years old.
My whole family listened to Deadline on CD while on a road trip, and the whole way we debated about the characters, speculated about the plot, and by the end everyone was hooked.
I was a maybe twelve or thirteen-year-old middle-school outcast and you dealt with outcasts kindly. You dealt with everyone kindly, really.… Whale Talk was the first story that I felt did any justice to real life.
My name is Rachel, and I'm 13 years old…. I have recently tried killing myself. [Your book] made me realize that I never want to go to that place again…. It makes me realize that people WOULD miss me if I were gone, and before I didn't know that.
After reading your book, I have realized that Life passes too quickly to take anything for granted. So after thinking this, what did I do? I tried out for the football team. I became captain of my reading bowl book team… I participated in my school's debate team…. I wrote stories, poems, and songs. I have been living life as I have never lived it, and am loving every second of every day.
I am an abuse victim… to children who are facing something like this [your book] lets them know they are not on their own.
After reading Whale Talk, I sat down with my mother to just talk.
[Whale Talk] shed light on the harsh realities children of all backgrounds, ethnicities, economic class, and physicalities face. I learned from your novels that I wasn't alone in this world. It made me look at all the students around me differently. I was given a new perspective on life, that I wasn't alone in my struggle. [From a young immigrant from Somalia.]
I could personally relate to each character from beginning to end – the story freaking rocked. This is what these teachers need to start giving us students rather than these sugarcoated stories that only could be imagined rather than experienced.
Basically since I've discovered your books, I've discovered myself.
It was also very nice that you were able to open the eyes of my classmates that [abuse] does go on, even in small towns [like] where I live.
Comments on The Giver and other books by Lois Lowry:
I am an incest survivor and there are so many ways this book can help people who have been abused…. I see myself as the Giver sometimes. Wanting to give away my memories and forget them so others will know my pain and use it to help the future.
I am gay and I haven't come out for fear of really everything…. Your book inspires me so much to be me to be who I am and not what people want me to be.
My friend was a troubled kid…. After a teacher recommended him "We Were Here" he changed completely. He unfriended most of his gang member friends, told everyone that he will no longer have the "thug" lifestyle. Now he is trying to be a writer…. I would like to thank you for changing my friend's life with your stories.
We Were Here was the book that got me into reading. I mean I read books before but not as often as I do now. That book was freaking amazing!
I love how you write your books, so that they connect with the reader. In We Were Here, your main character is half Mexican and half White. I could connect with that because my mom was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and my dad was born in California. I like how in your books you write the truth. Sometimes that's not what everybody wants to hear but it's real…. I want to be a writer when I grow up.
I Am 15 Years Old…. I Just Read Your Book Mexican White Boy. It Was Probably The Best Book I Have EVER Read. I Had A Problem With My Skin Color As Well. So It Was Very Touching And It Closed A Big Hole In My Heart…. If It Wasnt For You I Would Still Hate The Skin That I'm In.
Comments on Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell:
I read it when I was 12 or 13 years old…. I became in a reader thanks to Eleanor and Park… There are a lot of Eleanors around the word who need someone to identify with.
It is a crime … to pretend that teenagers don't see drugs every day or that they don't deal with violence at home and at school. …. Teenagers know plenty and hiding these books from them doesn't keep them innocent and naive; it robs them of … the truth that they are not alone in their struggles.
Eleanor and Park … is one of the few books out there that has an interracial couple at the heart of the story…. I related to Eleanor and it gave me hope.
It's the first time I saw myself represented in a book… With Eleanor I could really relate to her, I am fat and I was bullied growing up because of that….This book is REAL LIFE for some people, you can't shelter and censor that from teenagers that are going through it, so why make it so that they don't have the chance to feel understood and represented in books.
This book helped me realize that we do not have to be perfect in order to love and be loved by somebody.
Eleanor is fat, and so am I, and you never see fat girls in YA lit. Ever. Society teaches us that fat girls don't get love, that they're a joke, that they'll never be the heroine – and Eleanor is a heroine…. This book has touched my life, and helped me see myself in a better light, and I don't want that opportunity taken from anyone else.
I am 13 years old…. I particularly enjoyed the fact that …the book had a biracial asian-american main character (cause I'm biracial dutch-filipino).
Eleanor & Park portrays a realistic interracial relationship, an amazing plus-size female character, and … a family that isn't the perfect cliché ideal. As a non-white teen, I find diversity in novels very important.
Eleanor & Park was the first book where I saw a boy genuinely loving and being attracted to a fat body.
Comments on The Other Wes Moore, by Wes Moore:
Your book was very inspirational ….I recommended it to everyone i know!!
Your memoir has taught me how important it is to follow your dreams and to take advantage of the guidance that all of our positive influences have to offer.
I'm currently a sophomore in high school and it's amazing how well I can relate to the stories in your book! I know how the drug game works and what does on in the streets where I live but reading your book has giving me some thought as to how I should stay clear of it.
Being the only white boy from my hood, I struggled to get into the game from a very young age… After I finished the book that night, I burst into tears. I cried for the first time in a very long time because I realized that my life had come to the most important fork I had seen yet. Either go to [college] or stay in the impoverished neighborhood that I had come from…. Your book may have saved my life.
Adult anxiety about cultural influences on children, including the books they read, is understandable. Good parents worry about their kids – it's a sign that they care. Teachers and administrators also worry about the kids in their schools and strive to help them achieve by offering material that resonates, motivates, challenges and inspires them. As the comments from young readers reveal, "controversial" books often do just that: they appeal to kids' interests and curiosity, engage them, and help them mature intellectually and emotionally.
Many books written for adolescents allow the reader to watch a character coming to consciousness of who they are in the world and the opportunities and barriers they will encounter. Rather than imitating destructive behavior of fictional characters, young people understand that these stories are cautionary tales, showing the consequences that flow from decisions people make—both good and bad. The messages quoted above and hundreds of others make it clear that, even though adults may try to shield them from certain aspects of life, young readers are fully aware of reality and are drawn to books that help them make sense of it.
Young readers need challenging books to help them become empathetic, caring, knowledgeable, thoughtful, and mature adults. They'll tell you that themselves, if you just ask them.
Joan Bertin is Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship
Millie Davis is Director of the Intellectual Freedom Center at the National Council of Teachers of English