Monday, November 15, 2021
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This weekend the members of the high school theater group here in North Kingstown, RI, staged an adapted version of S.E. Hinton’s classic, brilliant novel The Outsiders.
Written by a high school teenager for high-school teenagers, Hinton’s book is generally recognized as the novel that launched the Young Adult (YA) genre of fiction. It has also served as the basis for a critically acclaimed Francis Ford Coppola film of the same title. Despite critical and commercial success, through the years The Outsiders has been subject to numerous attempts to ban it from high school libraries across the country. At one point it even made the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books.
Hinton’s novel is about high school. Thus, there are obscenities. There is drinking. And there is much confused, desperate, sometimes suppressed sexuality. In short, all the standard high school stuff … combined with astute insights into the typical trials and dilemmas of that stage of life. Rolling Stone has said of Hinton’s novel that it searingly reveals “the ongoing fight at the heart of the adolescent experience – knowing that the way things stand is wrong, but unclear how to fix it, and frustrated with older adults for continuing on, obliviously.” But insights alone haven’t stopped attempts to ban the book (which has sold more than 15 million copies) in West Virginia, Iowa, Wisconsin, and other states.
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Ironically, less than two weeks before the debut of the North Kingstown High School production of The Outsiders, a vocal minority of high school parents raised holy hell at a North Kingstown School Committee meeting over this year’s cause célèbre for intolerant book banners nationwide. This is the illustrated memoir Gender Queer by writer/illustrator Maia Kobabe – a nuanced, eloquent, and highly-respected memoir about the author struggling, as a teenager, to understand and come to terms with “genderless” sexuality.
That bastion of left-wing sentiment Publishers Weekly has called Kobabe’s book a “heartfelt graphic memoir [that] relates, with sometimes painful honesty, the experience of growing up non-gender-conforming.” Most other review outlets – at least those not founded by Jerry Falwell or someone like him – have been equally complimentary. Nevertheless, Gender Queer has been subject to a volume of book-banning attacks that might make S.E. Hinton just plain envious.
There is a certain level of absurdity to be found in the arguments of those insisting on the removal of Gender Queer from high school libraries. At the North Kingstown School Committee Meeting on October 28, Romona Bessinger – a North Kingstown parent and a teacher in the Providence School Department – declared: “Our jobs as educators is to teach students how to read and write – our job is not to teach students how to give blow jobs.” Another parent insisted: “You’re talking about children! You’re going to expose them to pornographic material?”
The naiveté of these remarks is stunning. Let’s be real, for a moment. And blunt. I’m not sure which celibate high schools these two parents attended, but in my high school (Valley Stream, NY, Central High School, ’74), most of us “children” – at least most us with a social life – knew all about oral sex by our sophomore year, and we didn’t learn it from a book. (This was certainly the case amid the minions of our Honor Society, both male and female. But perhaps we were just advanced in all things.) As for teaching students to read – what is it, exactly, you think a 16/17-year-old (at least the smart inquisitive type of 16/17 year old who is inclined to read anything at all) is going to dig into? My Friend Flicka? The Swiss Family Robinson?
Book banning is nothing new. It has always been going on everywhere across the country. (As H.L. Mencken once quipped: “No one has ever gone broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”) Most recently Glenn Youngkin made the masterpiece Beloved, by Pulitzer Prize Winner Toni Morrison, an item for debate in Virginia’s 2021 gubernatorial race, to the point of using it as the basis for a television ad. Then he won the election.
I’m reminded of Judy Blume, whose classics Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Forever have been the focuses of numerous suppression attempts. The first of these books deals with puberty, menstruation, and a young girl’s growing physical attraction to boys. The second deals even more directly with the dawning of a young girl’s sexuality. “I believe that censorship grows out of fear, and because fear is contagious, some parents are easily swayed,” says Blume. “Book banning satisfies their need to feel in control of their children’s lives. This fear is often disguised as moral outrage. They want to believe that if their children don’t read about it, their children won’t know about it. And if they don’t know about it, it won’t happen.”
On the “up” side: Kobabe and other writers in Kobabe’s situation should feel complimented. The list they join is a prestigious one: It includes not just Blume and Morrison, but Vladimir Nabokov, George Orwell, J.D. Salinger, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and Harper Lee, to name just a few. An old friend of mine, the singer and composer Lee Hays of the popular 1950s folk group The Weavers, once joked: “I’d just as soon not have been blacklisted, were it not for the honor of the thing.”
There is yet another “up” side. The controversy generated by any attempt to ban a particular book has nearly always led to greatly increased sales for the volume in question.
I wish someone would ban one of my books. I need the money.
Edward Renehan lives in Wickford. His latest book, DELIBERATE EVIL: NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE, DANIEL WEBSTER, AND THE 1830 MURDER OF A SALEM SLAVE TRADER (Chicago Review Press) will be published on December 7th. Learn more at edwardrenehan.com.