Speak Loudly: A Conversation with Laurie Halse Anderson on Topics Subject to Book Banning

Books, like children, are never what we expect. When a book enters the world, the story becomes what we make it, one part author, one part reader. But sometimes a reader can so completely mischaracterize a book that it becomes something else, something so far removed from its roots that it is not only unrecognizable to its author/creator, but also to its other readers.

Laurie Halse Anderson, an award winning childrens and young adult author, knows what it’s like to have a book mischaracterized. Earlier this month, her debut novel, Speak, was named in a baffling opinion piece by Wesley Scroggins, “Filthy books demeaning to Republic education,” in a Missouri newspaper, The Springfield News-Leader. Also early in September, the Stockton, Missouri school board banned Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, saying the book “had too much profanity to be of value.” Scroggins also submitted a 29-page document to the Republic Missouri school board, demanding among other things changes to the history and science curricula.

It’s a topic that’s particularly timely, as this week is the American Library Association’s (ALA) Banned Books Week, “an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment.” And while it’s Scroggins’ right to dislike a book, it’d be better if he’d actually read the books in question first (see Anderson’s response, and corrections, in The Springfield News-Leader here). He writes:

“In high school English classes, children are required to read and view material that should be classified as soft pornography.

One such book is called Speak. They also watch the movie. This is a book about a very dysfunctional family. Schoolteachers are losers, adults are losers and the cheerleading squad scores more than the football team. They have sex on Saturday night and then are goddesses at church on Sunday morning. The cheer squad also gets their group-rate abortions at prom time. As the main character in the book is alone with a boy who is touching her female parts, she makes the statement that this is what high school is supposed to feel like. The boy then rapes her on the next page. Actually, the book and movie both contain two rape scenes.”

Scroggins, an Associate Professor of Management at Missouri State University, goes on to decry the value of two other books on the curriculum, Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. As a result, Vonnegut’s work, one of Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels for the millennium and one of The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-1999, has been removed from Republic’s curriculum. Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summerand Anderson’s Speak are under review. Speak is another of the ALA’s Top 100 Most Frequently Banned/Challenged Books for 2000-2009.

When I spoke to Anderson in the wake of Scroggins’ piece, she’s surprisingly calm about the matter. Perhaps it’s because she’s no stranger to having her books assaulted on similar grounds — her novel Twisted, was challenged in Pennsylvania last year, while Speak was challenged in California. Both challenges were dropped.”Speak,” she tells me, “is not about rape. Speak is about the struggle to find the courage to Speak up when something terrible has happened.” In fact, the rape scene doesn’t appear until page 135, when Melinda finally admits the truth of what happened to her and, by extension, to the reader, because Anderson, “really wanted the readers to be in the head of a traumatized, depressed young teenager who doesn’t know what to do with all of this emotional pain that’s eating her alive. And so I wanted you to walk with her as she struggled, didn’t want to talk — it’s hard to talk, don’t know who to talk to, and then finally she makes that choice, makes that big leap and speaks up.”

Such cases are not as rare as we might think, especially in the world of children’s literature. Books as innocent as Walter The Farting Dog and Junie B. Jones And Some Sneaky Peeky Spying and as classic as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings have been challenged, if not banned, in some communities. According to a 2008 press release from the American Library Association, “more than a book a day faces removal from public access in school and public libraries,” with 71 percent of challenges reported from schools. But books like Speak are a vital to levels of literacy in the US. “If we don’t hand [students] books that they feel connected to particularly in the emotionally charged years of their adolescence,” Anderson says, “they stop reading. And generally, when a person stops reading, whatever grade level they are at that point when they stop reading for pleasure, tends to be the grade level that their literacy freezes at for the rest of their life.

“There’s this new generation of English teachers that — and Speak has been part of the first wave of this — [have] lobbied hard for the last decade to get contemporary young adult literature into the English language classroom and they often do it by pairing it with old texts from the canon. For example, Speak is often taught alongside Scarlet Letter. So the kids, you know, are learning those important canonical texts of American and British English literature at the same time they’re getting to read books that connect with their lives, that make sense to them, and they actually want to turn the pages.”

Parenthood, for all its glories, often carries an undercurrent of fear, a worry that we’re not doing the best for our kids. And “pornography” is a term that gives even the most laid-back parents well-earned chills. But censoring books like Speak is dangerous, says Anderson, because “Censorship protects adults who feel inadequate, not up to the task of talking about whatever the difficult topic is at hand. You censor books…you don’t have to be the parent who answers those difficult questions. We don’t talk about these things.”

In the foreword to the Platinum edition of Speak, Anderson writes that it is “the book I wasn’t going to write.” When I ask her about it, she pauses, gathering her thoughts. “I’ve dealt with depression my entire life, on and off, which makes me the perfect author for teenage readers.” she says quietly. “So I spent a long time not looking and not speaking about things that really hurt me and I reached a point in my life — you know, when I wrote Speak my oldest daughter was just entering middle school and just beginning to hit adolescence and I suspect that everything about my writing of Speak had to do with me watching her and not wanting her to go through what I went through. And so probably I wrote Speak, and I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but looking back I think I wrote Speak for my daughters, and I know I wrote it for myself. And I think that’s the story of motherhood right there that you want to protect your daughters from what you had to go through. Maybe that’s another one of those universal notes that the book hits within people.”

While researching this article, I carried a copy of Speak everywhere I went, reading in every spare moment. Sometimes, I caught other women eyeing the book; Danielle Bunner, a young adult writer and blogger, asked me if I liked it. Bunner, you see, credits Speak with starting her “on a path to freedom.” In an email, she writes, “I read Speak at a time in my life when I was lost. No one knew it but me. For years I’d suffered silently from the effects of sexual abuse…There are times when we have to choose to fight or give in. This is one girl’s response. It’s hard, enthralling, terrifying, and beautiful…[it] brings people together, empowers them to face the truth and offers hope by knowing that we are not alone.”

It takes a while for us to come to talking about Scroggins And the latest controversy surrounding Anderson’s work. But when I ask about Scroggins and religion — Anderson is a “PK, a preacher’s kid”, a slow note of anger creeps into her voice. “I actually consider myself an incredibly spiritual person, deeply tied to my faith. I take a lot of solace from my prayer life. My dad’s a pretty awesome guy and I think brought me up in a way that he made sure I had a lot to lean on, you know when times got tough, in terms of my spiritual life. So when people say things like they call me a pornographer or they accuse me of, of you know being anti-Christian or something…that says everything about them and nothing about me. For somebody to say that about me, they don’t know me. “

“The word “pornographic” means ‘sexually titillating, sexually exciting’,” she says. “That’s the point of pornography…to appeal to someone’s sexual urges. If the rape of a 14 year old, 13 year old girl sexually excites you, you need to go to jail. You know what, that’s against the law, that’s against every law we’ve ever had in this country, so the fact that he classifies that as pornography really disturbs me. That’s just wrong.”

According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, every two minutes, someone in the US is sexually assaulted*; one in six American women and one in 33 men have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. Worse, one in 40 sexual assault and rape victims are under age 12, with almost a third aged 12-17.

In black and white, these are horrifying statistics–the sort of statistics that should disturb even Scroggins. But during her Speak tour–when Anderson visited with over half a million high school students from all over the country–she realized that the barbarity of rape was simply not a reality for everyone.

“I was getting this question from older teenage boys,” she tells me, “…the kind of guys I would want to date my daughters, who were honestly, genuinely puzzled because they did not understand why the main character [Melinda] in this book was so upset, why was she so traumatized by being raped that she basically doesn’t speak for nine months. And you know the first couple of times I heard that I was outraged and then I finally realized that I needed to suspend my judgment and needed to listen more clearly to these boys and let them speak… and the way they spelled it out to me is that, ‘look, it’s not a stranger in the bushes with a gun, it’s a guy that she’s attracted to, he’s a senior, so there’s status associated with being seen with him, and the deed itself, the sexual act itself, doesn’t take very long. So what’s the big deal? Why would something that just takes a few minutes traumatize a girl for months and months and months?”’

As chilling as such ignorance is, it’s all the worse because even 23 years ago, we knew our kids–and potential abusers–weren’t educated about these issues. In a 1987 paper, women’s studies professor Mariamne Whatley noted that “Children as potential victims of sexual abuse and women as potential victims of sexual assault are held responsible for the actions of adult men.

“There’s a terrible lack in America of adult responsible conversation about sex,” says Anderson. “You want to make a parent squirm, ask them if they can use the word “vagina” in a conversation with their daughter. Most Americans can’t.”

“I’ve talked to them,” Anderson adds. “Countless, wonderful, awesome young men who, when sober would only treat a girl with respect and appropriately. But they get drunk, they get high, the testosterone’s going, and they have never really had an adult in their life, particularly an adult male, sit down and explain to them the rules of human dignity, this is what we don’t do and this is why. And so these are the guys who wind up raping girls, often girls that they’re in love with, or girls that they like…when they sobered up, they were horrified.”

Banned Books Week was first observed in 1982 and “celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox.” The three major reasons books are banned–sexually explicit material, offensive language, and unsuitability for a given age group–seem relatively tame from an east coast city in 2010.

“If there’s anything that you can take away from my body of work,” Anderson says, “it’s that I think people should talk about things. I don’t think anything gets better by avoiding talking about it. And I would like to think that we can all be civilized and find a way to talk about things that we disagree about.”

Books save lives, Anderson writes in a note on censorship included at the back of Speak. “You know Chris Crutcher,” she says, referring to the author of, Whale Talk, Athletic Shorts, and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes , all of which are on the ALA’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books list for 2000-2009. “Chris has written ground-breaking books. His books definitely save lives. And Chris has always said, ‘When adults censor a book, the message they send to the children is, ‘don’t talk about it. We don’t want to hear it.’”

Asked what she would say to members of the Missouri school board, Anderson’s voice takes on a new, stronger tone. “I would say you have been charged with a very, very difficult task,” she says. “You are responsible for the education of the children of your community. And you have to be a strong enough person to look at both the world of childhood and adulthood and know that if you let children remain sheltered and protected and coddled so that when they get to that adult world, they’re not ready for it, you are creating a generation of victims. We have to acknowledge that adolescence is that time of transition where we begin to introduce to children that life isn’t pretty, that there are difficult things, there are hard situations, it’s not fair. Bad things happen to good people. We have to explain that to them so that we can show them how you endure and then survive and ultimately triumph sometimes over the bad things.”

It’s clear that Speak resonates with its readers. Within hours of Scroggins’ attack, Indiana English teacher Paul Hankins had created a Twitter hashtag, #speakloudly. Bloggers have also been vocal in their support, posting their reactions to Speak and support for Anderson. “I’ve been blown out of the water by the response of the readers of Speak,” she says. “…I’ve been moved to tears many times in the last 36-48 hours…the girls who’ve read it when they were 16 are now 26 and all those teachers and librarians and adults who read the book… had a decade of talking about this, of speaking up, and I really feel that there’s a generational shift going on, and that if, I think it’s already started to happen, and it’s only going to get better, that victims of sexual assault won’t feel shame.”

For support, information, and more, please visit www.rainn.org.

*All statistics provided by the Rape, Abuse, and National Incest Network, here.