Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sherman Alexie and the Dirty Book

"On a recent Young Adult Book discussion list, a teacher at a Catholic school and former publc library YA librarian raised her concerns about adults reccomending books to teens that contain harsh language and masturbation references. Author Chris Crutcher wrote a response and gave me permission to repost it here.

Here is the original post from the teacher would like to remain anonymous, so I have made some changes to respect her privacy.

Hello all…
I have been on the listserv for awhile, LOVE it, but have not yet posted. So, I have a bit of a rant. Sherman Alexie’s new YA book, Diary of a Part Time Indian (or something like that) has appeared on a bunch of top ten lists. I finished it yesterday and I am so disappointed. I teach middle school gifted language arts at a Catholic school. Before that I was the YA Librarian at a large public library. There is NO WAY I can have that book in my room. The language, the passage about masturbation—I cannot have that book in my room. What age do you think that book would be for and who would you recommend it to?? As librarians, can you recommend books with that kind of content in good conscience? I am no prude, I know what the kids read on their own, and really I have no problems with that (Gossip Girl and the like). My question is why do authors do that when they know that kind of content eliminates a portion of their audience? Do they care that language and sex-type content means that some teachers and librarians cannot recommend their books? I want to be clear that I am not so much bothered for myself, but as a teacher, I have to be pretty careful what I have in my room. Another one I am upset about is Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac—same thing, the language, the sex, the affair—a bunch of my 8th grade girls read it and liked it, but as the adult, I cannot recommend it. I would love to hear from other librarians and especially authors about why they do this. Thanks in advance.

This is the repsonse from author Chris Crutcher.
This comment on your listserv was sent to me by a number of folks and I'm afraid I have to respond. It will give me something to do while procrastinating before deciding how to write my next masturbation scene.

The writer of this post says she is not a prude. Sorry _____, you're a prude. Kids masturbate. They think about it. They talk about it. In graphic terms. When I started working as a child abuse and neglect family therapist back in the early eighties, one quick conclusion I came to was that until we are willing and able to talk openly about sex in this culture - healthy sex and sexual thought - we will never be capable of talking about sex abuse. I swear sometimes I'm embarrassed to live in a culture that can't talk about true things because someone might be offended. When that perspective comes from within our educational culture, I'm even more embarrassed. A story like Sherman's mirrors a life; a whole life, not just the whitewashed parts of a life. A young reader doesn't come away from that story thinking about masturbation. He or she comes away thinking about loneliness and friendship and meanness; how to avoid meanness and how to be less mean. In that story a young man finds his way against all odds. And he whacks off while doing it. Big deal. Come on, people.

Alex Flinn says she considers long and hard before putting a scene in a book that might be offensive. I love Alex's books. I think highly of her as a writer. But let it be known, if it isn't already, that I don't consider for a second whether someone will be offended by a scene. I consider whether it's real, or if it seems real to me. This pandering to adult "sensibilities" is part of what keeps YA fiction from being considered real fiction. Someone gasps and grasps his or her chest at the mention of MASTURBATION and folks seem to think the rest of us need to recoil too.

For years kids - teenagers - came into my office to say how unheard they felt by the adults in their lives; parents and teachers. We're either able to hear about their lives in their native tongue, or we're not. When we're not, they stop talking to us. Who can blame them? There isn't a teacher out there who couldn't say, "There are scenes in this book that make me uneasy. They might make you uneasy too. Maybe we should talk about why we feel uneasy. Then we can talk about the book."

I wouldn't give Sherman's book to just any fifth grader either, because it would be beyond many of them, but I'd sure as hell give it to an eighth grader. And I'd let any kid who wanted to read it, read it. If it's beyond them, they'll say so. Or they'll put it down.

And I have to tell you, I don't buy the Catholic argument. I've had some of the best discussions in my long string of school presentations in Catholic middle and high schools. There are a whole bunch of Catholic teachers and Jesuits who aren't one bit afraid of talking about real things in kids' lives. I was given the St. Katharine Drexel Award by the Catholic Library Association after writing about abortion and masturbation and sex abuse. There's no Catholic shroud to hide behind here.

This censorship thing has gotten out of hand because people who understand intellectual freedom are less willing to stand up for it, and because people who truly understand the nature of adolescence and pre-adolescence have become unwilling to speak up. The dis-ease we feel dealing with kids is exactly the reason to deal with the real stuff.

Chris Crutcher

And a further response from the librarian
Wow—I am blown away by the fact that Chris Crutcher responded to me—I have read all his books and love them, have them all in my room, so I thought a lot about his response to my post. Am I really a prude?? I thought I was just trying to not get fired from my job!! My school is 100 percent Caucasian, affluent kids. And I teach the gifted ones. Pretty much all of my students are smarter than me and live lives I can only imagine. They have traveled places I will never go, have summer houses I will never afford, drive in cars I will never be in. They are exactly the kind of kids that should read this book and see what another life is like, but I fear there is no point of entry for them. I say this having taught them for a while now and hearing/reading their responses to literature from other kinds of people, living other kinds of lives. They are so insulated that they have a hard time believing that any one really has those kinds of problems. For example, the 8th graders work in soup kitchens to earn service hours for their Confirmation, but in a class discussion about homelessness, they could not understand why people don’t just get a job. I tried to talk about addictions, mental illnesses, the kind of hopelessness that makes people stop trying, and they say, oh, if they wanted to badly enough, they would get help. The idea that help does not exist is not part of their world. Having said all that, how do I as a teacher bring them stories of REAL lives, like Alexie’s, and keep my job and have them really BUY it, not think the author is sensationalizing because “no one really lives that way”, which is what I can hear them saying???? Ultimately, I have to respect where I work. I choose to work in a Catholic school that is not very liberal about this stuff, so any discussion on my part is sort of moot, but it’s interesting. How do any of us really find a point of entry to stories that are SO different from our own? I think I am a pretty sophisticated reader (although after this maybe not!!!!), and sometimes a story from another culture is so far from my own experience that I cannot find a point of entry. Anyway, I am getting too far flung from my initial post.
Thanks for the response…hope I am not barred from this forum on account of my prudeishness!!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008