May 24, 2013

Sherman Alexie and Laurie Halse Anderson address censorship


Yesterday the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression released videos of bestselling authors Sherman Alexie and Laurie Halse Anderson discussing the censorship of young adult literature.

For a time, Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was the second most banned book in the United States; the most banned book was And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. “Apparently the ambitious book-banners of the United States thought two gay penguins were more dangerous than a reservation Indian boy who mentions that he likes masturbation,” he jokes.

Filmed in February during the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute, Alexie’s speech focuses on the positive letters he’s received from fans, especially boys.

“I know that there are kids who need these books, and I know there are kids like me, who aren’t frightened by these books, but dream of them. Immodestly speaking, I only wish when I was young and growing up on the reservation that there was a book like mine about alcoholism, death, destruction, violence, and yes, masturbation, because that’s real life.”

Anderson’s speech begins with a reminder that she has four kids of her own, and that she knows how scary it can be to parent a teenager. As the author of Speak, she talks about the difficulty of addressing sexuality with young adults when they are “exposed to unprecedented amounts of sexual behavior.” But banning books isn’t the answer, she says.

“Literature is the safe, and the traditional vehicle, that mankind has used to pass morals, lessons, and wisdom on from generation to generation. The modern way of saying that is: books save lives. We do that with contemporary young adult literature. It surprises people, and scares some, because it’s an accurate reflection of the way that today’s teenagers talk and think, and the issues that they’re dealing with. Our books have to be honest in order to connect to the teen reader today. American teens are desperate for responsible, trustworthy adults to talk to about some of these issues. Sometimes they can only find the answers that they’re seeking—the moral answers, moral guidance—in books.

“…Not allowing kids to think about, talk about, discuss these issues leaves them vulnerable–leaves them in darkness–and it opens up the opportunity for them to be hurt. Censorship is the child of fear, and the father of ignorance. Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them. They need us to be brave enough to give them great books so that they can grow into the strong women and men that we need them to be.”

These videos and readings from a number of banned books are available on the ABFFEE website.


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.