It’s Banned Book Week!

Val/ September 25, 2019/ updates

Week 1: The Story of the Song: Open Up

So, inspired by a band that I like (The Lost Immigrants), I’ve decided to write a post a week to share a little about the origins of each song on World on Fire. In honor of banned book week, I’m starting with “Open Up”.

I wrote “Open Up” about 2 years ago, inspired by a battle over a book that some people in our school district were trying to ban. (We’ve since moved and aren’t in that district anymore.) The book was Eleanor & Park by author Rainbow Rowell. The issue came up because some parents thought that the language and some sexual situations in the book were too mature for their 8th graders, and that the book should not be part of their ELA (English Language Arts) class. My son was just in 4th grade at the time, and not involved in the issue, but it came to my attention that there had been a very contentious school board meeting where the school board ended up pulling the book.

Some personal context/backstory. I’ve always been an avid reader. And often a consumer of literature written for people older than my current age. When I was in 10th grade or so, I read a book by Norma Klein about a woman who wanted a baby but wasn’t married. When my mother (who was Catholic and very conservative) found out I’d read the book, she grounded me from buying or checking out books for a period. I was naturally upset, but mainly I was hurt by the lack of faith my mother demonstrated in me. I knew from what she said that she didn’t think I should read books like that because it would give me “ideas”… ie, I might go out and do what the person in the book did. Now, granted, when I was in 5th grade, I didn’t make the best choices after reading Harriet the Spy, and my journal fell into enemy hands. 🙂 But I certainly had no intention of becoming a single mother. And the book gave me insight into what that experience would be like, which helped increase not my desire for emulating the main character’s choices, but my compassion for people making similar choices. Plus, at 16 years old, it was frustrating to be told what I was or wasn’t allowed to read, especially since I was a straight A, well-behaved student.

Fast forward to 2016, and the Eleanor & Park debate. A second heated school board meeting ensued, and the board decided (in accord with their written policies) to form a “Reconsideration Committee” to study the book and the issue. I joined the committee which was comprised of parents, teachers, community members, and at least one librarian. We all read the book, and many reviews, and took into consideration the age of the kids in the ELA class, and the concerns of parents on both sides of the issue. In the end, we recommended that the book could be taught in the 8th grade, but that families should have the ability for their teen to “opt out” from reading the book. It seemed a fair compromise, but I know some parents were still not pleased, and would rather that we had called for the book to be banned.

Eleanor & Park is a book about 2 teens who meet under trying circumstances on their daily school bus ride, and fall in love. They are surrounded by kids who are often cruel, and who make questionable choices. Eleanor’s step father is extremely abusive, and Park and his family help Eleanor escape from her terrible situation at home. This is certainly not a cheery, happy book, but what struck me all three times that I’ve now read the book, is how the two main characters end up making good choices, or helping each other make good choices, despite the chaos and negative influences in their lives.

It made me sad that some parents in our district couldn’t see beyond the language and sexual situations (which are written in a fairly discreet way, and in which the main characters do not actually have sex) to the heart of the book. I know that this was partially because untrue information was actually spread about the book at a local church… fan fiction based on the book was falsely said to be part of the book, and this falsehood was spread by a local radio personality who talked about the book and our school on his show. But it especially made me sad to hear other parents say things like “why does it matter if our kids read more female authors??” and “my child doesn’t ride the bus, and doesn’t face issues like this, so why should he read the book?”

It matters because for a long time, women have been treated as lesser members of society, and often haven’t been help up as examples of amazing creators of literature, art, etc. It matters because although your kid may not ride the bus, other kids do. It matters because a middle school ELA class should be a safe space to have discussions about bullying and abuse in the context of discussing literature, and some of those discussions may actually save lives. And it matters because parenting is all about teaching our children how to become good people, and then learning how to let go and trust that they received our lessons, and will make good choices.

I believe that reading opens us up to all of the worlds of possibility that we can’t or don’t experience in our own lives. And hopefully, reading about people’s experiences will help us to have greater empathy, and that is something we could certainly use more of in our country!

Here are some links relating to Banned Books Week and book censorship.

open up
step forward
find a new reality
open up
step forward
suspend your disbelief

the way, the path,
a point of view
breathe, learn

I need to see, to touch, to feel
beyond what I can grasp
I need to know, to love, to fall
to fall in love at last

lock up
step backward
shutter your heart, your mind
lock up
step backward
hands over their eyes

I read to weep, to rage, to wail
at truths I wish were lies
I read to cry, to hurt, to fall
to fall back into time

open up
step forward
dive into another life
open up
step forward
watch your soul take flight

I read to sleep, perchance to dream
of lives I cannot live
I need to be, to breathe, to fall,
to fall and to forgive
to fall and to forgive
to fall and to forgive

Copyright 2019 Val Blaha.

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