By Andrea Bronson
Monday, October 22, 2007
Books for female teens are booming, along with a rising tide of censorship against them. During October, in a celebration of reading freedom, some of the most challenged authors join their female fans for online chats.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Author Carolyn Mackler will meet her fans Oct. 23 in an online chat forum that connects young-adult book authors with their teen readers. Mackler is just one of the writers featured during October's "31 Flavorite Authors for Teens" event, sponsored by the Young Adult Library Services Association and the ReaderGirlz Web site.
Mackler got this chance to talk directly to her readers after 3,495 friends on MySpace picked her as a favorite. However, Mackler's popularity among young adults has also put her in the spotlight for negative criticism and even censorship.
Of the 31 authors in this month's online event, 10 have had their books banned and two have had their books challenged in censorship attempts.
When Mackler received an invitation from the Chicago-based American Library Association to participate in a "read out" event during Banned Books Week, Sept. 29 through Oct. 6, she was nonetheless surprised to learn that she placed fourth on their 2006 list of most challenged books, released last April.
One of her novels set off a censorship scuffle in a school district in Carroll County, Md. "The Earth, My Butt and Other Big, Round Things," features a central character who is a larger-than-average 15-year-old girl from a family of perfectionists. In January 2006, 350 students there signed a petition to put the book back in their schools. They won and enjoyed a notable triumph for anti-censorship.
However, schools and libraries in many other parts of the United States have silently removed the best-selling, award-winning novel from their shelves.
The American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom is responsible for developing, recommending and maintaining an anti-censorship program. Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director, says that locations where challenges occur must be kept confidential to protect the librarians and others who report them from losing their jobs or being ostracized from their communities.
Across the nation, libraries and schools are facing budget pressures and at least 15 municipalities have privatized or outsourced their public libraries, raising fears among some local library advocates that they will lose influence in deciding which books are offered to the public when book selection decisions are left in the hands of private companies.
Those who criticize the novel claim it is unsuitable for this target age group because of its "sexual content, anti-family, offensive language," the American Library Association reports.
"The book is about self-esteem, feeling good about yourself as you are," says Mackler. "I write about normal teenage girls who have many facets to their personalities and lives. I really try to reflect the teenage world as it is. I don't gloss over things; I don't ignore the ugly stuff."
Four other books on the 2006 most challenged list, released last April, were also censored for female sexual content: Cecily Von Ziegesar's "Gossip Girl" series, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's "Alice" series, and "The Bluest Eye" and "Beloved," by Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison.
The book market for female teens is booming, says Paula Brehm-Heeger, president of the 50-year-old Young Adult Library Services Association, the fastest growing division of the American Library Association. "There's an explosion of publishing for teens now, especially books for teenage girls because it's a market that really responds."
But as the number of published books for female teens has risen so has the number of bans targeting those that delve into young women's lifestyles and sexuality. Although there is no official tally for how many teen books have been censored, out of 3,019 reported challenges between 2000 and 2005 to the Office for Intellectual Freedom, 1,824 were initiated by parents and 2,289 of the institutions dealing with demands for censorship were schools or school libraries.
For every challenge reported, four or five remain unreported, says Judith Krug, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom.
A challenge is an attempt to censor books, while a ban is the actual removal of the book from a school or library. In the United States, a complaint from a single parent can sometimes restrict an entire school district's access to a book, says Mackler.
"We want to encourage students to speak out," says Judy Blume, who has seen most of her books--from those penned for teens such as "Forever" to books for children such as "Tales From a Fourth Grade Nothing"--challenged.
Blume, a friend and mentor to Mackler, is the second-most challenged author from 1990 to 2004, according to the American Library Association, after Alvin Schwartz, a children's horror writer whose books have been challenged for cannibalism, murder and occult subjects.
Blume wonders at Mackler's ranking. "To me, Carolyn's book has nothing in it that could possibly offend anyone."
Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, author of the third most challenged book of 2006, remembers when a group of "grinning, 12-year-old boys" came to a bookstore to buy "Alice" books.
"'You must really like these,' I said as I signed my name, and one guy leaned over and whispered, 'We learn about girls this way,'" Naylor recounts.
The majority of fans of Naylor, Blume and Mackler, however, are female teens and "tweens," ranging between the ages of 10 and 17.
Teen Reads, a Web site founded in 1997 to encourage teens to develop a lifelong love for reading, features the "Ultimate Teen Reading List," 250 books selected by teens for teens. Carol Fitzgerald, president and founder, says the site is predominantly for girls because they read more fiction, while boys read more nonfiction.
Fitzgerald suggests that female teens' books attract more censors because more exist and they contain more sexual content.
Naylor believes that gender-based sexual expectations play a role. "As long as girls are taught to say no, I suppose it's assumed that male sexuality can be reined in. But if girls are described as getting the 'hots,' why goodness gracious, who knows what will happen?"
Blume, Naylor and Mackler--the latter two participated in the Chicago "Read Out" during Banned Books Week--say they seek to portray teen life and sexuality realistically.
"As people who really advocate for teenage girls, we want them to be empowered in all ways," says Mackler. "To not read about sexuality and to not have any information on it will not make a teenager not have sex; it will make them go into sexual situations uninformed."
Naylor laughs at how little she learned about such issues from books she read as a child. "Are you kidding? Did Nancy Drew even have breasts?"
Blume says masturbation is particularly taboo, remembering a caller on a radio show who told her that she was teaching children masturbation was healthy while they were teaching it was a sin.
"There is so much fear that if your child reads this, your child will know it, then your child might do it, or it might happen. Where else in the world are we so afraid of puberty?"
Authors should write the best book possible, without fear of censorship, Blume argues, because censors can challenge any subject.
But Blume's younger counterpart feels the censor over her shoulder. "I get publicity from censorship," Mackler says, "but how many places will my book not be read or purchased or looked at? I write books to be read."
Andrea Bronson is a freelance journalist based in New York City.
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