When Band-Aids and Teddy Bears Won't Do
In May 2005, Cary McNair told the St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Austin, TX that if they did not remove Annie Proulx's short story "Brokeback Mountain" from its 12th grade reading list, he would pull a donation of $3 million to the school's rebuilding fund. St. Andrew's board of trustees opted to leave the story on the reading list and let McNair keep his money. Board member Bill Miller said, "St. Andrew's has a policy not to accept conditional gifts, whether it's $5 or $500,000."
The school's decision caught the attention of author Lisa Yee, who posted the story on a listserv for young adult fiction authors. Two other authors had the same immediate response. Jordan Sonnenblick said, "[Mark Williams] and I posted back at the same time, 'We need to all send books to that school to support them.'"
With that, AS IF! (Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom) was born. Forty young adult fiction writers agreed to send signed copies of their books to the school to show their appreciation. Sonnenblick said, "I called the school and asked if they could put up a Freedom Library display, showing the signed books that all the authors sent to them."
Since then, AS IF! has been weighing in on book challenges across the country. The community's members, including Brent Hartinger, Rosemary Graham, and Sarah Darer Littman, post stories about challenges on AS IF's blog and in the Friends of AS IF discussion group. Debates often occur in the blog's comments. "We've had some really interesting intellectual conversation," said Sonnenblick. "Rosemary Graham writes really eloquent logical responses, backed up by all sorts of information from the ALA and other sources. Thank God for Rosemary."
However, the group does more than just write about controversies. "I contact the people who are on the receiving end of the challenge -- librarians, typically," he said. "I also contact local media." He later said, "I'm sort of AS IF's media hellraiser."
AS IF! can even bring a story to national attention, as evidenced by press coverage of the The Higher Power of Lucky controversy. Objections to the Newberry-Award winning book were raised on the school library media listserv LM_Net because of author Susan Patron's use of the word "scrotum" on the first page.
In a Publishers Weekly article, Durango, CO librarian Dana Nilsson said, "The inclusion of genitalia does not add to the story one bit and that is my objection. Because of that one word, I would not be able to read that book aloud. There are so many other options that the author could have used instead." In a post on LM_Net about the book, Nilsson wrote, "It seems as if it is there just for shock." This and other posts expressed concerns that parents would challenge the book.
"People were saying Susan Patron put the word 'scrotum' in her book to boost sales, like that would be a good plan," Sonnenblick said. "People think authors are cynical and manipulative, and, in my experience, that is never true in the kid-lit world. There is more pressure not to be controversial."
Sonnenblick read about the posts in the LM_Net archives and said to himself, "It's a Newbery Award winner. Of course, you're going to have it." He added, "I waited for people to stand up for intellectual freedom, and I ended up posting to child_lit asking people who could post there to take a stand."
A Publishers Weekly editor saw the post on child_lit and assigned reporter Shannon Maughan to write about it, around the time Sonnenblick had contacted her about the story himself. "I felt like I had helped to plant the seed in two ways at once," he said. "I was asked, 'Why don't you blog about this' and I thought, 'Why blog when you can ask Publishers Weekly to write about it?'"
From there, the controversy was covered the front page of the Sunday New York Times. CNN aired a piece the story, while the NPR program Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me joked about the uproar. Barbara Walters even read the novel's first page on The View. Sonnenblick said his work on this story was "my crowning moment so far."
Many of the authors on AS IF's roster have been subjected to challenges themselves. "It's really painful for an author to get challenged," he said. "People say horrible things about them." For example, "Brent [Hartinger] really gets hammered by censors because he deals with a lot of raw and more explicit themes in his writing. Altruistically, he hates it for this to happen to other authors."
Because Sonnenblick hasn't faced a challenge of his work, he said, "I can honestly say that I'm not doing this out of self-interest. I am more passionate about this as an ex-teacher."
During his teaching days, he was never involved with "a hardcore challenge, but I did sit at a meeting with teachers and administrators discussing The Diary of Anne Frank because a mother had asked, 'Don't you have something more uplifting for a child to read?'"
Not to say that he doesn't understand the other side of the battle. "I have empathy for parents, because they're trying to protect their kids. I have two children of my own."
That said, there are often situations like Laura Mallory's crusade to get the Harry Potter books banned in Gwinnett County, GA. "[Y]ou look at someone like Laura Mallory... who won't give up, appealing it to Georgia's Superior Court, and she is so clearly out of line. Someone has to say, 'You're being unreasonable.' But reasonable people are too measured to handle them. They're not holding back, and you're fighting with Band-Aids and teddy bears, and they've got sticks and stones."