August 2005

Colleen Mondor

features

Attention Censors

As the Bookslut blog has made us all aware, there has been a steady upswing in banned and challenged books in school libraries lately. I paid only casual attention to what goes on in Oklahoma and Arkansas (and Virginia and Texas and…), until I read two books that would have set off all kinds of alarms for groups like Parents Against Bad Books in Schools (no, I’m not making that up). The Order of the Poison Oak by Brent Hartinger depicts the summer camp experience of a gay teenager and his friends and Perfect, by Natasha Friend describes the struggles of a young bulimic. In each case I was impressed by how honestly the authors portrayed the lives of their teen characters using a style that echoed what young adult author Kathe Koja wrote me a few months ago: “There is no time of our lives that's more intense than those teen years, where our heart's stakes are so very high.”

Writers who are drawn to the young adult age group know, however, that they are mining troubled waters, and that their stories have the difficult task of addressing the emotional turmoil of teenagers without collapsing under the weight of adult themes. Add to this gay primary characters or a complicated illness like bulimia and you might as well be turning on a blinking light that attracts everyone who is afraid of boys and girls getting ideas (any ideas) from books. It’s funny because young adult authors are often accused of not being literary or serious enough when compared to authors writing for adult audiences. I think that’s fairly ridiculous, because clearly when it comes to taking chances with your stories, these are the writers who are swimming in the deep end, and, more often than not, they willingly go back for more.

Brent Hartinger wrote his first book, Geography Club, in the 1990s, and it was published in 2001. In Geography, Russel, who is gay, and his close friends start a club at their high school so other gay, bisexual and lesbian teens can be part of a group that understands what it is like to have to live a lie about their sexuality. They call themselves the Geography Club in the hopes that other students will be too bored by the premise to join. (The club is open to straight friends, but they are all collectively concerned about protecting their privacy from the larger school.) Of course everything gets complicated very quickly (this is high school after all), but the book reads more like a young adult buddy picture than anything else. Hartinger is a master at crafting a high school setting, and Russel, Min, Gunnar and all the rest are just great characters. They reminded me of my group of friends when I was 16, because more than anything they just want to make their way through the insanity that is high school without losing their minds (or, in a few cases, without getting the crap kicked out of themselves). Is it a gay book? Does it advocate the “homosexual lifestyle”? Will it make you gay by reading it? Heaven help me.

The brand new Order of the Poison Oak is the sequel to Geography and follows our group of misfits through summer vacation and camp, and everything that camp entails. There is romance and there are broken hearts and Russel is still gay and his friend Min is still bi. That means this is still a book about gay teens, and Hartinger is still treading water. But as he has become more successful, he has found himself forced to become more aware of just what it means to write about gay kids:

“I do think about these things [choosing a controversial subject matter] when I’m writing now, but I didn’t when I was writing Geography Club, in part because I was naïve, and in part because the world has become much more socially conservative since then (2001). That said, ‘push the envelope’ concerns are never in my mind, even now. I write what I think the story dictates and needs. With Poison Oak, I knew the book was a little more explicit than my first two books. But I also knew that it was set at a summer camp, so some skinny-dipping seemed required, not to mention summer romance. I knew I wanted to pursue that aspect of Russel’s social development and I wanted to talk about safer sex, which will be an issue for virtually all young gay men eventually. The third and fourth books in the series, which I’m writing right now, aren’t sexual at all; they’re about Russel’s coming out to his parents. But I have no regrets that I wrote the book I did, and the reader response has been 100 percent appreciative.”

That positive reader response is a key reason why Natasha Friend believes she is on the right track with her novel about grief and bulimia, Perfect. But because she has written so honestly about the disorder and graphically depicted just how a bulimic binges and purges, she has run into her own set of difficulties. Perfect is a middle-grade novel, aimed at an audience between roughly the ages of 9 and 14. As Friend put it to me in a recent email, “I knew that writing about eating disorders for a middle-grade audience was going to get some people’s panties in a twist or at least raise some eyebrows. Who wants to think about their 11-year-old daughter or fifth-grade student sticking her fingers down her throat after lunch? But the reality is that younger and younger girls are developing warped body images and disordered eating habits, and the best time to catch them before the point of no return is when they’re young, before self-destructive habits become thoroughly entrenched.”

But still, as Friend acknowledges, not everyone wants to accept or believe that her book is necessary. She has “run into a number of roadblocks, promotion-wise, particularly with schools.” What’s funny about all this is that while Friend believes firmly that knowledge is power, she has to wonder just what people think her book is going to do to its readers. As she puts it, “Some educators fear that teaching about eating disorders in effect may be teaching kids to develop eating disorders. (Perfect as how-to-guide. ‘Look, kids, isn’t bulimia awesome?’)” After reading the book you will know that message is simply not found anywhere in the text; in fact bulimia is portrayed as something downright terrifying through the eyes of Isabelle and the actions of both herself and her friend Ashley.

All too often though, both Friend and Hartinger must deal not with what they have actually written but with what other people think their books might mean, or could mean. They have to deal with a thousand different ways in which their words may be twisted and perceived by people they have never met and who have no desire to meet them. This is a situation that adult authors rarely find themselves embroiled in, but something that comes all too often with the young adult territory. For Hartinger it has been particularly difficult:

“...the problem with some of these folks is the very existence of gay people. Books that portray gay people as normal, as well-adjusted, as happy -- as anything other than ‘perverts’ -- well, that’s the threat to the message they want to send to kids, which is basically the message that existed in the 1950s, prior to 50 years of research on the subject of homosexuality. My opinion is that my books pretty accurately reflect my experience as a gay teen, and the experience of thousands of people who have written to me. To say that my books should not exist is to say this information, this very valid take on the world, should be censored.”

This determination to accurately reflect true experience is echoed by Friend who writes, “I believe that I -- and any other author who chooses to -- can have a positive impact on today’s young readers by broaching tough, even taboo topics in an accessible way. Judy Blume did that, for hundreds of thousands (millions?) of readers in the '70s and '80s and continues to today. I’m not necessarily setting out to write about specific problems or to tackle controversial subject matter, but I’m also not afraid of a little resistance from the adult world.”

It’s good that Friend isn’t afraid to face such resistance, because a large and vocal segment of the population isn’t giving her much of a choice. It is ironic that the fast-selling Clique and Gossip Girls series (the “equivalent of the Desperate Housewives for the teen set,” according to Friend) are the acceptable standard, while problem books like Perfect or Hartinger’s other title, about a group home for foster children, The Last Chance Texaco, are considered outside of the mainstream. Even Harry Potter (could there be a more mainstream series than that?) faces continuous challenges throughout the United States. And while I admire both Friend and Hartinger (and Chris Crutcher and James Howe and all the others) for sticking to their guns and writing for an audience that is desperate to be heard, I can’t help but think that this is all really too hard. Both Hartinger and Friend could have written books for adult audiences similar to the ones they published, and they would have been easily accepted, perhaps even lauded, by readers everywhere. But they chose not to do that and have been steadily learning how to cope with the ramifications of that decision.

Natasha Friend was certain all along that Perfect would be for young adults, as one of her primary missions from the beginning was to “jump-start a dialogue among young girls about the issues raised in the book: namely, body image and eating disorders.”

For Brent Hartinger the choice was made more by his teen protagonists than anything else. As he puts it, “…since so many of my books were about teenage characters, and since I liked so many of the existing teen books, well, maybe I was a good fit for the Y.A. genre. Duh.” Their individual decisions to write for young adult audiences have probably transformed their work in ways they never imagined. Most certainly it has to have changed the ways in which they view the world around them, because their readers are so dependent upon them to provide a mirror for their own solitary dreams and disasters. Friend, for example, has heard from many readers who are concerned about themselves or their friends and looking for guidance...guidance that they are clearly not comfortable searching for at home.

And maybe that is why so many of these books by authors like Hartinger and Friend are banned and challenged in America. It is not so much that the stories show readers something their parents don’t want them to see, but that readers identify with the books so strongly that they turn to the characters and writers for reassurance, and turn away from their own families. Maybe it’s all about control in the end--control of what we read, what we do, what we think--and it begins when we are too young to even realize that it’s happening.

Ultimately Brent Hartinger and Natasha Friend have written four books between them that have great plots, believable family drama and all the angst that goes along with the teenage years. Some of the kids are quietly desperate for help while others are bravely charging into the dark, determined to make their way even if no one else will help them. One common thread for both authors, though, was recently expressed by Hartinger when I asked him why he wrote books for young adult audiences. “In all of my books so far, there is a moment when many of my characters, and especially my main characters, are confronted with a choice: They can stick up for something that is greater than themselves, or they can be selfish and do what will make them happy," Hartinger says. "In other words, they can move beyond their own little bubble, or not.”

Brent leads his characters into the wider world just as Natasha leads hers, and their readers are carried along with them. For anyone who has ever felt isolated or afraid or overwhelmed by everything that surrounds them, these two authors provide an excellent path out of life’s chaos. And for everyone who thinks they reveal too much, then there is always a different place for them to go. They can leave the libraries to the rest of us who want to learn and know and understand. They can go put their heads in the sand while the rest of us are out here living. Or better yet, they can let Brent Hartinger and Natasha Friend and all the other fearless young adult authors show kids everywhere that growing up is not such a bad thing, no matter who you are or where you are or what you feel. "You are not alone," they are saying with their books, "you are never alone." And readers everywhere, both young and old, should be grateful to them for that. Anyone who loves a good, brave book should be grateful.

Perfect by Natasha Friend
Milkweed Editions
ISBN 1571316523
172 pages

Geography Club by Brent Hartinger
Harper Tempest
ISBN 0060012234
226 pages

The Last Chance Texaco by Brent Hartinger
Harper Tempest
ISBN 0060509120
225 pages

The Order of the Poison Oak by Brent Hartinger
Harper Tempest
ISBN 0060567309
211 pages