Banned Books, Bad Words & Kangaroos

It is Banned Book Week and many people are speaking out to support their favorite books, libraries, bookstores, librarians, teachers, gatekeepers and authors that want to provide a vast array of books for a vast array of readers, mainly young people. I love reading these heartfelt stories, moving tributes and pleas to allow kids to find their own needs, explore their questions safely and brave the unknown in the pages of their favorite books. I will even admit to rage when I read some of the stories about book burning, book banning & the quiet smothering of readers away from the books that could very well have saved a life if they had found the right hands. I thought I had nothing to contribute to this conversation until I realized that I did.

I read this post on Beth Revis' Tumblr about the quiet banning for fear of what "parents might say" and how that usually takes the form of any book that includes the shocking subject of mutually consensual sex. Violence? Fine. Rape? Fine. "Issues" such as drugs, alcohol, suicide, abuse or neglect? Fine. But sex between unmarried folks? No. And as a parent, I can empathize, as a teacher, I can sympathize, but as for me, I can't condone it. Not for a second. Here's why:

Do you know who this is? You should!

I am a sex educator. I have been for over 20 years, back when I was a teen and outraged that anyone--anyone--could die because of unprotected sex. I decided that I'd much rather talk about something potentially embarrassing and uncomfortable in an honest way and be demonized for it later than find out that someone got sick/depressed/hurt/killed when I could have said or done something to avoid it. I respected Dr. Ruth a lot growing up. (I still do.) Even now, as a mom of a boy and a girl, I take the stance that I am honest with them about sex and their bodies and feelings and treat them with respect. This means that I didn't rely on some book or video to tell my kids about sex--I told them. In fact, I waited for my daughter to explain it to me (she figured it out from talking about cells and a book about flowers and gardening) and we treated it as what it is: part of being alive, i.e. eating, breathing, growing, excreting, procreating and dying. I don't think any of these subjects should be avoided or shunned. Her genitals are as much a part of her body as her elbows or toes.

Now I understand that not everyone shares my perspective, but as a parent I want my child to grow up to be a happy, healthy adult and I think that's not a terribly foreign concept for any parent. But, you see, I include in this definition that I hope my child has a healthy and happy sex life, that s/he feels comfortable in his/her body and that neither my son or daughter will be afraid to stand up for themselves, not to feel pressured or bullied, and bring up important conversations with their friends and future love interests, treating others' bodies and feelings with the same respect. And overlapping this is the understanding that everyone makes mistakes in life and that the important thing is to be able to grow and learn and understand and, perhaps most importantly, *survive* those mistakes. It still makes me crazy that some of these "uncomfortable" mistakes can kill or negatively impact your future happiness with someone down the road when these particular problems can be 100% avoidable.

Therefore, it shouldn't be a surprise that even before becoming a YA author that I don't shy away from (in)delicate issues and that I am not a proponent of banning. Except maybe banning "banning" the same way that I am tolerant of most things except intolerance. Oh the irony! What does this have to do with the subject of book banning? Well, I'll tell you:

Years ago, I was hired to do a Peer Modeling training where select high school seniors were to be trained in the subject of HIV transmission in order to have these sorts of educational conversations with their underclass peers. It was a fairly straightforward concept and, since it was the subject of transmission, I knew I wouldn't be harassed about whether this would be "approved sex education"** or not. I'd done this hundreds of times before and was well-prepared. I could tell this was a decent group of interested teens, none of them having been forced to be there and mature enough to have this kind of training. What I hadn't expected was any problem from the adult in the room.

Caveat: I love teachers. I am a teacher. My family is full of teachers and, in fact, I was a junior high teacher, myself. But what I discovered early on was even while going for my Master's in Education with equally committed and driven adults passionate about learning and reaching out to the next generation, was that I was one of only three would-be educators in our Adolescent Sexuality class that could say words like "penis" or "vagina" without blushing, coughing or laughing apologetically. And these were the adults. That's the sort of thing I'm talking about here.

Anyway, five minutes before the start of class, the teacher called me into a corner away from my white board and markers and in a hushed voice quietly asked if I could please make an adjustment to the lesson before I began. Surprised, (since this was a training on HIV transmission and there isn't a lot of leeway on what should/shouldn't be covered), I asked what she meant.

Teacher: "Could you not use the word..." she whispered, glancing around nervously. "'Sex?'"
I stared at her. (Un)Fortunately in that moment, my particular brand of humor kicked in.
Me: "Sure," I said. "How about I use the word 'kangaroo' instead?"
She stared at me, flabbergasted. Alas, I kept going.
Me: "No, really. We can talk about oral kangaroo, anal kangaroo, safe and unsafe kangaroo..." I stopped when I saw her eyes beginning to glaze and wisely opted not to start in about what I could substitute with the word 'koala.' I shook my head.
Me: "No," I said as kindly and firmly as I could. "I am going to have to use the word 'sex.'"
Because I did have to. And that was that.

Is that how this thing got in there?!

Honestly, I could have done the whole thing using the word "kangaroo" and probably had a great time with the teens while doing so! Still, the weird thing was that I couldn't even conceive of having this sort of conversation without using the correct terminology--to ban that word would be to undermine the whole point of having clear and accurate communication, the very thing I was there to do to the best of my ability. And while a few kids looked uncomfortable or nudged their friends with knowing looks, everyone heard me and they got it at whatever level they were open to receiving it and I left feeling pretty confident that they could pass on this sort of information and battle misinformation in a way that I could not. And sometimes, that's what it is to tell the stories we wish to tell. We have to use the right words, the right voice, the right subject, the right details even if other people might think they are the wrong ones. That book might not be right for them--and that's okay--but it may be the perfect book for someone else.

I understand that books can be viewed as commercially sensationalized (like most of our media) and take on things that are "gritty" or "dark" as a way of making sales and I understand the want to shield and protect our children, gift them a place of innocence and safety for as long as possible, and there are plenty of books that do just that, but the truth is that a lot of life is outside of our control and there is a fine line between innocence and ignorance and dangerous. And there are plenty of books to explore this, too, if we let readers do just that. Readers seek out books that let them explore these places where non-readers might look to real life to do some exploring. I know which one I'd prefer my kids make their mistakes! And a deeper truth is, if you believe Elizabeth Gilbert, that these are stories gifted to us that we get to share with others and that if the story needs to be told, we should tell it to the best of our abilities even (or especially) if it's uncomfortable. We should push our envelopes, explore beyond our comfort zones and be as honest and true as possible to ourselves, our subjects and our readers.

I know that not everyone shares my views on these subjects or on many values that I hold dear, but that insight--that others have different but equally valuable opinions--came from my upbringing and from books I read. Lots and lots of books. Books that I still adore and treasure on my bookshelves and in my libraries and even some that make me cringe inside, but I would never keep them from someone who seeks them out because the book that I can't stand may be the book that becomes someone else's favorite, their lifeline, their solace, the thing that tells them "You are not alone."

Inside a book can be the safest place on earth.

** By the way, "approved sex education" was then (and unfortunately continues to be now) an "abstinence only" message which has proven across the boards never to work. Never. Not once in all of history. But when I had this sort of discomfort pop up (un)expectedly, I would try to honor the administration's unspoken request by offering two options: either 1) I would speak about all the options surrounding sex education, including abstinence, male and female condoms, spermicides, dental damns, etc., or 2) I would only speak about the two 100% safe sexual acts: abstinence and masturbation. In all my years, I've never had anyone opt for #2.

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