Today I am here to introduce Kali Wallace, author of Shallow Graves, which just so happens to be one of the most awesome books I have read this year (and probably ever). Kali has so kindly written this guest post around the topic of books and authors being negatively reacted to “because of the children”. This post is absolutely brilliant, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did!
thinking of the children
“Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.”
— Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man
There’s a lot of talk in the children’s book community recently about the pushback certain books and authors are receiving for writing and talking about subjects that some people believe is inappropriate for their intended audience. For example: authors being disinvited from school visits, books being removed from school reading lists, librarians forced to take down Pride Month displays, etc. There are numerous examples, and they all seem to follow the exact same script.
Teacher/Librarian: *chooses book they think will appeal to their readership*
Concern Parent/Patron/School Board Member: I am shocked! Shocked! This book is not appropriate for children.
School/Library: Oh gosh oh dear never mind that book is not appropriate for children. *pulls book/disinvites author*
Authors: ARE YOU KIDDING ME CHILDREN ARE EXACTLY WHO WE WROTE THAT BOOK FOR THAT WAS NOT AN ACCIDENT.
Dramatized flippancy aside, I do know this is a more complicated problem than knee-jerk reactions and resultant outcry imply. I know that only some of these objections are fueled by bigotry, some are fueled by ignorance, and some are driven by genuine concern, and I know it’s not always easy to tell the difference. I certainly know that the vast majority of teachers and librarians want to get all the books into the hands of all kids and are trying very hard to do that within the confines of the system in which they work. They’re in a precarious position these days, and many have to weigh parent or patron complaints against the other demands of their jobs. And I know parents are struggling against a constant deluge of information directed at their children that they barely know how to deal with.
None of this is new. The American Library Association has been collecting statistics on challenged and banned books since the early 1990s, and those making the challenges have always overwhelmingly been parents. (See some interesting stats and trends here.) What is different these days is how quickly the shear quantity and variety of children’s and teen books dealing with a wide variety of serious topics has exploded in the past few years, and how it continues to grow. It’s not a problem that’s going away any time soon.
I’m not going to try to address all the different reasons that go into the decisions involved with disinviting authors from schools or discouraging kids from reading certain books. But I do think it’s worth looking at the good-faith objections that aren’t made with bigotry or reactionary intent in mind (if that’s where people are coming from, they’re not going to be interested in anything I have to say anything), but instead come from a place of real concern. Because that concern seems to be borne of an assumption that isn’t malicious, exactly, but I do think it is severely misguided: the idea that maybe those books are all well and good for other people, but my people, and most especially my kids, don’t need those ideas right now. They don’t need those stories. They’re safe from all those bad parts of life. They’re not ready to deal with them. It will change them. Let us protect them as long as we can. Let them be innocent a little while longer.
In response to that I would ask the concerned parties a question: Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure the children in your life don’t need that book you’re objecting to?
Because some of them do. Some of them absolutely do.
There’s a passage in Cynthia Voigt’s novel A Solitary Blue where the main character begins skipping school to go to an amusement park. He rides a particular ride every time, over and over again, letting the motion take him out of his life and into a place where he doesn’t have to think about anything. When I sat down to write this post and went looking for that passage, I didn’t have to search through my paperback. The pages fell open to the right place.
I couldn’t even begin to count the number of times I read A Solitary Blue when I was a young teenager, and however many it was, I read that passage in the amusement park ten times more. It’s only a few pages long. I used to take the book from the shelf and sit on the floor right next to my bookshelf, flip through until I found it, read it a few times, shelve the book again.
I didn’t really think about why. All I knew was that I found that passage comforting when I needed to be comforted.
I don’t recall if A Solitary Blue ever uses the word “depression.” In retrospect it’s obvious that’s what it’s about, but I don’t know if that word would have meant anything to me when I read it at thirteen or fourteen years old. I was aware of the concept, sure, but it was a concept that applied to other people. I’m not sure I consciously recognized myself in that book’s main character anyway. I didn’t skip school; I was an excellent student. I wasn’t a withdrawn loner; I had lovely friends. Teachers didn’t worry about me; they gave me awards. It wasn’t me.
But the boy in that book, the one who was so hurt and so numb at the same time, he was the only reflection I had of myself, distorted as it was, at a time when I didn’t even know I needed one. I wouldn’t even have known how to ask to find more, if I had thought about it. It was imperfect, ill-fitting, but it was a portrayal of teenage depression, and as such it was still the only place where I was getting the message, “It’s okay. You’re not broken. You’re not wrong. You’re okay.”
When I see the Our Kids Don’t Need This Yet argument being made, in whatever form it takes, I feel this sad ache that makes me want to sit that parent or teacher or librarian down–even if they’re being bigoted, even if they’re being hateful–and give them a cup of tea, and look them in the eye, and break the news which I’m sure they already suspect to be true: It’s too late. That protective bubble of innocence is an illusion. It never existed. All those things you’re trying to protect kids from having to deal with, they’re already dealing with them. You know this. You know because you used to be a kid.
I grew up in one of those so-called nice neighborhoods that aren’t supposed to have the kind of problems dealt with in issue books. “Nice neighborhoods” in these sort of conversation is always code for mostly white, mostly upper middle class, mostly Christian–which is, yes, a whole huge problem in itself, but that’s often how the conversations are framed. Good schools. Safe streets. That’s where I grew up.
Even so: We all knew there was a girl whose dad threw her mom down the stairs and was still welcomed at church every Sunday. We knew that in fifth grade. We all knew about that boy you never wanted to get stuck sitting next to if you were a girl, or even get stuck walking down the hall alone with, because even if you didn’t know what he would do, you knew it would be bad. We knew that in sixth grade. We knew who had parents who drank too much. We knew who had youth group leaders who were too affectionate. We knew who had spent time in hospitals or detention centers or group homes.
We knew we had teachers who were gay but couldn’t come out because this was Colorado in the early ’90s and the Supreme Court hadn’t ruled on Romer vs. Evans yet.
We knew whose single moms were working two or three jobs to keep their families in the good schools in the good neighborhood.
We knew the girl who used to throw desks across the special ed classroom had “family trouble.”
We knew the girl who was pregnant twice before eighth grade had “family trouble.”
We knew the boy who was shuffled between parents and grandparents and cousins before finally going off to live who-knew-where had “family trouble.”
This was before the internet. This was when cable TV was shiny and new (and they still played music videos on MTV). In my school and my neighborhood we could count the non-white, non-Christian families we knew on one hand with fingers leftover. This was the era of Stranger Danger and D.A.R.E. and After School Specials, when the only thing the adults in our lives were telling us was that scary people from other places, from elsewhere, from bad (meaning: poor, brown) parts of town, people not like us, were responsible for any danger we might encounter. But we already knew it was bullshit.
I’m sharing all of this not to revel in the seedy dark underbelly of 1990s middle class Colorado Springs, or to suggest that my experience was in any way universal, but to show that even in that environment, in what should have been a perfect example of the kind of “nice neighborhood” bubble in which childhood innocence can exist, especially in the minds of people my age who now have kids on the cusp of their teen years, we knew it was bullshit. We were kids; we weren’t stupid. These issues weren’t abstractions to us. They were problems that were present, and ordinary, and very personal.
What we didn’t know, far too often, was what to do about it. We often didn’t know how to talk about it, because the only advice we ever got, for any problem, was “tell an adult”–but what to do if the problem is an adult? A teacher, a pastor, a coach, a parent? What if adults don’t listen? What if they don’t care? What if they call you a liar?
Authors write books for an infinite number of reasons, but if you ask YA and MG writers working today why they write what they write, some facet of the answer will likely be that they’re writing the stories they wished they’d had access to when they were young. They’re creating the stories they wish they could have found when they most needed them. They’re writing for the scared queer kids they used to be, for the bullied kids in difficult schools, the brown kids in white towns, the girls in a world that favors boys, the poor kids in rich neighborhoods, the struggling kids in failing families, all of them. They’re giving voice to the children raised by parents adamantly convinced their kids have no real problems even when their families are rotting from the inside, the ones who have to find their own definitions for how they didn’t fit into the rigid boxes of gender, sexuality, race, and cultural identity offered by society, the ones who have to face violence, addiction, abuse, racism, religious bigotry, and systematic injustice every day of their lives.
No author is writing these books because we want to shock children and lead them into the deep dark forest of edginess and maturity. That often seems to be what the pearl-clutching think-of-the-children folks think–“how dare you upset my kids, who aren’t like those troubled kids, with these inappropriate stories”–but that is literally the exact opposite of what any children’s author wants to do. We are thinking of the children. We’re writing the books we write because we know kids and teens are already there in the forest. They’ve already gotten there on their own barefoot and wandering without a map, and they’ve done so even in families and neighborhoods and schools where one would least expect it. We’re writing because we know those kids need help making sense of it all. If not for themselves, then for their friends, for the kids they bully or the kids who bully them, for their teachers and neighbors and older siblings.
The idea about books being both a window and a mirror isn’t just a pretty saying. For kids whose lives are complicated, and especially for kids whose lives are more complicated than the adults in their lives are willing to see or admit, a book that speaks to them may be the only way they have of knowing somebody understands, that somebody has been through what they’re going through and come out the other side, what they’re enduring can be survived. When the number of books available is small, the mirrors are imperfect, but readers still look for them and cling to them for whatever comfort they provide. The more books there are representing a wide variety of childhood experiences, the more chances there are for kids to find the one that tells them, “You’re not wrong. You’re not broken. You’re okay.”
When I went back look up that amusement park passage in A Solitary Blue a few days ago, I was remembering how often I used to seek out that scene when I was a young teenager. I was remembering reading it over and over again and not knowing why it resonated with me, that moment where the boy reaches a nadir of misery so deep it feels more like nothingness. I was remembering how comforting I found it, and also that I had never really thought about why, how at the time I hadn’t known I was craving a mirror and hadn’t known I would keep looking over and over again through the years.
What I didn’t remember was how the scene ended. I had forgotten, until I reread it for the first time in decades, how the scene ends with the boy going around the ride one more time and seeing, down on the ground, his father and a family friend waiting for him. They had finally, finally realized how very wrong things were in his life, and they were going to do something about it.
I hadn’t remembered that the scene I reread obsessively, over and over again, desperate for the smallest shred of comfort, it wasn’t just the low point. It was the turning point. It was the page where things began to get better.
I don’t know about you, but I was completely captivated by this post. I was entranced from the beginning, right to that ending which gave me chills. To read Kali’s thoughts on such a topical issue was incredibly amazing, and just once again reinforced the need for these books which some say are too dark or diverse or the any other “too”. I really implore you to read Shallow Graves because it’s darn good, and as you can tell by this post – the author is fantastic.
And because I want you to read it, here’s a chance to win a copy! You can grab the guidelines etc over here.
Tata for now,