Early in her career as a writer, Jacqueline Woodson got some disturbing news from none other than Judy Blume.
Blume was editing an anthology of works by banned authors and wanted to include her.
“But I haven’t been banned,” Woodson said.
“Oh, yes you have!” Blume told her.
Woodson, the author of such books as “Brown Girl Dreaming” and “Hush,” has since won a National Book Award and been named Young People’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation. Yet she still finds her work under fire in libraries and schools around the country for its depiction of sexuality, drug use, prison and interracial relationships.
According to the American Library Association, books for young adults — the kind Woodson writes — are now “the majority of the most frequently challenged books.”
During Banned Books Week (Sept. 27 to Oct. 3), you’ll see the usual celebrations of censored classics, such as “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and “The Catcher in the Rye,” alongside more recent works, such as “The Kite Runner” and the “Harry Potter” series. Many bookstores, like One More Page Books in Arlington, Va., have set up special displays to promote titles that have weathered persistent objections.
But how can people who feel strongly about the freedom of expression reach those who keep demanding that these beloved books be pulled from libraries and schools?
Woodson, the mother of two children, 7 and 13, hopes for greater dialogue, less shouting.
“Everybody wants to believe that they’re in the right place,” she said. “And I think that’s the same way for people who are challenging books. These people see violence or something sexually explicit, and they think, ‘We don’t want our kids exposed to that because we want to protect them.’
“I definitely can understand parents having objections. As a mom, as someone who wants to protect my children in any way that I can, I can kind of get inside the heads of people who are saying, ‘This is not okay,’ only because they’re fearful. That’s where I can begin to have the conversation. I think people are willing to talk about anything if you come to it with kindness. But there are all these conversations that I fear are not being had, and as a result, we get banned and challenged.”
For Woodson, those conversations involve asking, “Are you really protecting your child, or are you keeping your child from the tools they’ll need to deal with these issues?”
If she hears a parent say, “I’m afraid that my daughter will see something sexually explicit and will want to do that,” Woodson responds, “Okay, but let’s talk about what it means to be a teenager. Let’s talk about what it means to have hormones.”
“We, as adults, are the gatekeepers,” she said, “and we have to check our own fears at the door because we want our children to be smarter than we are. We want them to be more fully human than we are.”
She sees books offering solace to kids who feel different or unaccepted. We never know when a young person will read something and think, “Wow, I’m not as alone as I thought I was.”
And yet Woodson readily admits that she has removed books from her own children’s shelves — at least temporarily. She remembers one title in particular, but declines to name it, with a young narrator whose English was poor. “My kids were mimicking her language in a way that made me, as an English major, crazy. The character was also very, very rude to adults.” So she had “the conversation” with her daughter: “Is that kind, what she just did to that teacher?” And her daughter sagely responded, “No, but that’s fiction. You don’t do that in real life!”
The book went back on her shelf.
Her son has just gotten out of the “Captain Underpants” phase — those hilariously silly books by Dav Pilkey that have been inspiring formal objections for years. Her daughter is a particularly enthusiastic fan of the No. 1 most frequently challenged book of 2014: Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” Detractors have complained about the National Book Award-winning novel’s depiction of drug use, gambling, sex and violence.
Woodson’s daughter told her: “That book is so good I cannot believe it was assigned.”
Imagine keeping a young person from a reading experience like that.