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An Open Letter to Those Who Give Kids Banned Books

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

To the teachers, librarians, parents, and other adults who get books into the hands of teenagers:

So often, we listen to and talk about the bad stories. The ones that feature a single parent who can get a book pulled from a reading list or off bookshelves. Or the ones where a parent makes some outrageous statement, equating a scene with a teen boy masturbating to 50 Shades of Grey for kids.

But rarely, too rarely, do we talk about the good things that come when you share dangerous books with teens.

Laurie Halse Anderson shared a link on Facebook to a news story in Terre Haute, Indiana. It’s not a happy story: two people were victims of sexual abuse at the hands of a single man. They’d both been victims for a long time, suffering silently as their bodies were taken advantage of, unable to put words to what was happening to them and how wrong it was.

But it was through the actions of one book, assigned to the younger of the two victims in her English class, that helped her speak.

The victim told police it was easier to come forward about the abuse allegedly at the hands of Wycoff after the victim read the teen novel, “Speak,” which was written by Laurie Halse Anderson.

The victim says the book was part of an assignment in English class.  The last few pages of the book are real-life stories of victims who say the book inspired them to come forward and talk about being victims of sexual assualt and abuse.

The older victim in the Wycoff case told police said it was easier to come forward once the younger victim came forward.

One teacher put a book into the hands of a child who needed it. That teacher couldn’t know exactly who needed it. Who would read those words, recognize their story, and then find the way to talk about what had happened to them. But that teacher knew it was important to share this book and to talk about it as a classroom. As a community.

Speak is, of course, one of the most challenged books in America. Two years ago, I wrote about a single challenge of the book in Florida — just one of the many we see in a year — to a flood of comments from the challenger himself, calling the book “pornography,” among other things.

Speak is also an award-winning, ground-breaking, enduring novel. It’s one that opened up a whole new world of realistic fiction in young adult literature, one blossoming further with fresh voices, perspectives, and insight into the tough things that real teens deal with. Books like Speak, an unabashed girl story, not only tell girls it’s okay to have and use your voice, but they also encourage anyone, regardless of gender identity, that their stories matter. That they are important. That they matter.

Teachers, librarians, and other advocates for teenagers know what hardships they deal with day in and day out. They understand that those years between 12 and 19 can be some of the most confusing, scary, and dangerous. It’s a time in one’s life when safe spaces and safe adults seem scarce, when the world wants to push you away or harass you or belittle you or frighten you into becoming a shell of the person that you truly are. It’s a time when you encounter new things, tough things, that you’re unprepared for.

So frequently as adults, we forget that what seem like manageable problems to us now are only that way because we’ve built up enough life experiences to pull from when choosing how to proceed. Teenagers don’t. A first breakup, a first death, a friend’s choice to drink or use drugs: these are monumental.

One teacher put Speak into the hands of his or her students in Terre Haute, Indiana, and it was thanks to that book that a student was able to come forward with the words to describe the vicious acts done to to him/her. That student’s courage allowed a second victim to come forward, too.

This is a single example of a story that we hear about the power of books.

But there are innumerable others. They are the stories that we don’t hear — about how a book that a librarian put on display following a tragedy in her community helped a girl find solace in losing a friend to suicide. About how reading a book about bullying helped one boy confront a teammate of his about how hazing wasn’t a great way to bond. About how a book featuring a transracially adopted girl helped another transracially adopted girl see that her skin color and her heritage mattered, every single bit of it, and she was allowed, even encouraged, to get to know all of the parts of who she is. About how a book helped a boy decide he wasn’t really ready to have sex, even though he felt pressured to do it by his peers.

Every book that reaches a teenager has more than the story on the pages. It has the story of the impact that book makes on that teen’s life. Teachers, librarians, and other adults getting books into the hands of teenagers can never know which might be the one that changes a life, but they — we — can accept that every single time we partake in the magical act of pressing a book into the hands of teens, we impact their lives.

We look them in the eye. We see them. We acknowledge them as humans on this shared planet. And we tell them that their stories, both on the page and on the ground, matter.

It can be radical to choose to teach the book that has been challenged again and again. It can be hard, even at times uncomfortable, to hold discussions over books that talk about the heavy things and the hard things. As an adult, you never want to slip, and you never want to discount or discredit the things teens tell you in those discussions or in confidence afterward.

But those acts of radicalism are the things that stay with teens far longer than an hour or two.

Keep fighting the good fight. Keep loving teenagers and listening to them more than the pressure or those who choose to hate on what they don’t understand or don’t want to understand. Keep handing them books on tough topics and opening up channels of dialog with them.

Because even though not all stories have happy endings, when you tell teens that their stories matter, that their words have weight and meaning, you give them the tools to continue telling them. Those are the things they get to keep forever.