The Trials and Tribulations of the Blue Hen List: A Summer Tale of Censorship
Allow me to spin you a tale, ancient and true, of fear and intimidation, and the books and children who are hurt when adults let them rule.
Last month, I made some simple requests to the school boards of America, specifically to the Cape Henlopen school board in Delaware. I asked them to have a backbone, and to read books. And wouldn’t you know? They decided to do neither!
Cape Henlopen had removed Emily Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post from the Blue Hen Summer Reading List, a list compiled lovingly and thoughtfully by Delaware librarians. After a public outcry, the issue was brought up again at the meeting of the board on July 24th. Many people had written letters, including brave women who had experienced homophobia growing up in Cape Henlopen and talked about how reading Cam Post would have helped. You see, in case you’re out of the loop: Cam Post has lesbians. And curse words! People from across the country donated free copies of the book, which a local bookstore, Browseabout Books, helped purchase and distribute. (You can read Emily Danforth’s own letter to the board here.) When we learned there’d be a re-vote, those of us who really, really loved this book started to feel, dare I say, slightly optimistic.
Silly little us. Instead of reinstating Cam Post, the board voted to get rid of the Blue Hen Summer Reading List–entirely. During the meeting, brave individuals, again, talked about how much the book would have helped their own homophobic experiences at Cape Henlopen High. Again, their experiences and their opinions were summarily dismissed. Some board members DID mention that they were going to go home and pray, though.
After the meeting, one parent said that the books didn’t connect to the curriculum enough. I guess in the past, all summer reading books were always about chemistry and calculus and conjugating French verbs. I also guess none of these Blue Hen books–not even a single one!–would have contributed at all to a lifelong investment in literacy that reading for pleasure almost always helps develop. Or maybe literacy just isn’t part of high school curriculums these days?
The general consensus from the more resigned school board members was that this was the only way to make both sides happy. There are a few fallacies to this argument, though. For one thing, it assumes that “both sides” should have equal power in the equation. Meaning, they did a survey of parents in the district, and there were an equal number of parents who both approved and disapproved of Cameron Post, making a fair vote in favor of a majority impossible. But as far as I know, this didn’t happen. And when a few bullies win, we all lose.
Their solution now is that all students can read whatever the hell they want this summer. The only requirement is that they have to read one (one!) book. This option of choice could be spun in a positive light, but it ignores the entire point of these summer reading lists: the opportunity to engage and discuss with other students and teachers in the fall about a focused, shared reading experience, to illuminate different points of view and a deeper level of analysis. Instead, this route inspires everyone to read something different, maybe write individual book reports, and never think about the books they read again.
Of course, children are smarter cookies than adults ever give them credit for. They could all still read the Blue Hen List. They’ve already had the option of these wonderful books for half a summer, after all. But still, that factor of educators they trust saying, “Here is a list of thought-provoking, well-written, diverse books that might mean something to you, and we approve of them and want you to read them,” that is gone. And that’s a damn shame.
Our tale doesn’t end here, though.
The board had purported, over and over and over, that Cameron Post was such an issue because of the language, NOT due to anything close to homophobia. But then, a Delaware librarian unearthed the original parent letter to the board that complained about the Blue Hen List, a letter which is, by the way, public record. The letter points to Cam Post specifically, saying things like this:
“It details quite explicitly among other things the proper etiquette for performing oral sex…Several of the reviews describe the book as a road map or guide book on how to become a sexually active lesbian teen.”
Unless you’ve experienced it yourself, it’s hard to describe how it feels when someone strips you of all of your humanity, all of the things about you that make you a worthy, unique human being, and narrows everything important about you down to how you like to have sex. I think part of the reason Cam Post was so special to so many people is because Cam Post herself was such a rich, deeply thought out, spectacularly written female character, in addition to being a lesbian. Singling out her sexuality as the only meaningful part of the book purposely silences every other thing about her–the painful processing of her parents’ death, for instance.
The parent also says of the reading list: “We expected to see classics like Of Mice and Men or Lord of Flies.” This, of course, follows the confounding but commonly used logic that “If It Was Written a Long Time Ago By a White Man, Then It Is Probably More Appropriate for Our Children Than Anything Written Today.” Even though Of Mice and Men involves not one, but two, extremely upsetting murders, along with racism and the abuse of a mentally disabled man. Even though Lord of the Flies is about an island full of boys who descend into chaotic violence. (Spoiler alert: no one kills each other, or tries to kill each other, in Cameron Post.)
Children are assigned to read books like Of Mice and Men, though, because we trust them to think critically about the complex themes contained within them, even if those themes are expressed through hard, painful, even violent stories. As my friend and fellow writer Valerie put it: “I read V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic in FIFTH grade and I never had an inappropriate relationship with my brother. Romeo and Juliet was on my Freshman summer reading list, and I’ve never performed joint suicide out of love for a fellow teenager. I read Frankenstein in eighth grade and never created a monster out of human parts and electricity.”
Yet somehow, this sensible reasoning fails when a character is gay. Suddenly, books take on an almost magical, otherworldly quality, able to infiltrate readers’ minds and change the very core of their beings. Here’s reality, though, dear Cape Henlopen parent. If your daughter or son comes out to you after reading Cam Post, or any other book with queer characters, yes, it might be because reading that book gave them courage, or awakened something inside them that was always secretly there. It possibly might have saved them years of confusion and pain. But it did not turn them gay. Your daughter or son still would have been queer, whether the book was ever written or not. Also: your daughter or son is still beautiful.
But take heed, readers. Our tale has one more twist, and it’s a hopeful one. Because like all good stories, there’s always light hiding behind the dark, and it always shines in the end.
At the beginning of this month, eight organizations concerned about free speech and education, including the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Delaware Library Association, announced an essay contest. Delaware teens are invited to write a 250-500 word essay explaining what Cape Henlopen school board members should know about The Miseducation of Cameron Post.
Students who decide to participate can once again get free copies at Browseabout Books, this time courtesy of Cam Post‘s publisher, Balzer + Bray. The first place winner will receive $250; second place, $150, and third place, $100. You can find out more about the contest at NCAC’s website. Entries are due by September 1st, and the winners will be announced during Banned Books Week, September 21-27.
I hope you write wonderful things, Delaware teens. I believe in your intelligence, your wit, your bravery, your right to read powerful books–even if the Cape Henlopen school board does not.