Let’s Read and Discuss

This was published by the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette on May 6, 2022, in response to some school districts considering challenges to books that are used in classrooms. I focus on one book, but my concern is wider.

Let’s Read and Discuss

When I was 12 or 13 years old, I read something in the newspaper that caused me to ask my mother what the word “rape” meant. She advised me to look it up in the dictionary, which was not helpful, as the definition included other words I didn’t understand. I know now how lucky I was to be that innocent, but I wish my mother had had a way of answering my question. Today, a mother, or a teacher or other caring adult would be able to say, “Let’s read this book together and talk about it.”

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, has been read and loved by millions of teens. Thousands of those readers have written to the author, or quietly waited for a chance to talk with her after a school visit, to say, “The same thing happened to me.” This “same thing” that they are disclosing is sexual assault. Both boys and girls have honest and important conversations with her, and with other caring adults, after reading her book.

I would love to believe that nothing so difficult is happening in our community. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Over the course of the past thirty years, I have met many young people, here and across the country, talking with them about their lives and about books they are reading. I am sometimes invited to help them write about whatever matters most to them, and many young people choose to speak and write truthfully about sex, violence, and the challenges of maintaining good relationships with friends and family—all of which are part of the story Speak so skillfully tells.

In this young adult novel, the main character, Melinda, attends a party just before beginning ninth grade. She is pleased when an older boy pays attention to her, and thinks how great it will be to start high school with a popular boyfriend. This much of the story will be something many of us can remember or relate to. But when an awkward teenage flirtation turns violent, and Melinda is raped, she panics and calls the police, who arrive to break up the party.

So now Melinda begins high school as an outcast—everyone knows she’s the girl who called the police, but no one knows about the assault. She doesn’t really understand it herself, and has no words to tell anyone what happened. Her old friends, her parents, and her teachers (thankfully, with one exception), have no idea why she has suddenly closed down.

It is never easy, and often tragically impossible, for young people to be forthcoming about such things; it is essential that they have a safe way to do so. Reading Speak, and discussing it, can be such a safety valve. Other books also open these important conversations, but Speak is perhaps the best known. It won many awards; it has been made into a movie; and in the 23 years since it was first published, it has become a classic of young adult literature.

When I read about a school district in our community where “Parents in recent months have called for the removal of books they deem inappropriate…” and see that one of those books is Speak, I think of those millions of young readers who have read and loved this book, and of all the honest conversations it has made possible.

We don’t know whose lives have been saved, or might be saved in the future, through reading, writing, and speaking the kinds of truths that this, and other challenged books, allow into the open air. What we do know is that some—many—students need them.

Before a book finds its way into a classroom or school library, it has been vetted by thoughtful adults who understand and care about all students, and who read many books in order to make their recommendations. I have two concerns about the removal of these books:

First, that books may be removed from schools because some parents have requested it, thus  allowing those parents to make a decision not just for their own children, but for all children. (Teachers are already prepared to offer alternatives for children whose parents make such a request.)

My second concern is that school administrators may hear about a book challenge in another district and, perhaps without even reading the book, prevent its inclusion in a classroom or school library, hoping to avoid potential controversy.

Let’s read the books–the entire books, not just a passage that may have offended someone else—and have the courage to enter into whatever conversations they offer us.