Author Tera Lynn Childs has withdrawn from 2011 Teen Lit Fest in Humble, Texas. The author shares her views on the censorship that prompted her decision and how readers can get involved.
When I was asked to participate in the 2011 Humble ISD Teen Lit Fest in Humble, Texas, I was thrilled. Not only would I get to meet lots of enthusiastic teen readers, but I would get to present with authors Melissa de la Cruz, Matt de la Pena, Pete Hautman and Ellen Hopkins. Writing is a solitary pursuit, so it’s always a treat to meet others of my kind.
Fast forward to earlier this month. I received a disturbing email from Ellen. She had been “uninvited” from the festival by Superintendent Guy Sconzo after “several” parents and one librarian voiced concern about the objectionable content of her books. A tireless activist against censorship of any kind, Ellen further explained that she was organizing a reader protest and boycott of the event.
Never (in that email or the follow-up after I asked how I could best support her) did she ask me to step down from the festival. She only asked me to join her in protest and to assure me that if there were fewer-than-anticipated readers at the event, it would be a reflection on her organized boycott and not me as a speaker.
My immediate thought was, “I have to withdraw.”
Words cannot express how highly I respect Ellen and her books. She delves into horrifyingly real topics that, as much as we might wish otherwise, teens face every day. From her debut Crank, which is loosely based on her daughter’s experience with drug addiction and teen pregnancy, to her most recent release Tricks, about the tragic world of teen prostitution, Ellen fearlessly confronts issues that many adults would rather blissfully ignore. For the teens living those realities, her books are a lifeline.
There are so many things at fault with Superintendent Sconzo’s actions it’s hard to know where to begin. Like the fact that he has not read even one of her books — as Ellen said, “Censors rarely do.” Or his statement that “there are more authors that we would want at our Teen Lit Fest than we could ever have enough Teen Lit Fests to accommodate” which implies that a New York Times bestselling author with credits such as a National Book Award nomination, a Kirkus Best Books for Teens, an ALA Best Books for Young Adults, and (yes) a place on the Texas Tayshas Readers List could be easily replaced by any number of ready, willing, and censor-friendly authors.
But the thing that really turned my stomach — about this and all instances of censorship — was the arrogance of his decision. The conceit to believe one person can know what is best for countless others, that a man who has probably not met most of the teens in his district could decide to which books they should not be exposed.
Rather, Superintendent Sconzo seems not to know teens at all. The teen readers I have met are more intelligent, mature and open-minded than many adults. That’s why I love writing for them. It’s insulting to suppose they are such fragile creatures that being exposed to an author of gritty books could corrupt them onto a path of drug addiction and prostitution. Is it too much to ask that the person accountable for the education of an entire school district full of teens should show them at least a hint of respect?
You can see why I had no choice but to withdraw from the festival.
In a dream world, I wish Superintendent Sconzo would see the error of his ways, re-invite Ellen, and let the festival could continue as it was meant to be — an opportunity for teens to meet, interact with and learn from authors.
In reality, however, I am a pragmatist. Small-minded people in power tend to dig in their heels long after their mistakes are exposed. Teens, parents and readers have to take action.
Melissa de la Cruz, Matt de la Pena, Pete Hautman and I made our voices heard by withdrawing from the festival. Now it’s your turn to be heard, either through the power of the word, the action or the dollar. Write an email of protest to Superintendent Sconzo (firstname.lastname@example.org). Write your newspaper or congressperson, expressing your support of free speech in all its variations. Ask a librarian how you can support Banned Books Week (September 25-October 2, 2010). Buy and read Ellen’s books or others on the most challenged list (My Sister’s Keeper, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Twilight made the cut this year).
Above all else, do not stand silently when someone dares to speak for others. As Ellen said so eloquently in her Manifesto for the 2009 Banned Books Week:
You say you’re afraid for children,
innocents ripe for corruption
by perversion or sorcery on the page.
But sticks and stones do break
bones, and ignorance is no armor.
You do not speak for me,
and will not deny my kids magic
in favor of miracles.
-Tera Lynn Childs