Jay Tells A True Story

Over on The Swivet, guest blogger Courtney Summers talks a little bit about how to stop worrying about offending people* by just being true to the story you're trying to tell. I think that's something that all YA writers are concerned about to some extent: because our books are read by kids, sometimes fairly young kids, and because our books deal with things that teenagers are dealing with (like sex and drugs and rock'n'roll) that are "adult" things, we occupy this sort of grey area where we can get called on the carpet by actual adults for the things we appear to be advocating when we include them in stories for young adults.

This concern isn't a huge one of mine,** I think because of the way that I was brought up. My mother was (is) a single working mom and didn't have a lot of time for hands on supervision. The good news is that I didn't need a lot of hands on supervision. I was (am) a very independent person, even as a child. Put me a room with a pencil and a stack of paper and I was happy. I read very early (before I started kindergarten) and quickly aged out of all books that were "appropriate" for me.***

So when I turned 12, my mother said "now that you are 12, you are mature enough to read all of the books on the bookshelf." This was, at the time, the best present ever: before I had only been permitted to read the books on the bottom two shelves of the bookshelf--the kids books--but now I got to read anything on the WHOLE bookshelf! Fantastic. "And if you have any questions about anything," my mother said, "just let me know."****

Left to my own devices I picked a book with an exciting cover and, the very next school day, took it to school for RIF (Reading Is Fundamental), which was 15 minutes of reading time we had every single day. RIF was a special kind of torture for me, because how can you read for ONLY 15 minutes? I never wanted to put my book down at the end of RIF and would sometimes stay in and read for the entire recess following RIF as well, much to the amusement and horror of the non-readers in my class. But I was excited about cracking my new book at RIF, and hoped it didn't suck.

RIF came, and I reached into my desk and pulled out my book and began to read. And then, BAM! like an avenging angel, Mr. Swartz, my sixth grade teacher, came swooping down from the front of the room and grabbed the book out of my hands. "To the office," he said, propelling me in front of him to the vice-principal's office.

I was stunned. I never got in trouble in school. I was maybe too smart for my own good, but I was basically a well-behaved child who didn't cause problems***** and for me to have to go to the office was almost a fate worse than death! We get down there, and Mr. Swartz goes into the VP's office with my book and shuts the door and I am left sitting in the chair wondering what I'd done wrong.

As it turns out, Mr. Swartz had some concerns that the book in question -- Mandingo, by Kyle Onstott -- might not be an appropriate book for a 12-year-old girl, since it was basically a novel about the exploitation of African slaves in the old South and full of descriptions of sex and violence and cruelty, and had a pretty sexy/disturbing cover.******

My mother was called and had to reassure the school that, yes, she knew what I was reading, and, yes, she was okay with it, but I didn't get my book back until the end of the day. And when I got home, my mother mentioned to me that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to take books from the top shelf of the bookshelf to school--I could just read those at home. In other words, what I read was perfectly fine, it was just other people who wouldn't understand.*******


* Notice how Courtney's post is not about how to stop actually offending people, just about how to stop worrying about it. That's the spirit I like to see. :)

**Although I do think about it from time to time.

***which doesn't mean I didn't enjoy those books--I loved Mortimer the Crow in third grade, for example, which was totally age-appropriate--it just means that I was reading way past them.

****If I had been older, this would have been a tipoff of something, but I wasn't, so it wasn't.

*****Those came later, in high school.

******Which, helllooo, was why I chose it in the first place.

Incidentally, while Mandingo and the rest of the Falconhurst Plantation series (there are a BUNCH of these books) are certainly sexy exploitative "trashy" books, they are entertaining in that trashy way and are also quite educational, especially if you are 12. I knew all about all sorts of things that happened on plantations and to slaves when we got to the Civil War unit in high school, that my teacher and the textbook never mentioned. In class, slavery was bad, but it was bad in the abstract. In the Falconhurst novels, slavery was bad in very concrete and specific ways. Quadroon Balls, the tension between house and field slaves, the auction block, the passage over from Africa, passing...I learned all of it from the Falconhurst novels. The books made it clear that being a slave was awful, no matter how "good" your master was.

By the way, I'm in no way recommending that 12 year olds read these books--I suspect if I went back and looked at them now I would be horrified by their fetishization of slavery and blackness, as well as the quality of the writing. I'm just saying that I learned a lot more about the horrors of slavery from these books than I did from the Civil War Unit in 9th grade.

*******This scene would repeat itself later in the year, when I was the first girl in the class to read Forever, by Judy Blume, but that time my mother didn't let them take it away. "It's Judy Blume," she said to the Vice Principal. "Just let her have it."


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