When a YA novel with religious content is accepted for publication, I believe that somewhere a bell rings in a tiny, stuffy office deep inside an undisclosed location, and the word goes out to undisclosed parties to keep a look out. They’re not librarians… they’re people who have Opinions. Now, people know I have Opinions. I have Opinions about everything, including God, in his or her many incarnations. But, the thing about religious Opinions is that some people’s are set in cement. And if your opinions don’t jibe with their opinions: woe.
Trinity High School (what an ironic name!) is a fictitious Catholic all-boys school where protagonist Jerry Renault of the The Chocolate War spends a miserable year, bucking the system by refusing to be a good boy and chocolate to raise money for some cause or other, like everyone else. He is harassed by sadistic administrators, verbally assaulted, hassled by bullies, and in the end, physically assaulted.
Welcome to the Christian community.
This was my introduction to Robert Cormier, and it was downright scary. As a student at a private Christian school myself, the story was, to me, mindblowing. I thought, Nobody would do that at MY school. And then I thought, Would they?
I can’t say that I loved it. It bothered me. It haunted me. It taught me. And I think that’s a lot more important than “loved.”
First published in 1974, the Chocolate War still last topped the list of banned books in 2004. And though I read the book many, many years ago (in high school), what is burned into memory still is the horrific bullies and the apathetic teachers in that ostensibly Christian environment. Not the “swearing, masturbation, violence and a depressing, dismal ending” for which the book is continually challenged and banned.
I’m going to avoid making a bunch of huge statements and using titles like ‘fundamentalist,’ or ‘conservative,’ because I believe that there are people with Opinions of every stripe. They’re not all from color-coded states, in other words. But as more and more YA people explore their cultural mores by writing novels which deal with theories and positions on religious themes, it’s ironic that it’s religious people who are showing their vocal, vehement intolerance – for the sake of God. So people don’t mock Him/Her. So we can protect God.
(I know that’s not the only reason, but it’s one of them.)
When we religious types use vague, inflammatory rhetoric to promote a point, we miss the point. We cannot protect everybody from everything. No teacher I know (and I know plenty) would fault a parent for determining that they are uncomfortable with their child reading a certain book or novel in a class. A teacher would respond positively, even, to a well-reasoned and mature conversation with a student who preferred not to read something in his or her English class (and if the teacher did not respond positively, students have parents and school boards, etc. to back them up), as long as the student could give solid reasons and produce an alternative reading that is on the same topic and equally challenging. But for that parent to determine that every child in the classroom — the school — the district should also be raised according to their standard of ethics? Come on.
Another book that deals with religion as part of the scope of its storyline is Rats Saw God, by Rob Thomas is one of my all-time favorite books. I read it again and again as a sort of blueprint on how to deal with major subjects in YA literature, completely blown away by the sophisticated exploration of some really deep theories. And just this month, it was challenged again in Florida for profanity and graphic sexuality. The story deals with an 18-year-old who is flunking despite his astronomically high IQ and Honor Roll status the first two years of high school. The character, Steve, is in the process of writing an 100 page English paper in order to graduate high school, and is looking back over how he’s dealt — or not dealt — with his parent’s divorce. The subject matter in the story is immense. Thomas writes about God and Dadaism, divorce, siblings, and falling in love. The book goes through the entire scope of human emotions, and the character comes out on top. The author, in defending the book, says it’s about “getting better.”
It occurs to me that in my brief reviews of many of the books on the Banned list that the phrase “the character comes out on top” recurs. This isn’t what makes a book a positive thing. I don’t believe that a ‘kernel of hope’ is what’s necessary to keep the books from the banned list, especially since specifically in the Chocolate War, that isn’t the case. I’m just maybe more surprised when those books are banned. I keep wondering, “Did they read a different ending than the one I did?”
And then I realize I’m asking if they read the book.
In honor and celebration of e.lockhart’s newest book, take the Boyfriend List Dating Destiny Quiz ! Bwa-ha-ha-ha to the Sex Kittens. Apparently, I will:
Live in a Apartment.
Drive a Green Rickshaw bicycle.
Marry Matthew Dwyer (Horn Dawg) and have 10 kid(s). (!!!!)
Be a English teacher at St. Sebastian’s in Oxford.
What’s your (dubious) dating destiny?
Also just found out the list of speakers for 2007 SCBWI Asilomar Conference next year. They are Linda Sue Park and Suzanne Guevara. Editorial speakers are Erin Clarke from Knopf
(Random House), Namrata Tripathi from Hyperion (Disney), and Kristen Pettit from Razorbill (Penguin). Nicole Geiger from Tricycle isn’t speaking, but is coming to critique manuscripts. Many people want to go to these things, but just a head’s up — registration is opening probably the first week in October, so if you’re even thinking of going, think fast! It’s a gorgeous place, and plenty of people want to go. I’m also just jazzed about the number of mini-conferences happening in my area. SCBWI is always cool about putting quite a few together, but this year, they’ve been even better. Check out this quarter’s Northern Cal Acorn to find out what else is going on.