The Tennessee legislature recently passed a bill stating that teachers cannot encourage “gateway sexual activity,” as part of the state\’s abstinence-based sexual education movement.
Seizing the opportunity implied by the new law, officials in Sumner County last week banned John Green’s Young Adult novel “Looking for Alaska” from the school curriculum because it contains an oral sex scene- one of two mildly-erotic passages in the novel. The book had already been banned as pornography in Knox County in March, 2012 after a parent protested that the book went against what she was trying to teach her child.
The book, published in March, 2005, won the 2006 Michael L. Printz Award from the American Library Association, as well as being named in 2005 a LA Times Book Prize Finalist, NY Public Library Book for Teen title, Booklist Editor’s Choice, and School Library Journal Best Book of the year.
Set at a boarding school in Alabama and divided into two parts, ‘Before’ and ‘After’, it chronicles the story of Miles \”Pudge\” Halter, is fascinated by the last words of famous people, and seeks what a dying Rabelais called the “Great Perhaps.”
Pudge’s new friends have lives that are anything but safe and boring. Their core is the razor-sharp, sexy, and self-destructive Alaska, who has perfected the arts of pranking and evading authority. Pudge falls impossibly in love, but when tragedy strikes the group, it is only by coming face-to-face with death that Pudge discovers the value of living and loving unconditionally.
SafeLibraries.org, a conservative blog site which promotes censorship, has accused the American Library Association and John Green of being “porn pushers” and attempting to corrupt the young.
The Tennessean quotes one Sumner parent as saying: “Kids at this age are impressionable. Sometimes it’s monkey see, monkey do. I’m going to trust that my school board made the right choice. If they feel like this book is a little too graphic, I’m all for it.”
The monkey reference is a tad ironic, as Tennessee was the site of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 that debated over evolution being taught in the classroom.
The book will remain in libraries, but critics of the decision feel that more reasonable and responsible compromises could be reached, such as offering an alternative title to objecting parents. They also point out that the book isn’t pornographic in even in the broadest sense of the term as the most objectionable word used in the realistically-rendered sex passage is \”penis.\” The second of the two so-called \”steamy\” scenes concludes:
‘We didn’t have sex. We never got naked. I never touched her bare breast, and her hands never got lower than my hips. It didn’t matter. As she slept, I whispered, “I love you, Alaska Young.’
Nonetheless, Sumner County school spokesman Jeremy Johnson used a popular justification for the ban, explaining that because the book is not a classic, it’s okay to ban it. “You take somebody like Hemingway or a John Steinbeck and there can be some language or description that may make parents uncomfortable, but the value of a writer like that outweighs what controversy may be in the individual book.”
John Steinbeck\’s novels have been, and are still, routinely banned and challenged around the country. In fact “Grapes of Wrath” was banned for its “leftist sensibilities.” So, if this is the educational measuring stick, Green is in good company. Do we wait ten years before it’s old enough to be on school shelves? Twenty years? As far as the “literary merits” one needs simply to look at the list of awards an accolades already achieved in the first year of publication.
John Green is a respected Young Adult novelist whose books depict the real-world lives of teenagers and consistently receive national acclaim by critics and literature educators.
Depew, New York, near Buffalo, found itself in a related debate in 2008, when two 11th-grade teachers decided to teach “Looking for Alaska.” The debate caused Green to make a video in which he says, \”I am not a pornographer,\” at which point opponents relented.
For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at http://www.deepforestproductions.com/BBARK.html
Sources: Wikipedia, Amazon, Marshall University, New York Daily News, The Tennessean
© 2012 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions