Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Banned Books: In the Hand of the Beholder

Welcome to the American Library Association's annual Banned Book week where we celebrate what it means to read in the United States!

In preparing for this post I looked up the 2012 Top Ten Challenged Books and was surprised to discover Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants series at the top of the list. With titles like Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy Part 1: The Night of the Nasty Nostril Nuggets (Pt.1) I can't fault people for being skeptical or concerned but given that the first book came out in 1997, I expected a more current title, with more graphic content (as compelling as nasal secretions are, we all know stickier situations exist).

Confession time- this librarian banned Captain Underpants in our home. Back in the day (early 2000's) when I read to my boys every night, I brought home one of the books because I knew they were popular, especially with boys. (Boogers!) I read one chapter and stopped. It wasn't that I minded the potty humor (As the mom of two boys how could I not?) but I hated the way the adults and kids spoke to one another. Neither side had respect for the other and that's what I wanted banned from the house.

Pilkey is a hugely successful author both commercially and critically, his picture book The Paperboy was a Caldecott Honor Book. His books continue to be favorites of school-age readers which shows me that had I been willing to finish reading an entire book of his, I might have read more. You could call what I did censorship, but I'd prefer to call it parenting.

The books that continue to be challenged (like The Hunger Games, To Kill A Mockingbird and most recently Ralph Ellison's classic Invisible Man) are as popular and relevant as ever. Why? It's quite simple- people connect to the characters and story. As a writer it's my job to create characters that readers can relate to and root for. It's the level of connection that creates bestsellers or classics. Captain Underpants makes kids laugh and gets reluctant readers to enjoy, perhaps for the first time, a chapter book. Is that a bad thing?

Books are a form of art and art is subjective, but all art tells a story. Sadly many of the stories about the human condition involve pain, war, death and a host of other upsetting topics. Keep in mind that where there's darkness, light will follow.

Parents should feel comfortable being informed and involved in  media choices for their own children. Just remember, the book that offends you might very well be a life-saver for someone else.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

So Long, Farewell

August 2013 was a rough month in the book world with the passing of Elizabeth Peters on August 8 and Elmore Leonard on August 20. While they aren't necessarily household names for high school library patrons, I guarantee you they are for many adult readers and writers of all levels.

I've spent the past twenty-four years reading Elizabeth Peters' books. Her Amelia Peabody mystery series is my favorite of all. Set in the late 1880's, the books follow the hijinks of the Emerson family who are Victorian Egyptologists. The books combined my love of historical fiction, Egypt and memorable characters. I'm actually not a big mystery fan, believe it or not, I just like to show up to see what crazy shenanigans will occur.(I am never disappointed on this front.)

All writers are avid readers themselves. There are times when I read for fun and times when I read for the study of craft, but any time I read I pay attention to how drawn I feel to the characters. There's nothing better than when books feel like friends. Series books, so popular in Young Adult fiction now, are the best at evoking that level of intimacy.

Speaking of drawing in readers, everyone who has taken a creative writing class in the last twenty years has read Elmore Leonard's famous 10 Rules for Writing. Writers like to joke that there aren't any rules for writing, but Leonard knew differently. His tips are the ones I most often see quoted and referenced by writers of all genres. They are-

  1.  Never open a book with weather.
  2.  Avoid prologues.
  3.  Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
  4.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
  5.  Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. 
  6.  Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
  7.  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9.  Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
  10.  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

I've never read Leonard's crime fiction, but his words influence me as a writer. I suspect that many YA authors whose work sits on the shelves were likewise mentored by Leonard.

The way we're reading is changing, but the end product, the words on the page, is still the same. Only the right words will keep us engaged.

That's the power of great writing- words never die.