Thursday, August 22, 2013

"Manifesto": one popular author's battle against censorship

Ellen Hopkins is the New York Times bestselling author of Crank, Burned, Impulse, Glass, Identical, Tricks, and Fallout. Her novels are praised by teens and adults, as she has said, because her readers tell her "that my books don't feel like fiction, and that my characters feel like friends."

She wrote at 
The Huffington Post about her experience with parents and schools that find her books and their subject matter too adult for young readers. This has resulted in cancellations, school bans, and "dis-invitations," as Hopkins refers to the awkward process of rescinding appearances before school groups, made sometimes by representatives who have not actually read her books.

Hopkins created an anti-censorship poem, "Manifesto." Her publisher, Simon and Schuster, supports Hopkins's efforts to confront censorship and prominently features a link to the poem on her author page. Here's an excerpt from her 
article at The Huffington Post. "Manifesto" can be read there as well.

Some call my books edgy; others say they're dark. They do explore tough subject matter -- addiction, abuse, thoughts of suicide, teen prostitution. But they bring young adult readers a middle-aged author's broader perspective. They show outcomes to choices, offer understanding. And each is infused with hope. I don't sugarcoat, but neither is the content gratuitous. Something would-be censors could only know if they'd actually read the books rather than skimming for dirty words or sexual content.

My first dis-invitation was last year in Norman, Oklahoma. I had donated a school visit to a charity auction. The winning bid came from a middle school librarian, who was excited to have me talk to her students about poetry, writing process and reaching for their dreams. Except, two days before the visit, a parent challenged one of my books for "inappropriate content." She demanded it be pulled from all middle school libraries in the district. And also that no student should hear me speak.

The superintendent, who hadn't read my books, agreed, prohibiting me from speaking to any school in the district. The librarian scrambled and I spoke community-wide at the nearby Hillsdale Baptist Freewill College. (The challenged book, by the way, was later replaced in the middle school libraries.) The timing was exceptional, if unintentional. It was Banned Books Week 2009, and my publisher, Simon & Schuster, had recently created a broadside of a poem I'd written for the occasion. My "Manifesto" was currently 
being featured in bookstores and libraries across the country.

Segue to August 2010. Simon & Schuster repackaged "Manifesto" just about the time another dis-invitation took place. Humble, Texas is a suburb of Houston, and every other year the Humble Independent School District organizes a teen literature festival. I was invited to headline the January 2011 event. The term "invitation" would later be debated, as no formal contract was signed. But through a series of email exchanges, the invitation was extended, I agreed, we settled on an honorarium, and I blocked out the date on my calendar (thus turning down other invitations).

This time it was a middle school librarian who initiated the dis-invitation. Apparently concerned about my being in the vicinity of her students, she got a couple of parents riled and they approached two members of the school board. Again, no one read my books. Rather, according to the superintendent, he relied on his head librarian's research -- a website that rates content. He ordered my "removal" from the festival roster, despite several librarians rallying in my defense.

According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, removing an author from an event because someone disagrees with their ideas or content in their books meets the definition of censorship. And in protest, five of the seven other festival authors -- Pete Hautman, Melissa de la Cruz, Matt de la Pena, Tera Lynn Childs and Brian Meehl -- withdrew. Our books are all very different. But our voices are united against allowing one person, or a handful of people, to speak for an entire community. ...

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