By: Lisa Rand
Young people in the United States cope with immense daily challenges that are deeply embedded in systemic injustice. Teens are hungry for books that represent their wide range of life experiences, and that address issues of importance for their diverse communities. Literature can be an empowering force for inspiring hope and social change. Thankfully, writers are rising up to meet this challenge, creating books that mirror teen experiences.
Unfortunately, there seems always to be a person who, in the name of protecting youth, will stand in the way of sharing the vibrant, affirming, and realistic stories that youth need. The desire to forbid certain content might come from good intentions, but censorship overlooks the fact that young people are living with hard issues every day. Literature can provide youth and their teachers with meaningful tools for coping, discussing, and understanding. Library professionals have a duty to protect that access.
Almost inevitably, authors who create vibrant teen characters with powerful voices, who resist against injustice, find their books challenged and censored. To highlight two authors who received wide acclaim and multiple awards and also face challenges in schools, we will look at the work of Nic Stone and Elizabeth Acevedo.
In Dear Martin, author Nic Stone writes about the pressing problems of race relations and police violence in the US. Stone creates a nuanced and beautifully written protagonist, the accomplished Justyce McAllister. Unsurprisingly, the book has faced challenges.
Librarians and teachers who care about social justice issues have welcomed Stone’s work and supported efforts such as #ReadWoke, a reading challenge from librarian Cicely Lewis, and #ReadForChange, a project from Marie Marquardt. In contrast, Columbia County School District in Georgia made a move to ban the book from the curriculum.
What happens when an award-winning slam poet writes a novel starring a young poet? With The Poet X, author Elizabeth Acevedo gives voice to Xiomara Batista, a teen who is finding her power through explorations of family, religion, community, creativity, and sexuality. Through this powerful text, Acevedo likely will inspire the next generation of performance poets. There are some people, however, who object to permitting teens access to a book that speaks so frankly about topics that adults might prefer to avoid.
Acevedo’s more recent title, With the Fire on High, gives the world Emoni Santiago, another relatable Latinx protagonist who handles life’s challenges with creativity, strength, and boldness. It was reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom that school administrators cancelled a scheduled visit from Acevedo, citing inappropriate content in her book. A group of eighth graders (with permission slips) were to have a writer’s workshop and receive a free copy of With the Fire on High, provided by a non-profit.
The problems that teens manage in Stone’s and Acevedo’s works will not vanish because a book is removed from a school. By removing the book, a school might miss an opportunity for meaningful conversation about issues that impact their students. Both of these cases offer important reminders for library professionals: first, we must keep librarians in schools where they can protect the right to read, and second, public libraries should do all they can to ensure youth have access to relevant texts, especially when they are at risk in schools.
Expect more great storytelling from these writers. Elizabeth Acevedo’s new title, Clap When You Land, is due for release on May 5. The next book from Nic Stone, Dear Justyce, is scheduled for October 6.
Lisa M. Rand is a youth services librarian in southeastern Pennsylvania. She exercises her commitment to equity and access for everyone by serving on the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Pennsylvania Library Association. Lisa has studied at Simmons University and Kent State University. Whenever possible she travels, visiting libraries and walking in the footsteps of favorite fictional characters. Find her on Twitter @lisa_m_rand.