Written by author, Pete Hautman
Several years ago, I wrote a loosely autobiographical coming-of-age story with a provocative title: Godless. I didn’t expect much from the book; I figured it would sell well enough for my publisher to keep publishing me, but that was about all. And for the first several months, that was what happened. In fact, it sold fewer copies than my previous young adult novels.
Then Godless won a National Book Award. At the awards ceremony, Judy Blume delivered a passionate speech about censorship. Later that evening, after one too many glasses of wine, I said to her, “Hey Judy, how do I get my book challenged?” She replied, in a tone that made me think of dry ice, “It will happen, and you will not like it.”
It hasn’t happened yet. No one has burned a copy of Godless. To the best of my knowledge, it has never been formally challenged, or removed from a school library. It has not appeared on the American Library Association’s list of banned books. (In Oxford, Mississippi, it was removed from a summer reading list, but the book stayed on the shelves.)
One might think that I have little cause for complaint. Book banning seems not to have affected me much.
I have since learned that it’s not so simple.
Five months after Godless won the National Book Award, I was invited to visit a school in a mid-sized Wisconsin town. “We’d like you to talk about your book Sweetblood,” the librarian told me.
I agreed. I do a lot of school visits, and it’s not uncommon for a librarian to ask me to focus on a particular title. So I went to the school, and while chatting with the librarian I said, “I’m curious. For most of my school visits recently, I’ve been asked to talk about Godless because, you know, it just won the NBA. How come you want me to talk about Sweetblood?”
I didn’t intend to embarrass her, but it was immediately clear that I had.
She said, “Well…I knew when Godless won the National Book Award, I would have to order a copy…”
I said, “Oh!” a bit puzzled by her phrasing. “Have the students been checking it out?”
“Well…our principal heard about it, as I knew he would. He checked it out himself, saying he wanted to make sure it was appropriate.”
“Oh!” said I. “What did he think about it?”
“Well…that was three months ago, and he hasn’t returned it yet.” She laughed, nervously. “He’s not much of a reader.”
Godless was not challenged or removed. It was “checked out.”
Overt efforts to ban books are rarely successful — nearly all challenged books remain in our libraries. That’s the good news.
The bad news is, when a someone does challenge a book, even if their effort fails, they win. Consider the following scenario:
A middle school librarian has 20 bucks left in her acquisition budget. She can purchase a copy of Godless, or replace her worn out copy of the classic novel Where the Red Fern Grows. She says to herself, “If I put Godless on the shelves, Evan and Angelica Wright will hear about it from their daughter Christy, and they will demand that it be removed from the shelves, just like they did with the Harry Potter books.
“Of course, I would never accede to their demand! I believe in freedom of information, I oppose censorship, and I’m sure the administration and the school board would support me. But what a hassle it would be! It makes me ill to think of going through an ordeal like that again. In any case, we really do need a new copy of Where the Red Fern Grows, so…”
…so by challenging Harry Potter, Evan and Angelica Wright have Jedi mind-tricked that librarian into promoting their broader agenda.
Efforts to remove books from school libraries are effective even when they “fail.” And it’s not just librarians whose future decisions are influenced by pro-censorship activists: Publishers, booksellers, and authors can be Jedi mind-tricked too. I can pretty much guarantee that no middle-grade book in the foreseeable future will feature the word “scrotum” on page one.
Today, every time I hear about a book being challenged — and that challenge being defeated — I ask myself, Was that a win? For whom?
Any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind. —John Donne
Pete Hautman is the author of more than 20 novels for adults and teens, including the 2004 National Book Award winner “Godless“, Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner “The Big Crunch“, and three New York Times Notable Books: “Drawing Dead,” “The Mortal Nuts,” and “Rash“. His young adult novels range from science fiction (“The Obsidian Blade“) and mystery (“Blank Confession“) to contemporary drama (“Godless“) and romantic comedy (“What Boys Really Want“).
With novelist, poet, and occasional co-author Mary Logue, Pete divides his time between Golden Valley, Minnesota, and Stockholm, Wisconsin. His latest books are the YA novel “Eden West,” the story of a boy growing up in an isolated doomsday cult in Montana, and the middle-grade novel “The Forgetting Machine,” a sci-fi comedy about, among other things, censorship in the age of ebooks.