Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Lunch and Controversy in NYC

I was in NY this weekend meeting with a (new for me) publisher. The publisher happened to be in NJ, which I gather is where publishers go now since the rents are cheaper. During the weekend I was able to get together with two of my favorite New Yorkers and children’s lit people—our very own effervescent Jill Davis, and one of our previous guests, the divine Ellen Levine. We shared writing/publishing woes, laughed and gossiped in a Thai bistro uptown, like three women on a Sex and The City episode, only our show would be titled Writers for Children and Young Adults and the City.

Much of the conversation turned to Ellen’s latest foray into the world of book challenges. For those not familiar with her novel Catch A Tiger By the Toe, it is a middle-grade historical novel taking place during the McCarthy era in 1953. One might imagine many book banners protesting from a certain political side. But the surprise is that the person challenging the book is a leading Civil Rights Activist who noticed the “n” word appearing in the book and claims the book is racist. The word is spoken by the bully in the novel as a racial slur. The protagonist denounces and rejects racial and ethnic stereotyping. It is yet again another situation of a word in a book taken out of context. The irony of the activist trying to ban this book is both amusing and mortifying. These days no word is safe. If anything Ellen said she expected protests from the right since the family in the book are members of the CP, but this was a surprise. Had the person read the book she may have noticed her faux pas.

As Ellen herself put it: “To remove a book from library shelves for the use of a word is to travel down that mindless but painfully destructive McCarthy road once again. Have we learned nothing?”

And so now I am home from the city, back in my quiet studio and working on something to give that NJ publisher.


  1. Lisa, how I would have loved to join you all at the bistro. We need each other. Yes, keep that NJ publisher busy. Challenging a book without reading it cover to cover. What does this say to our kids? No context, just words on a page. Please.

  2. it would be great to get together, Claire! Being too far from writer friends drives me crazy. Even if just to kavetch and groin about insanity of the world.

  3. Am with you in the being-driven-crazy category, Lisa. I have Lois nearby, but I need more Loises (Loisi?). Trying to start an online writing group with friends, but we're all so disorganized...

  4. My experience with banned/challenged books, and I've had my share, is that sales always increase. People want to know what all the fuss is about.
    Someone during a Q&A asked me how I could bring myself to use the F-word so often in 'Stoner & Spaz," and I replied that I was basically a terrible person with no redeeming qualities. That seemed to stop that nice lady right in her tracks. RK

  5. It seems that in this age of sound bites and TWITTER-fied communication, the most vocal critics are quick with knee-jerk reactions.

    I'll be looking for Ellen's book.It sounds great. Wish I could hang out with cool writer friends in NYC bistros...

  6. On the subject of banned books...

    When Mark Twain learned that a library had banned Huckleberry Finn, he wrote a thank-you note to the library board, reasoning that "every library book prevents the purchase of a hundred copies," and he appreciated their help in boosting sales.

  7. I like the idea of "Loisi" as a generic term for one's support system of writers.

    As for banning books=increased sales and such--sure. But many more books are swept under the table or shelved to the side with little notice and noise. We hear about the outrageous blunders of censorship and we shake our heads and make noise and maybe even have some success fighting back; however, not all censors are inept.

    I got an email recently from a woman who questioned all the lesbians dotting the landscape in my last novel. She would not be recommending the book, she told me, for the mother-daughter club she was in charge of. That's her right of course. Still, I may have to come up with a version of Ron's fabulous "terrible person" reply.

  8. I received an email from a mother who 'caught' her daughter reading my novel, calling me an "over-educated, ultra-liberal lesbian whose mission it is to influence young girls." I never wrote back. She did tell me though that her daughter loved my book so much that she was now dressing like one of my characters. It is the kids I aim to reach after all, and not the parents--it's often wasted on them.

  9. Well said, Lisa - it's the kids we're trying to reach. Kids will get to the books they want. I think Marsha makes a really great statement - not all those censoring books are inept. Books are simply not recommended by teachers, are kept from reading lists -- last year in Janesville the principal at my daughters' school was upset that we had included Jon Scieszka's biography KNUCKLEHEAD on our library battle list. She felt that it put the Catholic church in a bad light and made kids think that questioning authority was to be rewarded. I had a long conversation with her (secretly laughing inside because I was like "darn right kids should question authority"!!) She just couldn't stand that a kid was making fun of a teacher and that the scene where the kid is sent to the principal for punishment wasn't included in the story. There was no real reasoning with her, despite that all of the kids I asked about that chapter knew that Jon had likely gotten in BIG TROUBLE! (they totally GOT the humor and they were not about to go and take over the school). Adults just can't remember what it was like to be a kid. At least the principal allowed the kids to read the book and didn't pull out of the competition. I doubt she'll ever recommend that book to a kid though. Oh well. That's what I'm for - right??