Banned but Unbowed

I should have posted this article last week during Banned Books Week; however, life continued to get in the way and forced me to delay my report my own mild brush with book banning. Many of my favorite books to read or to teach have been banned at one time or another for a diverse set of reasons, and I’ve always believed that great art is always offensive on some level to someone. Therefore, the subject is dear to my heart.

Recently, I was approached by an independent bookstore in northern Ohio regarding the possibility of  making an in-store appearance. I was thrilled! One of the most surprisingly gratifying experiences for me as an author has been the opportunity to meet readers and to discuss books – mine and others’ – with them. I was equally disappointed, then, when my contact at the bookstore decided to rescind the offer, after reading SO SHELLY and having found her too “raw.” In doing so, she couldn’t have been any nicer or more professional. I thanked her for the time and consideration she’d already spent, and she said that she would continue to “hand sell” SO SHELLY to targeted customers.

Bookstores are not libraries. They are in business to attract paying customers; therefore, it is imperative that they know and please their clientele. I have no doubt that this was an important factor in rescinding the offer. Bookstore owners have every right to shelve whatever books and to host whatever authors they choose. With a limited amount of shelf space to begin with, bookstores make these decisions daily, and in typically much smaller independent bookstores, shelf space is at a premium. Libraries, on the other hand, are not driven by profit, nor are they the arbiters of society’s literary tastes. Their responsibility is to make available books on a wide range of topics and that detail the infinite variety of experiences available to the human. For as Longfellow wrote, “Life is short and time is fleeting,” and the vicarious experiences found in books may be the only way the vast majority of us will ever be able to have them during our transient
lifetimes.  Many of these library-shelved books may be offensive to others; however, it is not the place of the library or the public to decide. That choice must remain the individual’s.

To the quite civil and reasonable snubbing, I’ve had two divergent responses. My initial reaction was hurt. It stung to think that anyone would find the content of my novel so egregious that it must be kept out of the view and hands of young adults. My second, more rational response was that, at least to some extent, I got what I deserved and even asked for. In the penning of SO SHELLY, there were many moments of authorial and editorial decision-making concerned with the inclusion of adult language and scenes that I knew some readers may find objectionable. Knowing that the novel would be marketed for young adults, I still chose to retain them. I consciously pushed the ever-shifting boundaries of appropriateness, not for salacious reasons but to accurately tell the story of the three very real and fairly outlandish poets who are at the center of the story. I don’t regret those choices, but it would be disingenuous of me to whine whenever SO SHELLY is passed over by bookstores, schools, and the occasional library.

I continue to believe that books are a safe place for young adults to confront “adult” themes and situations, so that when they are faced with them in the real world, they have had at least the vicarious book
experience on which to reference their decision-making. The young adult readers of my experience find any glossing over or “dumbing-down” of material to be more offensive than the frank treatment of mature subject matter. So, I will
continue to push all envelopes and remain true to my commitment to never underestimate the intelligence or maturing of young adult readers – even if i cost me an occasional bookstore appearance.