Just in time for the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak (FSG, 1999) is under attack once again. This time, Wesley Scroggins, an associate professor of management at Missouri State University, is cautioning parents of the Republic School District against what he refers to as “soft porn” books used in the curriculum, including Speak, which is about rape.
Scroggins’s op-ed piece in Missouri’s News-Leader has generated more than 300 comments on the newspaper’s website, is the topic of several blog posts, and prompted its own Twitter feed (#SpeakLoudly).
School Library Journal spoke to Anderson about the controversy.
Last Sunday at 6:39 a.m. you first tweeted about Wesley Scroggins’s article, in which he calls Speak, immoral, filthy, and soft pornography. What’s been the reaction to that tweet and your blog post about it?
The reaction has been astounding. As of right now, more than 25,000 people have read the blog on my website. Another 15,000 have read it on Jezebel.com. Hundreds and hundreds of people have commented and posted their own stories about speaking up about being raped or sexual abused. A Twitter feed #speakloudly was set up by an English teacher and the subject became one of the most heavily tweeted on Sunday. Someone created a Twibbon campaign. Another person made a blog button. I am suddenly fielding requests for interviews and commentary. Countless people have established giveaways and donations of Speak and the other two books under fire: Slaughterhouse Five (Random, 1969) by Kurt Vonnegut, and Twenty Boy Summer (Little Brown, 2009) by a new YA author, Sarah Ockler.
It must feel good to have so much support in such a short period of time.
I keep needing to stop and breathe deeply so I can take it all in. When Speak was published, there was some whispering that this was not an appropriate topic for teens. I knew from my personal experience that it was. This notion was validated by thousands and thousands of readers who connected with me to thank me for the book. They said it made them feel less alone and gave them the strength to speak up about being sexually assaulted and other painful secrets.
Those readers and their parents, teachers, and librarians changed the world [with their support]. I wrote the book. I wrote the blog post. My readers took up the challenge and are now speaking very loudly. They have slammed Scroggins’s comparison of rape to pornography and are demanding that school boards everywhere follow the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment of our Constitution.
These readers have changed the world by declaring that rape victims have nothing to be ashamed of, but that book banners like Scroggins do.
Can you share an example of how Speak has made a difference in someone’s life?
I have heard from many survivors of sexual assault who told me that they didn’t dare tell anyone about being attacked. They held in the physical and emotional trauma, sometimes for decades. Often they turned to drugs, alcohol, or cutting to cope with the emotional pain. Then they read Speak. Melinda gave them the courage to speak up for the first time, to tell what happened, and to get the help they deserved. I have heard from even more people who were not raped, but who found a piece of themselves in Melinda. Her story strengthened them, too.
How’d you find out about his op-ed?
Someone tweeted about it on Saturday and my daughter, Stephanie, blogged about it Saturday night.
Is this a part of a movement in Missouri against YA literature?
That is an excellent question. A few days ago Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown, 2007) was banned in a high school very close to the one in question. That makes me suspicious, but I don’t want to characterize this as a movement until we have more information from people in these communities.
The primary purpose of Banned Books Week is to make people aware of the freedom to read, but do you think it also encourages censorship by conservative groups?
Absolutely not! I think that Banned Books Week creates a forum for us to discuss what intellectual freedom means in America. It injects life and real meaning into the teaching of the Constitution.
Do you get tired of having to defend your writing against those who have objections to your books?
It’s time-consuming to respond to these outbreaks of censorship. I would rather be working on a new book, but we can’t allow our precious intellectual freedoms to be stolen by thugs. And so, I speak. Loudly.
Got any advice for your supporters?
I hope that they can find a constructive way to use their voices. The blogosphere activity surrounding this controversy is wonderful, but I hope that my readers will talk to people who aren’t on Twitter. Engage in civil conversation with people who might not yet understand the value of realistic YA literature. Share their experiences of how a book can save a life or breathe hope into a broken soul. That is the point of stories; they bring us together.
This article originally appeared in the newsletter Extra Helping. Go here to subscribe.