Archive for the ‘censorship’ Category:

5 Rights Teen Writers Deserve

…and teen non-writers deserve them, too.


Teens have taught me a bunch about writing over the last couple of decades–both the teens who have already written five novels and the ones who would rather scrub under the refrigerator than pick up a pen. For a lot of teens, writing was ruined for them by third grade. For others, dutifully writing their five-paragraph essays, their love affair with writing is made up of clandestine moments, stolen from their more “important” term papers and college applications.

The needs of these writers are simple, but those needs often can’t–or won’t–be accommodated in school. They come down to two basic principles: ownership and community. Here’s what I think most teens ask of their parents, mentors, friends and teachers when it comes to their writing.

1. I have a right to secret writing. I may keep a private journal. It may have poems or stories in it; it may have letters I never send; it may have just random thoughts. But it is not for public consumption; it is not for anyone who wants to check my spelling or penmanship; it is not even there so you can read my poetry, celebrate my talent and understand me better. When and if I want to share it with someone, I will. In the meantime, do not ask.

2. I have a right to choose what I write about. I know I’ll have assignments for school that I don’t choose; I get that. But I have a right to channel my creativity in a way that rocks my world–even if my song lyrics make no sense to you or my spokenword piece might shock Great Aunt Betty. I have a right to create my own body of work.

3. If I am part of a writing group or class, I have a right to either share my work or not share it. Sometimes sharing my work with a group is helpful and feels good. But sometimes the writing isn’t yet ready to share. And some writing will never be ready to share. I have a right to know I can write from a deep place inside of myself, or that I can experiment and the teacher will not demand to have the work read.

4. I have a right to accept or reject critique. If I choose to get feedback on my work (and I can choose not to), I am not obligated to change the work in the way the critiquer suggests. Even if the person giving the critique is my best friend. Even if it is my mom. Even if it is an award-winning author. I have a right to decide what is useful to the piece and what is not, and to base my revisions on the advice believe best serves the work.

5. I have a right to be listened to, encouraged, and respected. If I can find a group of people who feel like my “tribe,” because they are just as strange and quirky as I am, I may show them my secret writing–misspellings and all. I may share my spokenword piece with them and hear theirs. I may write weird, experimental collaborations with some of them. I may listen to their critique and weigh it carefully, because not only are we all becoming stronger writers, these people know me. And the real reason I write is to know and to be known.


If you know a teen still looking for a “tribe” of creatives, we’d love to have them at our TEENWrite EPIC overnight May 17-18 at Camp Huston. Our 10th anniversary Summer TEENWrite EPIC camp will be July 8-12 at Fort Casey.


Banned Again

I don’t know why I’m so bummed about it this time. Maybe I relished the challenge of approaching a controversial topic in a way that builds bridges rather than walls. And no, I won’t name the school, so don’t ask. I’m not mad at them. I understand the pressure they are under and they stood to lose a lot more than I would if some lawsuit-happy parent got their knickers in a knot.

But I’m still bummed.

Legend of the Valentine has religion in it. And not just any religion. Legend of the Valentine has Christianity in it. It also has the Civil Rights Movement, school integration, handling bullies, Valentine’s Day and a wise grandmother. Because of that, I’m sometimes invited to speak by people who don’t know about the Christianity part. So I make sure I tell them it’s there and discuss how I might present the book in a context appropriate for a public school setting.

What I was hoping for this time, was to bring up the topic of bullying on the basis of religion. I wanted to brainstorm various ways we divide ourselves up: race, language, nationality, money, gender… and religion. Inside the book is a story of religious persecution. And while I don’t know if anyone is being fed to the lions anymore (at least in this country), kids in school routinely experience bullying aimed at their religion–be it Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Pagan, Sikh, or something else. But religion has become the Great Unspeakable in the public square–most especially in public school.

Do I think it’s acceptable for an author to waltz into a public school and proselytize a captive audience of children for her particular religion? No. But the squeamishness that places religious references in a category of obscenity previously reserved for… well, obscenity, does a disservice to our kids–and to the culture as a whole.

I remember my daughter coming home from Kindergarten and telling me it was “against the rules” to talk about God at school. Of course, her school had no such rule, but the anxiety and discomfort of her teachers any time a child made a religious reference was evident to her. How many children begin to see their innocent faith, and the religions of their families as something shameful? Our kids are taught to speak openly about all manner of sensitive topics–most of which would have curled my grandmother’s hair (had it not already been curly.) But the topic of spirituality and faith elicits a “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” superciliousness among policymakers.

What this does is further isolate children of faith (and nonreligious children) from one another. And those children grow into adults who build fortresses around their belief communities because they have never been exposed to any other belief. From within these fortresses, the adults shoot arrows at the other fortresses. Fortress A must be defended against the alien “others” from Fortress B. The beliefs attributed to Fortress B are a caricature, created by Fortress A. Why? Because they never got around to talking openly with each other and trying to understand their common ground.

Do I blame teachers for this? Absolutely not! I am a teacher in a public school. And I am guarded about religious discussion in my own classroom. I know what the climate is in these times, and I can’t put my own school at risk.
So maybe I was a Pollyanna not to decline the invitation to speak in the first place, knowing how loaded it would be to read a book with the name “Jesus” in it.

But I wish that we would talk about this. There has to be another way.


Book Banning or "You Can’t Come to My Party" and other Awkward Moments

With the rescinding of Ellen Hopkins’ key to the Teen Lit Festival in Humble, Texas, some lively writer-chat has been taking place. Deemed too controversial AFTER she was asked to keynote, Ellen received an “Oops! Disregard that invite,” when a district librarian brought a handful of parental complaints to the superintendent. Following Ellen’s dis-invitation, authors Pete Hautman, Melissa de la Cruz, Matt de la Peña, and Tera Lynn Childs dis-invited themselves from the event in a show of solidarity.

Because I like Ellen (and her books), it’s been good to see her respond with strength and confidence. And it got me thinking about the time I was uninvited to a school visit. I told a writer friend about it during Banned Books Week one year. She was outraged for me. “You should tell everyone!” she said. “What was so offensive in your book that they didn’t want you there?”

I told her that the book, LEGEND OF THE VALENTINE, had religious content. And my friend said, “Katherine! Why are you trying to bring religion into the schools?”

It seems a fair question. I’d been invited by a teacher who loved my book. I wanted to go, but I was hesitant. What if they thought I was a “stealth” author determined to evangelize the children for my particular flavor of religion? So I wrote a letter to the coordinator of the event, explaining that there was this aspect of the book (It’s about the Civil Rights Movement, and also has the story of early Christian martyr St. Valentine, along with prayerful talk about loving one’s enemies). I planned to address religion as broadly as possible, given the diverse setting, and assured her it wouldn’t be a Sunday school lesson.

Nevertheless, she was uneasy and she asked me not to come. I suggested some other authors for her, and that was that.

Personally, I think we need to be less afraid about religion in the public arena than we are. If we can allow children to learn about and discuss spirituality and religions in a heterogenous environment, as if it is a normal part of life, we can go a long way towards diminishing the fearmongering that takes place — both among the religious and the non-religious.

But ideologies go crashing against each other when we bring up censorship and religion–specifically, Christianity–at the same time.In some quarters, censoring Christianity is okay censorship. And yes, I know that censoring and belittling other religions has been standard in this culture. I’m not for that, either.

And it’s never fun to be kicked out of the party.