Friday, January 27, 2012

Challenged Books

by Scott Rhoades

Every year, I set at least one reading goal to help lead me to the books I'll read that year. Last year, my goal was to read the last two Twain novels I'd never read (that's Mark, not Shania), and to begin rereading all of Steinbeck's novels and selected non-fiction in the order written, to study his development as a writer.

This year, I am continuing my Steinbeck goal, but I've also decided to read at least ten of the most-often-challenged books in the US as listed by the American Library Association. I've also added a few other books to my list that have led to authors being banned or even jailed in other countries.

These are books whose very presence in a library or classroom is challenged by parents, community organizations, school boards, churches, governments, and a host of others who feel that the very presence of a book in one of those pesky storehouses of knowledge and ideas we call libraries threatens the fabric of society, the idea being that books, as well as other art forms, should always be uplifting (according to their definition of "uplifting"). The ALA website has a fascinating list of some of these books and the reasons they have been challenged by specific groups, including some right here in Utah, as well as lists and graphs describing various facts about bans and challenges.

Many of the reasons why a book is challenged are valid from particular perspectives. Parents are, by far, the largest group of challengers. Certainly, parents have a right to raise concerns about assigned reading they consider offensive or inappropriate for readers of a certain age. Whether they have the right to determine what an entire community reads based on their own opinions, well, that's an argument I won't get into here (but just saying that probably reveals my position well enough). This post is not about parental rights.

Many books are challenged or banned for reasons that appear weak to most of us. Banning the Harry Potter books for glorifying witchcraft and magic, banning Twilight because it includes supernatural characters who fall in love with mere mortals, or banning The Lord of the Rings for being satanic all sound kind of silly, but all have happened. Banning The Adventures of Captain Underpants for depicting a boy in his underwear, or banning the entire Goosebumps series for being frightening and having ghosts and other spooky ookies, doesn't sound any better. Many of these bans obviously come from people with extremely narrow views who have never read the books.

But many challenges are much more complicated. For example, the most-often challenged book in the US is often challenged, not because of closed-mindedness but because of an attempt to discourage bigotry and closed-mindedness. I'm talking, of course, about "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." True enough, That Word is deeply offensive. Even though it is considered worse today than it was in the story's (and author's) time and place, it was still not a nice word back then. In Twain's time, it was very similar in effect to the currently misused adjective, "gay." Questioning the presence of a book so full of the N-word in a classroom, especially one in which many students are likely to be personally offended, is not completely ununderstandable.

The problem is, to ban the book for depicting racism is to miss the point. Yes, it depicts racism. Huck struggles with racism throughout most of the book, believing that slaves can hardly have feelings like "real people," and questioning whether he's doing the right thing by helping him. For much of the story, Huck ponders turning Jim in. But over the course of their journey, Huck learns that Jim is, in fact, a person, has feelings, loves his family, values freedom, and is not all that different. When Huck finally decides that he'll even risk eternal damnation to help Jim become free, Twain is making one of the most powerful anti-racism statements in American literary history.

In many cases, books like "Huck Finn" are taught in order to make points that go beyond the book. Twain's opus opens the door for discussions about racism and civil rights, about how much has changed and how much change is still needed. The answer is not to ban, but to discuss.

Of course, that's not always understood or appreciated, nor is it easy. Take, for example, the recent controversy right here in Utah when a teacher was discussing Martin Luther King and the lesson morphed into a discussion about the hated N-word. Many parents were upset that the word was used in class, in many cases not an inappropriate response. However, as reported anyway, that response seems misguided in this instance. During the course of the discussion, kids mentioned that they hear the word all the time in the music they (or older siblings) listen to, so it can't be that bad. The very fact that the kids would respond that way shows why the discussion is needed, even at a young age.

Often, it's government who challenge a book. The USSR was notorious for banning books that depict anti-communist sentiments, and the USA is notorious for challenging books that are pro-communist. 1984 by George Orwell has been banned in both countries for both reasons. I think that most of us agree that when government gets in the business of controlling ideas, good never follows.

I've taken a long time to make my point, so I'll do it now and wrap up. Good art is often challenging. It challenges our society, our morals, and our beliefs. It discusses very real parts of the human condition that people don't like to talk about openly, such as sex or our own prejudices (and we all have them). It holds up a magic mirror that shows our world as it is, not necessarily the way we like to pretend that it is. Many people don't like to be challenged, and they certainly don't want their children to be challenged or exposed to certain ideas. The problem is, by hiding those ideas and those unpleasant aspects of who we are and the world we've created, we eliminate discussion and ensure that the problems will not be addressed. We contribute to the lack of change and improvement. And, worst of all, we short-change our children and their ability to think and reason and to see for themselves why the ideas and words and actions depicted in the book are considered bad, and to learn how to deal with them.

And, by pulling those books from our libraries, we prevent children and adults who have issues or questions from a safe place where they can learn more about those issues and resolve their questions. That's why libraries (and, to a somewhat more controlled extent, schools) need to contain the widest variety of ideas, including those we do not cotton to, and why access to libraries must remain free.

I'll step down off my soapbox now. Please discuss.

Today's Barnes & Noble Free Friday e-book: Zombies Don't Cry by Rusty Fisher.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Pop Culture Controversy

Maybe I'm a few years late to this particular discussion, but I think it bears repeating.

Last week on Pandora, I heard a great new song: "Pumped Up Kicks" by Foster the People. It had a catchy, edgy beat and I found myself humming along. Later, my daughter said her 6th grade class had discussed this song because it talks about a school shooting. I didn't think much of her comment at the time, but the thought stuck with me.

Yesterday, I did some research on the song and, thanks to Google, found out the story behind the song. It's about a student who is bullied and harassed and who takes his gun to school to seek revenge. The lyrics are "run faster than my bullet." Here's what SongFacts says about the song:

Mark Foster explained the song's meaning to Spinner UK: "'Pumped Up Kicks' is about a kid that basically is losing his mind and is plotting revenge. He's an outcast. I feel like the youth in our culture are becoming more and more isolated. It's kind of an epidemic. Instead of writing about victims and some tragedy, I wanted to get into the killer's mind, like Truman Capote did in In Cold Blood. I love to write about characters. That's my style. I really like to get inside the heads of other people and try to walk in their shoes."

Foster says he considered writing the song from the perspective of the victim, but felt that would be a cop out. He also points out that there is no actual violence in the song, as the threats are all the kid's internal monologue.

Another writer for the Chicago Tribune decried the song's dark meaning: 

But after looking closely at the song's lyrics and listening to it many extra times, I have come to agree that this song is more deserving of a push away than the warm embrace it has mostly received.
I don't for a moment fear that my kids or yours are one ill-considered pop song away from going bad, but I'd just rather not have their environment include a school shooting treated with all the gravity of bubble-gum pop — with whistling! 

One person's edgy, thought provoker is another person's dark influence to be shunned. Who's right? 

Writers of songs and writers of books live in parallel universes when it comes to pushing the envelope. We each decide how far to push boundaries in our creations, and often society will push back. 

So where's the limit? Is it inherently wrong to tell a song (or story) from the perspective of the bad guy? I bet you can name books that do that exact same thing. But will that perspective glorify the violence? Are we condoning the behavior we discuss? Who decides that? Certainly there is no real fear in our teens hooking up with vampires who then love them too much to bite them. But what about realistic fiction? What about writing about the power a kid feels when he pulls a gun on someone or when a girl smokes her first joint? Are we giving kids ideas they wouldn't otherwise have? 

What do you think? Leave your comments below. 

(and tell me if you like the song too! I think the song is catchy and the words create a vivid scene in my head that could easily make a powerful book.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Finding Balance

by Deren Hansen

Sandra Tayler, speaking at the 2011 Life, the Universe, and Everything (LTUE) conference, addressed the perennial question of finding balance. She said you can balance your life by paying attention (as in at least 10 minutes a day) to the five things that are most important to you.

I've amplified Sandra's five things to illustrate the technique.

Source of Inspiration

The word inspire comes from Latin root that mean, "to breath into." Many creation stories have God, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or the Amorphous Essence of the Universe breathing life into creation.

What is it that breaths life into your writing, your work, and your very existence?

What fills you with joy in being?

Whatever it may be, take time each day to reconnect with your source of inspiration.

Important Relationships

For good or ill, humans are social animals. Much of our sense of who we are is a function of those with whom we are close. Put another way, much of what we do is motivated by the people with whom we have the most important relationships. Some have pursued their art at the expense of those relationships and wound up with no one to share it with when they won the prize.

Take time each day to acknowledge and nurture your important relationships. Not only will you have more support right now, you'll likely have someone to appreciate it when you succeed.

Health and Welfare

As Count Rugen, in the Princess Bride, says, "If you haven't got your health, you haven't got anything."

Take time to take care of yourself.


If you are serious about writing it should have a high priority. While writing every day is an important habit, the point here is that you ought to do something related to writing each day to keep in touch with your passion.

"Something only I care about."

Sherry Wachter, writing on The Blood Red Pencil, talked about the importance of a room of one's own. That is, how having a project of your own makes it easier to compromise when you're working on someone else's project. Taking time each day to do something only you care about is essential if you don't want to lose track of yourself amid all the demands placed upon you.
Balance = The Things that Matter

You can think of this as the plate-spinner approach to personal balance. Like the performer who runs back and forth spinning up the plates that are slowing down, taking time each day to at least touch the five most important things in your life will go a long way to helping you find balance.

And don't think of it as balancing your life. The job of balancing an entire life is overwhelming. Sandra Tayler said, "Balance the day and the year will take care of itself."

Deren blogs at The Laws of Making.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Best Writing Advice Ever

By Julie Daines

In 1986, Frank L. Visco published this advice in Writer's Digest. It's so awesome I had to post it again here, even though I'm sure many of you have already seen this.

How To Write Good:

My several years in the word game have learnt me several rules:
  1. Avoid Alliteration. Always.
  2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
  3. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They’re old hat.)
  4. Employ the vernacular.
  5. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
  6. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.
  7. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
  8. Contractions aren’t necessary.
  9. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
  10. One should never generalize.
  11. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”
  1. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
  2. Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.
  3. Profanity sucks.
  4. Be more or less specific.
  5. Understatement is always best.
  6. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
  7. One word sentences? Eliminate.
  8. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
  9. The passive voice is to be avoided.
  10. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
  11. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
  12. Who needs rhetorical questions?

Here are a few more added to the list by another guy:

  • Never use a big word when a diminutive alternative would suffice.
  • Poofread carefully to see if you any words out.
  • A writer must not shift your point of view.
  • If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be by rereading and editing.

Click here for source.

Posted by Julie Daines

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Developing Fun Characters Children will Love and Relate To with Molly Nero, Author of Smarty Pig

Your characters must come to life for young kids.  By drawing on my teaching experience, I have developed a family of pigs that children will hopefully relate to and love.  Teaching kids for many years helped me understand that Power Rangers, SpongeBob, and the name of Disney’s newest princess must be in your vocabulary.  The latest DS, XBOX, and Wii games also get young people to look at you as though you actually are attempting to understand their world a little bit, though they know you are really an outsider since you’re older than 11 or 12!  If you try to listen to kids at their level, you will begin to understand their world better, but it’s hard for adults to do that.  We are lost in our own world of IPads, IPhones, emails, and daily demands.  Trying to remember what it’s like to be 7 or 8 becomes difficult.    

My classroom, filled daily with various aged kids, allowed me the chance to find a way to connect to be an effective teacher.  To have validity with my audience, I use those details.  Attitudes and situations that kids understand or experience themselves help create depth in my characters.  Smarty Pig‘s family has given up on school.  They simply don’t care and show that by not doing their homework.  How many kids give up on homework sometime?  How many kids wish they could just not do it at all like the pigs do?  This is relatable for young students and helps my characters come to life.  Pigs playing video games, watching tv, playing tag are all current and relatable activities.  The natural consequence of failing their subjects is another relatable situation.  How many high achieving students are teased with “Nerd, Goody-Goody, or Smarty-Pants” by others who don’t or won’t put forth the same effort?  Again, a very typical classroom situation that is represented in Smarty Pig except it’s portrayed in the home instead.

Beyond the words, you need to find an illustrator who has the correct vision of your character.  Monique Turchan provided me with a couple of different versions of Smarty Pig.  I immediately gravitated to the one that we ended up using.  I wanted a character that was pig-ish, but childlike at the same time, again hoping to help the kids relate to her and her pig family.  In this type of book, the marriage between words and illustrations must come together creating the complete package of lovable, relatable characters that kids will love to read about.

About the author: Molly Nero loves to sing, dance and read. She spent over 18 years teaching elementary school.  Reading to her own children, she was inspired to write. The second book in the Smarty Pig book series Smarty Pig and the Test Taking Terror releases in Spring 2012.

Smarty Pig is the only one in the pig family who hasn’t given up on school and doing her homework. Although she is teased, her report card shows her hard work, while the others fail. The other pigs reach out to her and she becomes their tutor, by creating games in their home. They all realize learning can be fun and that it’s not just for school, it’s for life.

Get a sneak peek of the book at
You can find out more about Molly Nero’s World of Ink Author/Book Tour schedule at There will be giveaways, reviews, interviews, guest posts and more. Make sure to stop by and interact with Nero and the hosts at the different stops by leaving comments and/or questions.