There's a little town in Texas that most of us have never heard of. It's called Humble, and occupies about ten square miles of northeastern Harris County near Houston. It started out as a tiny oil town, but gradually grew to its current population of about fifteen thousand.
If you're not an author of Young Adult (YA) fiction, you have probably never heard of it. For YA authors, however, it is a different story. They know how this small, independent school district has touched off a firestorm in the literary world.
By planning its biennial Teen Lit Fest.
It seems that the Humble Independent School District is interested in getting kids to read--a laudable goal, to say the least. So, some years ago, it began bringing authors in to talk to teens about their writing, to sign books, give out door prizes, and generally make it more cool for teens to read--or write. The last one in 2009 was a big success, and many looked forward to the 2011 event. They had a select group of authors lined up to attend, including New York Times bestseller, and multiple children's-writing award winner, Ellen Hopkins. What a coup!
But then a middle school librarian made comments to one or more parents about the content of some of Ms. Hopkins work, alleging that it was not appropriate for middle-school students. Those parents brought that concern to the Superintendent, Dr. Guy Sconzo, who then, without any discussion with the author, removed Ms. Hopkins from the list of those invited to the event. In protest of what they deemed censorship, several of the other authors who were planning to attend decided to boycott the event. The school district eventually cancelled it altogether.
I am not in a position to comment on whether I would want my teen or preteen to read Ms. Hopkins' work. I have never read a word she has written. I do know that there are many books written for young adults that I would try to steer my middle schooler or high schooler away from. That's the job of parents. To use their best judgment to decide what is or is not an appropriate activity for their own children. Not the neighbors' kids--not the kids down the street--not the kids on the other side of town. By having an open and frank discussion with one's children, a parent can influence the choices they make even when they are not under the parent's direct supervision.
But should these non-specific "concerns" of a few parents and a lone librarian have led to rescinding Ms. Hopkins' invitation to the event? She had participated in similar events in nearby communities without any adverse response reported. And if a few individuals can get an author's appearance canceled, is it too big a stretch to worry that removing her books from the school district libraries will be next?
The list of books that have been banned over the decades includes many that we now consider classics. Without defending any particular writing, I feel I must defend the author's right to speak or write as he or she decides--and the parent's right not to take their children to any event.
As it is, the children of Humble have lost out on an evening that might have made them better readers--or might have spawned a future writer or two. And that's too bad for all of us.
What do you think? Should a school district event include an author than a few parents feel writes material inappropriate for their children?