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Judy Blume: Rockstar

It’s the last day of Banned Books Week, so let’s talk about this lady, shall we? Because this lady? She’s awesome, and she has something to say about book censorship.

I loved Judy Blume when I was a kid. The first time I read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, I was hooked, and I quickly devoured her other kids books. A few years down the road, and a whole other world of Blume’s books fell into my hands, ones written for a slightly older audience. Blubber, Deenie, and of course my favorite, the be all and end all book for preteen girls, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret*.

*Seriously, has no one ever thought of marketing this gem as a sort of field guide for parents of twelve year old girls? Because that person would make a fortune. Let’s make it happen, people.

And yet Forever fell through the cracks. Most likely because when I was reading Blume’s books, it was a little too mature for me, and by the time I hit an age to appreciate the material, I was too busy sitting in my room listening to Nirvana and suffering through my rent-free jobless life. Teenagers.

When the Rampant Readers decided to celebrate Banned Books Week, I jumped at the chance to read Forever, which is number one with a bullet in Blume’s oeuvre of challenged books (five of her novels have spots on the list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books, with Forever sitting at #7 from 1990-1999 and #16 from 2000-2009). And it’s still popular – I had to go buy a copy, as there was a waiting list for the book at my local library. Not bad for a 36 year old YA novel.

As for the book itself, don’t let that modernized cover fool you – this isn’t your typical teen romance. In fact, if you venture into the book expecting a romance, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Forever is not a romance about Katherine and Michael (those two sets of feet you see over there), but the story of Katherine, an eighteen year old girl on the brink of graduating high school and suddenly finding herself in her first serious relationship. And yes, that relationship includes sex, and the people who want it banned would have you believe that’s all it’s about. But I’d argue that the book is really about a young woman navigating her way through her first real relationship and discovering for herself when she is ready to give her heart – and her body – to someone she loves. There are other parts of the novel that helped land it on that challenged list, like some profanity and recreational drug use, but I doubt that most of the book’s protesters got past the first line (“Sybil Davison has a genius I.Q. and has been laid by at least six different guys.”) before the handwringing began.

The book was written for Blume’s own teenage daughter, because she didn’t like that her kid was being told through every romance she read that sex is immediately followed by Very Bad Things. Like death. Or teen pregnancy. Or finding yourself married at eighteen to a REALLY boring vampire. Yeah, that doesn’t sound familiar at all. She instead wanted to emphasize responsibility and respect in a teenage relationship. So Forever is a refreshing change from the norm, where a teen girl falls in love, has sex, enjoys and takes responsibility for the sex she is having, and nothing bad happens. Of course, that refreshing change is exactly what’s given the book a top spot on the Most Frequently Challenged Books list for the past two decades.

So what makes Judy blume such a rockstar, other than being a kickass author? She is also a tireless anti-censorship activist, working with that National Coalition Against Censorship. Many authors would have backed down under the kind of scrutiny she has faced in her writing career, but Judy Blume fought back. She speaks and writes often on the subject, and in 1999, published Places I Never Meant to Be, a collection of short stories by some of the leading YA authors of the time (which you should all read, by the way… you can borrow my copy). Royalties from the book went to the National Coalition Against Censorship. Just a quick google of her name and censorship will lead you a wealth of interviews, op-ed pieces, and information on her work against book censorship. See? Rockstar. But you don’t have to take my word for it.** Listen to the lady herself. Read a few of her articles, like this fabulous New York Times piece on Harry Potter. And pick up a banned book on your way home. Judy Blume wants you to.

**Bonus Reading Rainbow reference. You’re welcome.

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And then there’s Twilight: A Banned Books Week conundrum

Oh Banned Books Week.  It’s the time of the year when professional and amateur book lovers alike come together to celebrate the titles that people try to remove from the libraries and the free speech champions who are fighting to keep them on the shelves.  We book nerds usually LOVE banned books since they tend to be the edgy titles that depict a subculture that’s foreign or not accepted by the mainstream, books that depict teenagers actually acting like teenagers (i.e. swearing, drinking, having sex etc.), and classics that contain language and ideas that by modern standards can seem … let’s just say outdated.

And then there’s Twilight, #10 on ALA’s most frequently challenged books of 2010 list.

Look, it’s no secret that we’re not terribly fond of Twilight here at Rampant Reads.  I mean it’s right there in the blog header, for crying out loud.  First of all, the Twilight books (I refuse to call them a saga) are very poorly written.  The pacing is awkward and clunky, the characters are all two dimensional and unpleasant (and that’s being generous), and we considered sending Stephenie Meyer a thesaurus just so that she could learn some new words besides dazzling, smoldering, and perfect marble Adonis.  The dialogue is either inane, cheesy, or consisting of sentences that no human being would ever actually speak.  All this could be tolerated (maybe) if there was a rip-roaring plot, but no, NOTHING EVER HAPPENS.  At least not until page 500 or so when someone shows up and tries to kill Bella again.  Seriously guys, that part’s always the best.  But until then, we have to put up with hundreds of pages of Bella and Edward gazing lovingly into each  other’s eyes and stroking each other in a completely chaste manner.  Y’all know I enjoy a good romance, but that’s just ridiculous.

However, boring plots and bad writing do not inspire a person to march down to the library and demand that a book be pulled from the shelves.  No,  Twilight has been challenged due to religious viewpoints and violence.  And the thing is, I kind of agree with the book banners.  Not with the specified reasons, as I can tell the difference between fiction and reality and trust others to do the same, but with the idea that Twilight could potentially be harmful to young girls.

Quite frankly, Edward and Bella’s relationship disturbs me.  He’s controlling, manipulative, and incredibly possessive.  She’s passive and her entire world revolves around him.  He breaks into her house at night to watch her sleep!  He disables her car so that she can’t go see her friends because HE thinks that they’re too dangerous!  And Bella’s like, “I know I should find this behavior creepy, but oh Edward, you’re such a dreamy perfect marble Adonis that I just can’t stay mad at you.  Can we please have sex now?”  And then he squeals and runs away because it’s his job to protect her precious virtue.  God forbid a 21st century woman actually be in charge of her own sexuality and choices.

Hmm, that may have gotten away from me there.

Moving on, I’ve heard lots of comments from girls who find the relationship gross, but enjoy the books anyway.  And I have plenty of my own guilty pleasures, so I don’t judge.  Ok, maybe a little.  But I’ve also heard plenty of comments from girls (and middle-aged women, but I’ll spare you my Twilight Moms theory) who think that Edward is the gold standard of boyfriends and that the Bella/Edward relationship is something to emulate.  This worries me.  I was a teenage girl and know how damaging a manipulative, possessive boyfriend can be at that age.  I’ve watched my friends abandon every other person in their lives for a boy, only to be left completely alone when that relationship falls apart.  It’s not healthy when one person becomes your whole world, yet Twilight doesn’t present this as damaging or dangerous.  In Twilight, this is true love.

And yet, I just can’t support banning Twilight.  As much as I’ve made fun of them, I generally think potential book banners come from a good and pure place; they want to protect children.  But morality is so subjective that who the hell gets to decide what is or is not appropriate?  I understand wanting to protect your children, but I agree with the ALA that “only parents and guardians have the right and responsibility to determine their children’s — and only their children’s — access to library resources” (emphasis mine).  And of course forbidding something tends to make kids wonder what all the fuss is about.

So I won’t stop anyone from reading Twilight, and I’d like to think I’d fight just as hard to keep it in a school or a library as I would for a book I actually like.  Probably.  But I will continue to recommend reading Cleolinda’s awesome, snarktastic recaps instead of or in addition to the books.  And I’ll keep telling young Twilight fans that if they discover someone breaking into their house to watch them sleep, to CALL THE POLICE.  I mean that’s just good advice for anyone.

I like that story SO much better!