Sunday, June 26, 2016

On censorship & sensitive topics in middle-grade lit

I followed with interest the recent challenges stirred by author Kate Messner's new novel, The Seventh Wish, and I appreciated the dialogue she fostered via her blog. Wanting to form my own judgments, I read her book for myself. I followed it -- spontaneously -- with two other recent middle-grade titles: Pax by Sara Pennypacker and When Friendship Followed Me Home by Paul Griffin. Now, I've got a lot on my mind, which I'll attempt to offload here by re-visiting each text. (No spoilers, but perhaps some reveals; read on at your own peril...)

The Seventh Wish, among a host of ingredients not the least of which is a magical fish, broaches the topic of heroin abuse. The passage below drops that bombshell on the 12-year-old narrator, Charlie Brennan. Midway through the story on pages 102-3, Charlie learns that her 18-year-old sister Abby has been using, a daunting iceberg's tip:

Hint: Click to enlarge or try keyboard shortcut Ctrl + (Ctrl - to shrink).
Arguments about the book (and Messner's presence as a visiting author sharing her book in schools) revolve around questions like: At what age should readers confront addiction as portrayed here fictionally? Should librarians invite the conversation by adding the book to their collections, or should they insulate readers from this ugliness until some point in the future? These questions cannot be answered definitively, though I see value in negotiating the terrain in more nuanced ways than age- or grade-level suggestions mustered by publishers and booksellers. Bloomsbury, which published The Seventh Wish, pegs it as middle grade; Amazon recommends it for grades 4-6; Barnes & Noble's site suggests ages 8-12. What feels more definitive is that heroin use is on the rise, especially among age groups that would encompass older siblings and other family of the presumed audience for The Seventh Wish. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can tell you more about that

Of course, heroin is not the only threatening iceberg out there. My next summer-reading book, Pax, brought me closer to the personal tolls of war. This exploration is simultaneously a subplot and integral to the tale of the bond between a young boy (Peter) and the pet fox (Pax) he must abandon when the story opens. Having later run away to reunite with Pax, Peter ends up in the care of Vola, a discharged soldier trying to cope with inescapable physical and emotional damage, as she starts to reveal to Peter here on pages 128-9:

Hint: Click to enlarge or try keyboard shortcut Ctrl + (Ctrl - to shrink).

Like addiction is a fact of life for many, so too is military service. I don't mean to equate them; I'm looking at them as complicated issues that have far-reaching ramifications for society ranging from personal to communal to national to global. When should young readers explore them? When shouldn't they? While the overall veterans' population has shrunk in the last 30 years, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the number of soldiers who live with service-connected disabilities has skyrocketed. That toll merits attention and response, in both fact and fiction.

My third recent read was When Friendship Followed Me Home. Like Pax, one focus here is on the connection between animal and boy. Seventh-grader Ben Coffin adopts a dog he eventually names Flip. Ben is a foster child who ends up switching homes for a reason that I won't share here. One of Ben's new guardians is a man named Leo, and the author drops clues that Leo is an alcoholic, as in this passage on page 120:

Hint: Click to enlarge or try keyboard shortcut Ctrl + (Ctrl - to shrink).

As with the two prior titles, this issue is not the emphasis here. It's a complication, feeding the rising action, adding depth and intensity to the characters' conflicts. It flares unpredictably, shockingly, even violently. It also reflects life at a time when alcohol use remains prevalent as statistics from the National Institute of Health show.

Messner, Pennypacker, and Griffin do not hide from controversial topics. Nor do they flaunt them or dwell on them in ways that feel detrimental to young readers. Should families have the ultimate say in what their children do or don't read? Absolutely. At the same time, should schools and libraries rely on the professional judgment of their staff to provide the widest possible range of reading opportunities from which students and families can select? I believe so.

With books like these that can plausibly be picked up by students from mid-elementary through at least the end of middle school, how might we proceed as a community of readers? I'd argue: Keep talking with each other, for starters. Parents with children; parents with teachers or librarians; teachers or librarians with students; readers with authors. Personalize the conversations to make them matter because there are no blanket reading levels or labels of age-appropriateness or other gatekeepers that will absolve us from these messier interactions.

"To read or not to read?" will always be the question. As for the answer... Leo from When Friendship Followed Me Home tells his significant other, Jeanie, "It's all too much. Too many moving parts. I like it simple." Her reply: "Everybody does, Leo. It just isn't, okay?" (138)

Works cited

Griffin, Paul. When Friendship Followed Me Home. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2016.

Messner, Kate. The Seventh Wish. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Pennypacker, Sara. Pax. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2016.


  1. Dear Brian,

    I am a member of #CyberPd but I came across your wonderfully thoughtful post! Thank you for writing this and I hope we can all continue the conversation of censorship.


    1. Most welcome, Kate. Thanks for taking time to read and write back. See you at #cyberpd or around and about other virtual learning circles.