Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Penny for your thoughts

There's a literacy organization I support. In today's mail, I received a flyer from this organization touting an annual short-story contest. Students from grades 1-12 may participate, provided that they adhere to guidelines that "must be carefully followed."

A quick skim reveals requirements that sound intricate but fairly routine. One, though, lodges in my eye like a dust mote:

"Manuscripts with content dealing with self-destructive behavior will NOT be considered for an award."

I'll concede: Specifying go and no-go zones is the prerogative of the contest host. Still, my nose wrinkles at the scent of censorship. Shouldn't an opportunity open to teens permit them to mull a fraught topic like this through story telling? Or at least not explicitly rule it out?

What if this constraint were removed? Would the judges find themselves inundated with tales of self harm?

I worry that labeling topics taboo, like self-destructive behavior, makes them harder for young people and those who support them to address honestly, whether in writing or conversation. Are there times we must close doors like this so firmly? Are there times we shouldn't?

Community, what do you think -- in this case or related ones that now come to mind? Share your two cents in the comments below, and I'll make a donation for each thought shared in October to the American Library Association, which champions free and open access to reading and annually observes Banned Books Week.

Postscipt on Nov. 1: ALA contribution made. Thanks, community, for your thoughts.


12 comments:

  1. What a great question to pose! I tend to think that when we limit like this, it only makes issues worse... so if you feel like writing is thinking, and can be therapeutic, helpful and inspirational... etc... not allowing certain topics could create more problems, or at least not help. But then, as a parent, I also have a not so hidden fear that if harmful things are not discouraged... that might be the same thing as encouraging. Take self harm for example. If a young person is thinking a little about that, has heard of it, etc. Would writing about it make it more/bigger/more hurtful? Or would writing about it help? I think the research here might say that it would help... that censorship doesn't move us forward. How's that for a rambling comment? :-)

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    1. Thanks for sharing your ramble! My thinking's largely aligned with yours. While I understand the fear that comes with addressing sensitive topics, I don't see that as a license to avoid or discourage discussion. More questions of when/how/why then if.

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  2. A contest should be allowed to specify a topic for a submission. However, not permitting a potentially controversial or difficult subject is inappropriate & offensive by excerising preemptive censorship. Just curious, are submissions for this particular contest submitted directly (with or without parental consent) given the age of the student or via the school/teacher? Did the organization's membership know of the contest rules ahead of the announcement? Thanks for presenting this information to an open forum.

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    1. Yeah, the preemptive part bugs me, too. In this case, submissions happen through school/teacher channels. I'm not sure about the dissemination of contest rules, but I don't believe the off-limits topic stipulation is a new one; it's existed in past years of this event. I'm now curious to talk further with the contest coordinator.

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  3. Hmm- I think saying certain topics are not allowed is censorship, whereas specifying which topics are "allowed" seems less like censorship to me (for example, this year's contest topic is topic a). Interesting question for sure!

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    1. Good point about how the invitation is framed. These versions strike me as different, too.

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  4. Huh.
    Good question.
    On one hand, I don't want my students writing that because .. well ... it makes me uncomfortable to think they would be exploring that topic of self-harm. On the other hand, the narrowing of what is allowed often vexes me with the censorship issue (I don't allow violence in our school writing, for example, and understand that is my heavy hand). And, further, a student writing this might be calling out for help.
    I guess my response won't really be of much help. Sorry.
    Kevin

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    1. Hearing another voice wrestling with a related issue can be a helpful echo in itself. Thanks for your comment, Kevin. Like beauty, uncomfortableness may be in the eye of the beholder/reader. Shifty ground to navigate.

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  5. Brian, you raise some interesting thoughts in my mind. Self-harm is a real issue in some teens' lives. What if we did not listen to those fears of identity? What if we said that you cannot write about your inner thoughts? While I would be uncomfortable reading those writings, I would rather hear the child out and then exclude the writing from the contest.

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    1. You've planted a seed in my head, Carol: necessary discomfort, at times.

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  6. Interesting concept. I just come up with more questions - what group is putting this on & where will the stories be shared/published? I think a group has every right to put parameters on their contest and decide what they want to promote, however, I find myself curious why it was so explicitly stated here.

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  7. Good questions, all, Aubrey. I don't believe the stories are actually shared other than recognizing selected winners at a conference event in 2018. I'm curious about the explicitness of the contest rules, too, so I'm planning to follow up politely with the contact person who issued the invitation to learn more.

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