Sunday, April 7, 2013

Censorship, Parenting, and YA Literature: The Perks of Being a Wallflower; Guest Post by Katelyn Bright

The Perks of Communication
by Katelyn Bright

Katelyn Bright
The teenage years prove to be one of the most testing periods of life, for both children and parents.  While adolescents are still in the house, parents should take the opportunity to discuss subjects that are questioned at this age.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower covers many topics, some of which may be more comfortable to talk about within the privacy of one's family, as well as being discussed in the classroom.  These topics might include sex, rape, homosexuality, and drug and alcohol use, among others.  Some groups of people, including parents, worry about their children reading about these topics, for they want to protect their children from the graphic details.  Often times books with these subjects have had attempted bannings and censorships.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower should not be banned because it has educational benefits for adolescents on how to come to terms with adulthood.

The banning of a book happens when someone tries to censor it.  Censorship is defined as the suppression of speech or other public communication which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient as determined by a government, media outlet, or other controlling body.  When a book is banned, it is removed so that no one has access to it.  Before a book can be banned, it must first be challenged ("About Banned & Challenged Books").  When a book is challenged, a person or group has expressed their view point of concern towards a book being inappropriate for whatever reason.  They then go on to use their reasoning in an attempt to have the book removed from access to others ("About Banned & Challenged Books").  

All kinds of people challenge and attempt to ban books.  Most often it seems that parents challenge different books.  The American Library Association says, "According to the Challenges by Initiator, Institution, Type, and Year, parents challenge materials more often than any other group" ("About Banned & Challenged Books").  The American Library Association is the oldest and largest library association in the world ("About Banned & Challenged Books"). The ALA does not ban books, but instead is in support of keeping free access to books for all ages.  The ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom receives reports from schools, libraries, and the media on different challenges that occur across the nation ("About Banned & Challenged Books"). They then come up with lists of information on the challenges in order to inform and spread awareness to the public on censorship ("About Banned & Challenged Books").

The reason that people try to ban books is for protection.  If someone believes that a book is inappropriate for certain people to read, then they voice their opinion and try to have it removed from this certain group of people.  Many parents do not want their children reading risky subjects.  The top three reasons books have been challenged includes:  being "unsuited to any age group", "containing offensive language", and being "sexually explicit" ("About Banned & Challenged Books").  These three reasons have been included in the reasons why Perks has been challenged in recent years ("Frequently Challenged Books").  

Cover of The Perks of Being a Wallflower
A recurring subject in Perks is sex.  This is a normal and healthy topic for adolescents to be pondering about at this stage in their lives.  When reading about sex in Perks, adolescents may become curious and have questions to ask.  Nevertheless, teens may also be embarrassed about the new feelings they have, and are scared to share them with others.  Perks’ protagonist Charlie definitely has a curious, but embarrassing moment:  "I feel ashamed, though, because that night, I had a weird dream.  I was with Sam.  And we were both naked...  And I woke up.  And I had never felt that good in my life.  But I also felt bad…." (Chbosky 21).  If parents complain about the sex topics in this book, their children may translate that into it being a bad thing that they have new desires.  When parents talk of sexual desire being a natural behavior, children can feel calmer about their changing bodies.  According to psychologist David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family, "only about 19 per cent of American teens say they can talk openly with a trusted adult about sex" ("Sex in the City" 1).  When parents allow their teen to read Perks, teens may feel more comfortable with talking to their parents about the subject, which can boost their confidence when living out daily situations.

Perks teaches that conversing in the classroom can also be a way to boost teen confidence.  Besides parents, teachers can be one of the most influential people in a student's life.  When Charlie befriends his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (whom he calls Bill), Charlie is able to confide in him about his life, "I thought Bill and I were going to talk about the book" (On the Road), "but we ended up talking about 'things'" (Chbosky 107).  By reading about the relationship Charlie had with Mr. Anderson, students may realize that befriending one of their own teachers can be a good idea.  When students create a bond with teachers, they can be more comforted about coming to the teacher for help on class work, which in turn can improve grades.  If a teacher gives Perks to read either for a class assignment or even just for suggested reading, this could also show students that their teachers know what kind of changes they are going through in their teenage life and that it is OK to feel confused.  Discussing Perks with a teacher can give teens the opportunity to talk about their own struggles, like Charlie did with Mr. Anderson.

One of the confusing parts of teenage life can include identifying with sexual orientation.  In many cases, Perks has been challenged because of homosexuality and positive gay themes (Marshall University).  Arguing whether or not it is right to challenge the rights of homosexuals is not the argument being made here, however; no matter how one feels towards that discussion, there will be absolutely no tolerance for bullying.  If parents challenge Perks for the "threat" of homosexuality being read by their adolescents, they might as well be wearing a sign that says "Advocate of Bullying".  When a parent states that teaching on homosexuality is wrong, it can instill the thought that homosexuality itself is wrong inside a child’s head.  This thought could lead to a teen's way of thinking that disrespect towards a certain sexually oriented person is okay, whether the disrespect comes from themselves or others, simply because of the way someone has chosen to live his or her life.  In the article "Title IX Liability For Anti-Gay Bullying" J. Dalton Courson and Abigayle C. Farris state that:

According to Mental Health America and Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), LGBT teens hear anti-gay slurs about 26 times per day, or once every 14 minutes.  Nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT youth reported being verbally harassed at school because of their sexual orientation.  Nearly half reported being physically harassed, and about a quarter reported being physically assaulted.  (Courson and Farris)

Parents are not the only promoters being found within the realm of oppression.  A lot of the times LGBT youth have testified the disregard of harassment coming from school employees.  "Title IX Liability For Anti-Gay Bullying" says, "In Martin v. Swartz Creek Community Schools, an openly gay student alleged that sex-based harassment occurring persistently during his freshman and sophomore years but largely ignored by teachers and school officials brought him to the 'brink of suicide'" (Courson and Farris).  In Perks, a main character Patrick, who is gay, gets in a school fight when a student hurdles the word "faggot" at him in the cafeteria (Chbosky 150).  Perks can be used as a proponent in bringing up the subject of bullying to teenagers, especially in the case of homosexuals.  By reading this book, students can become more aware of this kind of behavior going on in school around them and look for ways to help out these individuals who may feel like they have no power in the matter.  Students can also self-reflect so as to determine whether they may be adding to the problem of ostracization instead of hindering it.  Comparing bullying of one class of people to another, as people are making pledges to "say no to the r-word", parents and educational staff should support the nix of intolerant language.

Within the pages of Perks lies another controversial topic adults often have trouble knowing that their child is reading about—rape.  In 2008, the book was challenged on the Commack High School summer reading list because it contains a rape scene (Marshall University).  Many people feel that this scene is very graphic and is not suitable for high school students.  While this topic is difficult to discuss, it is one that young adults need to be fully aware of.  By the time they reach a certain age, adolescents will have come to learn what rape is, but they may not be fully aware of how often it happens and what can count as sexual abuse.  According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network ("Statistics | RAINN"), every two minutes someone in the United States is sexually assaulted.  Despite the "stereotyped" rapist being a complete stranger, thirty-eight percent of rapists are a friend or acquaintance to the victim ("Statistics | RAINN").  The girl who is raped in Perks is done so by her own boyfriend (Chbosky 30-31).  Hearing these facts alone can cause teenagers to realize things they might never have thought before.  Discussing the rape in the book and comparing it to real life situations can cause adolescents to do several things.  They may learn the signs of abuse and be able to point out and report when they believe that someone could be a victim.  They may feel inspired to start an awareness organization.  A teen may even decide to speak out about an assault that has happened or is happening to them in their own life.  According to Colleen Curry of ABC news, "Katherine Hull, spokeswoman for RAINN, said it is helpful for many survivors of sexual abuse to speak out about their attacks and help others feel less alone".  By reading Perks and discussing this graphic scene, adolescents can become stirred to want to speak up and speak out about sexual assault.

After looking at arguments such as these, parents and others may feel that their viewpoints have been overlooked, that the reasons for why they want Perks banned from bookshelves has been misunderstood.  However, looking at the supporting arguments without analyzing parents' reasons is very close-minded, and all considerations should be taken into effect.

Excerpt from The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Parents need to read Perks before they can judge it.  A potential situation could be that a parent has come to find out that their teenager is reading Perks.  Another parent may hear of this, and fill the first parent in with their side of the plot behind this book is, which may not necessarily be a good side.  This might cause the parent to react solely based on what the other parent has said, and might choose to follow someone else’s idea of good parenting over what they think good parenting is.  What one parent says is provocative may be coming-of-age to another.  Emily Nixon, former English teacher and current Coordinator Recruitment and Selection at District of Columbia Public Schools, can testify to parents being weary of students reading Perks when assigning this book for an after school book club.  Nixon says:

I told the parents who disapproved of the book to read it first before making an opinion.  You can't judge a book you haven't read.  One parent in particular was critical of my book choice.  However, he read the book and agreed to meet me to discuss it.  After reading the book and discussing it over with me, he agreed to let his child read the book. (Email Interview) 

Until an understanding is made, one cannot rely on word of mouth as to what is appropriate or not.  If parents reads Perks, they can be refreshed of the issues teens deal with and how this book can help their child realize that they are not the only ones going through them.  Parents can make their own list of pros and cons to this book and determine whether or not it is a good read for their adolescent.

One reason that so many parents have claimed that Perks is not a good read for adolescents is because of references to substance abuse.  Perks delves into Charlie's new world of partying and tells of his exploration of the matter, which includes teen drinking and Charlie's drug use.  When educators encourage their students to read this book, they are not condoning the use of drugs and alcohol.  Discussions of partying can help teens examine different ways young adults feel that they need to express themselves.  Drug use by teens can often be a form of conquering insecurities or a means of social acceptance (Mayo Clinic Staff).  For example, in the novel Charlie often turned to drugs whenever he was feeling upset or depressed.  Parents often imagine that if their child reads about this, they might decide to try substance abuse too, but just because someone reads about a certain event does not mean that they will commit the same act.  By reading and discussing drug and alcohol use in Perks, adolescents can come to an understanding of why others choose to engage in this behavior, as well as being advised as to why this would not have the best consequences.

Adolescents may also come to an understanding of the importance of safe sex through reading Perks.  At one point in the book, Charlie’s older sister becomes pregnant (Chbosky 116).  Parents may believe that teen pregnancy is on the rise, and they may blame it on sex found in the media.  However, according to Guttmacher Institute, an institute seeking to advance sexual and reproductive health, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate has declined within the past few years ("Facts on American Teens' Sexual and Reproductive Health").  Guttmacher states, "Overall, 68 pregnancies occurred per 1,000 women aged 15–19 in 2008.  The 2008 rate was a record low and represented a 42% decline from the peak rate of 117 per 1,000, which occurred in 1990.  The majority of the decline in teen pregnancy rates in the United States (86%) is due to teens' improved contraceptive use; the rest is due to increased proportions of teens choosing to delay sexual activity" ("Facts on American Teens' Sexual and Reproductive Health").  Declining rates of teen pregnancies come from more education and more discussions with parents.  Once again, reading a popular book like Perks can be a great way for parents and educators to bring up strained subjects such as this.

One of the biggest reasons for controversy and ridicule for banned books by parents might not even come from the book itself, but from the supporters of the book.  The ALA acts as a huge activist towards helping fight those who want to ban a book.  Dan Kleinman is a blogger who goes by the name of SafeLibraries to prowl the Internet for sites that need information on some subject matters about banned books and the ALA.  He has often pointed out how the ALA likes to only mention certain sides of a case to make people stay on their side, then attacks people who point out the misinformation (Email Interview).  In a particular case, a girl was actually bullied by a school who wanted her to read Perks as part of school curriculum.  A video taken of the girl's parents stating why they did not want their daughter reading this book was played by a teacher in an English class.  A friend of the girl told her of this; she was humiliated (Kleinman).  This kind of act is extremely inappropriate and unprofessional for the School Staff.  This is an example of how organizations such as the ALA can give very one-sided arguments of keeping challenged books part of the school curriculum and keep other opinions, to not keep the books in school, in the dark.  But most educators would realize that this is a wrong way to approach a certain situation.  No one needs to be forced to read something they do not want.  This just shows the importance of parents' involvement in their children's education. 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is categorized as a coming-of-age, or bildungsroman novel.  The definition of bildungsroman is a type of novel concerned with the education, development, and maturing of a young protagonist.  The point of a bildungsroman novel is not only to tell the story of a maturing protagonist, but also to help the reader develop, mature, and be educated themselves!  Educators and other groups fight for students' easy access to Perks because they feel that this book will be of assistance to adolescents by highlighting difficult and stressful events in teen life.  Parents have a hard time with letting their children read books such as this because they want to protect their child from the hard aches and tragedies that the "real world" comes with.  But the controversy in banned books is often the essential element that causes a child to think and ponder.  This is how teenagers can expand their horizons and open up a world they never even thought about before.  Parents may not be willing to let their children grow up just yet; but children grow, and parents can either stand beside their children to guide the way, or they can let their children take the hard route and let them find out on their own.

Works Cited

"About Banned & Challenged Books." American Library Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.

"Banned Book Week." Marshall University Libraries. N.p., 25 July 2012. Web. 11 Dec. 2012. 

Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: MTv, 1999. Print. 

Courson, J. Dalton, and Abigayle C. Farris. "Title IX Liability For Anti-Gay Bullying." Children's Rights Litigation 14.3 (2012): 20-24. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.

Curry, Colleen. "Unbreakable Blog Helps Rape Victims Heal." ABC News. ABC News Network, 01 Feb. 2012. Web. 06 Dec. 2012.

"Facts on American Teens' Sexual and Reproductive Health." Facts on American Teens' Sexual and Reproductive Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2012.

"Frequently Challenged Books of the 21st Century." American Library Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2012.

Kleinman, Dan. E-mail interview. 02 Dec. 2012.

Nixon, Emily J. E-mail interview. 02 Dec. 2012.

Staff, Mayo Clinic. "Teen Drug Abuse: Help Your Teen Avoid Drugs." Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 05 Mar. 2010. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.

"Statistics | RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network." Statistics | RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.

"Sex in the City - and Among Teens." The New Zealand Herald. N.p., 04 Nov. 2008. Web. 30 Nov. 2012.

SafeLibraries Note:  I am so happy to present the above writing for your consideration.  I am especially happy to see young people taking an interest in the topic.  Even better, she went out of her way to track down and speak with various sources from different points of view, then summarize them and present them in an evenhanded fashion.

Truly this is outstanding.  She is returning to Illinois State University in the coming school year.

If anyone else would like to submit similar work to be published, please let me know.

The picture is courtesy of Katelyn Bright.  She granted me and only me written permission to display it.  Her work is hers, republished here with permission.  The other pictures I inserted on my own.  The hyperlinks are mine. 

Copyright Katelyn Bright 2013.  All rights reserved.  SafeLibraries note excepted.  If anyone wishes to contact her, such as for publication approval, send me an email and I'll pass it along, or comment below.

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