Thursday, March 13, 2014

In Support of Strasburg High School's Young Adult Literature Elective (and John Green)

March 13, 2014

Dear Members of the Strasburg School Board,

I am writing in support of the materials chosen for Strasburg High School's proposed elective in young adult literature. I am also posting this letter on my personal blog as censorship is a topic that I am currently exploring in a Longwood University class. The book I chose to re-read, research and discuss for class is on the syllabus for the SHS elective.

Although I have not read all of the books on the list, I recognize a lot of the titles as I have been an eighth grade language arts teacher since 1999 and a partner in helping make selections for our middle school library. We use sources like School Library Journal and Titlewave to search for positive critical reviews before adding to our collection of young adult novels; I have seen these books supported there.

This is an exciting time to guide students in a critical study of young adult literature; I can't deny relishing the idea of teaching such a course myself. Part of my curriculum for advanced students includes a September study of S.E. Hinton's novel, The Outsiders, as one of the first realistic problem novels written for teens. Hinton was in high school when she began writing this 1968 classic, all because she could not find books that contained believable characters. In addition to realistic characters, young adult fiction would sometimes follow another element of this novel. Often fictional teens would have to solve their own problems in the absence of adults. Pony's parents were killed before page one. Darry is trying to raise his younger brothers after just graduating high school. Johnny's parents are abusive. How I loved that book as a middle school student, but as realistic as the characters were, the lack of a parental safety net was not part of my world.

I realize that The Outsiders is not on the proposed reading list in question, but I mention it in order to explain one of the many reasons that I love John Green and count myself as a 40 year-old Nerdfighter. Like me, Miles Halter of Looking for Alaska and Gus Waters and Hazel Grace of The Fault in Our Stars have loving, supportive and present parents. I think that is what most book challenges are about too, right? Supportive parents are trying to make the best choices for their children. 

From what I understand about the current challenge, some parents are trying to make decisions about what other parents' children read though. And that's not okay. The Strasburg School Board Policies have a plan in place for public concerns and complaints about instructional resources in section KEC of the manual. If someone wants to lodge an official complaint, he or she can fill out the appropriate forms and anticipate that the procedures for reevaluating a book will be followed. Before filling out that form, I hope that the complainant would read the novel in its entirety. As you are well aware, the policy you have in place is respectful of teachers, parents, students and books. It is clear that parents are completely in control of asking a teacher to substitute another book, if the class selection is not in line with what parents feel is developmentally appropriate for their children. It does not empower anyone to censor books for other peoples' children.

Brothers John and Hank Green have a powerful web presence. I hope that you spend some time watching their Crash Course videos on YouTube. John also hosts a series for Mental Floss. Be prepared though; he's a big nerd. He's passionate about learning...and thinking critically about the world. If we are among the true educators, he's exactly the way we hope our students turn out to be when they leave our classrooms. He's a lifelong learner who can think for himself.

I have a signed first edition of Looking for Alaska, and it's the title that I chose to research for my coursework towards becoming a school librarian. Sure I cringed as the sheltered Miles Halter went away to boarding school and joined right in with some of those behaviors we like to think that teenagers would resist, but who finished reading the book? Everything in that novel is there for a reason. Green says that he wrote that book to explore the nature of suffering, and the second part of the book brings all of those ideas together. When Miles is left asking all of those big questions after the sudden and mysterious death of a close friend, we see a grieving teen trying to make sense of it all. Teens need those books. They do. Many of use remember the death of a classmate in high school. How did we make sense of it then? Parents can help, but so can books. Books can certainly show you people and characters that we want to emulate, but they also show us behaviors that we want to avoid...for now or forever.

Yes, there are a couple of scenes that teachers would not want to spend time discussing in class, but I am guessing that this teacher has chosen this book because of the sum of its parts. On his website, Green has written, "There are a few explicit scenes, but all of them are pretty nakedly arguments against vapid, emotionless sexual encounters...we are discussing perhaps 800 words in a 70,000 word novel." Looking for Alaska is in no way "criminal and vile, crass and crude" as the wording on the petition states. 

Here is what John Green had to say about a time when Looking for Alaska faced potential censorship in another state:

I had the pleasure of being one of the oldest people in the room when John and Hank Green were invited to speak by Newport News Public Libraries at, get this, my old high school. I wish you had been in the auditorium too. Like most expansive rooms full of teenagers, it was electric. The gathered crowd was pulsing with excitement...about READING! They were also there to hear the words of someone who cherished them for the people they are and the people they are becoming. That is the voice that I want speaking to my students, a voice of compassion, acceptance and celebration.

Since I am an English teacher, I could go on and on about books, but I also could have written a one sentence response too. Why are parents so adamant about challenging books in an elective course? Their children will not have to take this course as a requirement for graduation. 

Thank you for taking the time to consider my letter in preparation for your April 9th meeting. Please contact me, if you have any questions about what I have written here. I would like to close by including a link to the American Library Association's Freedom to Read Statement and listing the awards earned by John Green's Looking for Alaska.

Winner, 2006 Michael L. Printz Award

Finalist, 2005 Los Angeles Times Book Prize
2006 Top 10 Best Book for Young Adults
2006 Teens’ Top 10 Award
2006 Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers
A New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
A Booklist Editor’s Choice Pick
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection
Borders Original Voices Selection

Back in November of 2008, I got my copy of Looking for Alaska signed. I stood in line behind all of the teenagers because that was their night, not mine. But John Green had kind words for teachers that evening too and the same advice that he gives his young Nerdfighters, "Don't Forget to be Awesome." 

I pass the same advice on to you. Thank you for your service to the students of Strasburg. Having read your policy manual, I feel confident that this teacher will find support for her thoughtful curriculum.


Michelle Davis


  1. Brava, Ms. Davis! Sometimes I wish you'd been my teacher, too :)

  2. Well said! I hope your insightful letter will be read as thoughtfully as it was written.

    1. Thanks, Maureen. I hope reason and logic will prevail.