What Makes a Book “Appropriate” for School?

Ordinary HazardsWhen I was a teen, I’d have giv­en any­thing for a book like Ordi­nary Haz­ards. Of course, it hadn’t yet been writ­ten. What I did dis­cov­er back then was A Tree Grows in Brook­lyn by Bet­ty Smith. In her nov­el, I found Fran­cie, a char­ac­ter I res­onat­ed with deeply. We weren’t of the same race, nor were our lives a per­fect repli­ca, by any stretch. Still, Smith’s char­ac­ter and I both faced tough chal­lenges in our young lives, and like me, Fran­cie knew the col­or of hell by heart. Because of her sto­ry, I knew that I wasn’t alone in the world, and know­ing that gave me strength for my own jour­ney. This is the pow­er of sto­ry. This is why I became a pur­vey­or of sto­ry, myself.

Over the course of my long career, I’ve writ­ten fic­tion, non­fic­tion, his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, and poet­ry on a wide vari­ety of sub­jects, but the one thing I’ve always believed is that the sin­gle most impor­tant sto­ry I have to tell is my own. Ordi­nary Haz­ards, my mem­oir in verse, is that sto­ry. It is a sto­ry of dark­ness and child­hood trau­ma, of a parent’s alco­holism and men­tal ill­ness, of the seamy side of fos­ter care, and of sex­u­al assault. But it is also a sto­ry of love and light, of faith and grace, and of a young girl’s dis­cov­ery of the pow­er of the writ­ten word.

Mine is a sto­ry of tri­umph over dark­ness, and, as such, is ulti­mate­ly a sto­ry of hope. The pos­si­bil­i­ty of plant­i­ng seeds of hope in the hearts and minds of young read­ers is why I wrote Ordi­nary Haz­ards. As ago­niz­ing as it was to rip open the wounds of mem­o­ry, I knew there were young peo­ple who need­ed a sto­ry like mine—and a true sto­ry, at that. And thou­sands of read­ers across the coun­try have already been inspired by it. This is why I was stunned when I learned that a school dis­trict in Lean­der, Texas, had elect­ed to remove my award-win­ning mem­oir from their curriculum.


It is one thing to rip a book from your own teen’s per­son­al library, but to inter­fere with every oth­er teen’s access to that book through­out your school dis­trict goes beyond the pale.

Leander’s issue with Ordi­nary Haz­ards—and Jacque­line Woodson’s Red at the Bone, and Lau­rie Halse Anderson’s Shout, among oth­er titles recent­ly removed—is that these titles are con­sid­ered to have “inap­pro­pri­ate con­tent.” I’m assum­ing the con­tent in ques­tion in Ordi­nary Haz­ards is dif­fi­cult sub­ject mat­ter, name­ly alco­holism, sex­u­al assault, and men­tal ill­ness. Dif­fi­cul­ty, though, is no rea­son to remove a book from an age-appro­pri­ate reader’s easy reach.

The truth is, the lives of many teens are dif­fi­cult. Some are home­less, or have par­ents in prison, or have been bounced from one fos­ter home to another—or all of the above. Oth­er teens live, as I did, in homes where a par­ent wres­tles with men­tal ill­ness or alco­holism, or may strug­gle with these issues them­selves. Final­ly, though you may be unaware, count­less teens of every gen­der, sit­ting in high school class­rooms right now, have been sex­u­al­ly assault­ed. Is this sub­ject uncom­fort­able? Absolute­ly. But writ­ing about the top­ic is hard­ly inap­pro­pri­ate, espe­cial­ly when it’s han­dled delicately.

Cen­sors will find noth­ing sala­cious, graph­ic, or gra­tu­itous in Ordi­nary Haz­ards. I specif­i­cal­ly chose to write my mem­oir in poet­ry because the form allows for the del­i­cate treat­ment of dif­fi­cult con­tent. As such, no one can rea­son­ably charge the writ­ing itself of being inap­pro­pri­ate. When it comes to sex­u­al abuse, what is inappropriate—not to men­tion criminal—is the abuse itself. Writ­ing about that abuse is both appro­pri­ate and nec­es­sary. Teens need to know that sex­u­al assault is not a secret to keep.

For read­ers who come to this mem­oir hav­ing had any of the par­tic­u­lar tough expe­ri­ences I write about, this sto­ry lets them know they are not alone. Oth­er read­ers encoun­ter­ing Ordi­nary Haz­ards come away with some­thing equal­ly valu­able: the knowl­edge that, what­ev­er chal­lenges they may face in life, they can come out on the oth­er side, and not only sur­vive, but thrive—just as I did. Do we real­ly want to restrict young people’s access to a sto­ry that holds out that kind of hope?

Per­haps some have for­got­ten the pur­pose and pow­er of Sto­ry. Sto­ry is more than repos­i­to­ry of fact and fic­tion. Sto­ry is poul­tice, is salve designed to mit­i­gate pain and stim­u­late the heal­ing of wounds, espe­cial­ly those fes­ter­ing beneath the sur­face unseen. But this metic­u­lous­ly craft­ed treat­ment only works when applied.

Not every sto­ry is dark or dif­fi­cult, nor should it be, but those that most often inspire are hard sto­ries in which the pro­tag­o­nist tri­umphs at the end. Ordi­nary Haz­ards: A Mem­oir is such a sto­ry, and there’s noth­ing inap­pro­pri­ate about that.


First pub­lished in the 8/30/21 edi­tion of Pub­lish­ers Week­ly as “Appro­pri­ate­ly Yours,” as well as the 8/27/21 online edi­tion of Pub­lish­ers Week­ly under the title of this article.