censorshipBan­ning books, rip­ping them from class­room shelves, de-fac­to cen­sor­ship at the point of publication—what the bleep is going on, here?

Okay. I’ll try to calm down, but the effort required is tremendous.

Deep breaths. Let me begin, again.

When I was a lit­tle girl, I was an avid read­er. The library was my sanc­tu­ary, and sto­ry was my safe place. I lived between the pages of a book. That said, the books of my child­hood let me down in one respect. Too few of them fea­tured char­ac­ters who looked like me, or who shared my life expe­ri­ence. Read­ing book after book after book with­out see­ing my face reflect­ed began to make me feel invis­i­ble.  No child should ever feel that way between the pages of a book.

As an author of books for chil­dren and young adults, I have devot­ed more than 30 years to address­ing that imbal­ance, by cre­at­ing lit­er­a­ture fea­tur­ing chil­dren of col­or, pri­mar­i­ly African Amer­i­can and His­pan­ic. The impact of that work, and the work of oth­er authors of color—Latin, Asian, Native Amer­i­can, as well as African American—has already been felt in the gen­er­a­tion that fol­lowed ours. But we’re still play­ing catch-up, in many ways. There remain gen­res in which our voic­es have been too sel­dom heard, fan­ta­sy and sci­ence fic­tion among them.

Now, just when our chil­dren are final­ly begin­ning to feel a sense of inclu­sion and empow­er­ment, our books our being banned from school class­rooms. And, yes, I said our because I align myself with any eth­nic group tar­get­ed for cen­sor­ship. There is no Latin chil­dren’s book com­mu­ni­ty, or Asian chil­dren’s book com­mu­ni­ty, or Native Amer­i­can chil­dren’s book com­mu­ni­ty. There is only the chil­dren’s book com­mu­ni­ty, and what affects one mem­ber affects all.

Cen­sor­ship harms all chil­dren, not only the tar­get­ed eth­nic group du jour. A book is the safe place for a child to learn about anoth­er cul­ture. It is there that chil­dren come to under­stand that all humans are more alike than dif­fer­ent. I was remind­ed of that in a let­ter I received from a read­er who wrote: “I learned that no mat­ter how dif­fer­ent we are on the out­side, we’re all pret­ty much the same on the inside.” That is one of the great lessons to be learned from books fea­tur­ing Latin, Asian, Native Amer­i­can, Mid­dle East­ern, African, and African Amer­i­can char­ac­ters. Only some­one, or some state, that wants to per­pet­u­ate the racial divide would take issue with that.

Are you lis­ten­ing, Arizona?

Of course, race-relat­ed cen­sor­ship is not the only kind out there.

Today, I’ve got anoth­er itch to scratch.

What set me off more recent­ly? An attack on author Rachel Held Evans for her blog about the stran­gle­hold Chris­t­ian book­stores have on the Chris­t­ian pub­lish­ing indus­try. She wrote about the frus­tra­tions felt by many believ­ing authors who find them­selves cre­ative­ly straight-jack­et­ed by a mar­ket­place that prefers its lit­er­a­ture san­i­tized, and a lit­tle left of real­i­ty. I res­onat­ed with much of what she had to say, and felt pressed to add my voice to the argument.

I’m livid about peo­ple try­ing to dic­tate what a Chris­t­ian writer can, and should, write.  Or, for that mat­ter, try­ing to dic­tate what can and should con­sti­tute “Chris­t­ian fic­tion.” Let me explain.

I’m some­thing of a rar­i­ty. I’m an author who pub­lish­es on both sides of the aisle, name­ly with both Chris­t­ian and sec­u­lar pub­lish­ers. Over the years, I’ve noticed that as long as I’m focused on pic­ture books, the prob­lems are, for the most part, slight. How­ev­er, the minute mid­dle grade and YA fic­tion is the genre, hold your hors­es. “Lan­guage” sud­den­ly becomes an issue. And by “lan­guage” I mean so-called edgy words like “damn” or “hell.” (“Shit” is com­plete­ly out of the ques­tion.) As for sub­ject mat­ter, let’s not men­tion witch­es, or pros­ti­tutes, or—gasp—homosexuals. Mind you, I’ve nev­er fea­tured gay char­ac­ters in any of my fic­tion, nor used the word “shit,” but I most cer­tain­ly object to the idea of being told that I can’t.

Here’s my prob­lem. I’ve been a stu­dent of the Bible since 1974 and, in all that time, I’ve noticed the fol­low­ing: sto­ries in the Holy Bible include pas­sages on witch­es, sor­cer­ers, medi­ums, pros­ti­tutes, pimps, racists, adul­ter­ers, despots, and homo­sex­u­als, among oth­ers. These sto­ries do not sug­gest that one should become a pimp, witch, pros­ti­tute, etc. But the Word of God does not shy away from their men­tion, or instruct read­ers to ignore the real­i­ty of their existence.

Some of the sto­ries we find in scrip­ture are cau­tion­ary tales, some are tales of redemp­tion, while oth­ers focus on trans­for­ma­tion. Instead of push­ing for a lit­er­a­ture that is “safe”—something the Bible nev­er was—why not allow the cre­ators of Chris­t­ian fic­tion the free­dom to fol­low the mod­els found in scripture?

Con­sid­er this: Father Abra­ham pimps out his wife, Sarah, not once, but twice. The prophet Hosea mar­ried a whore, and did so on God’s instruc­tion. Rahab, a pros­ti­tute, became a hero of the faith, and an ances­tor of King David and, through him, an ances­tor of Jesus Christ. What, exact­ly, do Chris­t­ian book­sellers do with those sto­ries? Are you going to tell me that such sto­ries are good enough for the Holy Bible, but not good enough for con­tem­po­rary Chris­t­ian authors?  Really?

I real­ize noth­ing I say here is going to con­vince these book­sellers to take off their blind­ers, but still. One must speak out. Thank you, Rachel Held Evans, for tak­ing the lead.

I’m not sure I know how to take on the cen­sors. I only know that silence won’t work.

The Lord nev­er neglect­ed to call a spade a spade. Nei­ther will I.

5 Responses

  1. Well said. This is exact­ly why I don’t write Chris­t­ian lit­er­a­ture, even though I am a believ­er. I add ele­ments of my faith into my writ­ing, how could I not, after all, they are a part of me, but I don’t try to tar­get Chris­t­ian pub­lish­ers or bookstores.

  2. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Nik­ki, you put to words my thoughts and expe­ri­ences as a Chris­t­ian edu­ca­tor. Time and again, I’ve scratched my head at what some peo­ple require be cen­sored. To be salt and light, this is our decree. You do it well. Write on!

  3. Excel­lent com­men­tary. Can’t the Chris­t­ian book­stores trust their cus­tomers to think for them­selves about the mean­ing in what they are reading?

  4. Nik­ki,
    Thank you for tak­ing a pub­lic stand on cen­sor­ship and address­ing the impor­tance of estab­lish­ing an inclu­sive chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture canon where Lati­no, African Amer­i­can, Asian Amer­i­can and Native Amer­i­can books are ful­ly rep­re­sent­ed. Your blog post has pro­pelled me to think more crit­i­cal­ly about the effects of cen­sor­ship on con­tem­po­rary chris­t­ian and eth­nic children/young adult authors. You have and con­tin­ue to make a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture, edu­ca­tion, and the Chris­t­ian body.

  5. Thank you for say­ing what I’ve want­ed to say but could­n’t and thank you for say­ing it so well. This issue been boil­ing inside me for so long I did­n’t even know where to begin with it so I have just kept my mouth shut. But you are right: we won’t make it go away by refus­ing to talk of it. I am Chris­t­ian but the idea of becom­ing aligned with peo­ple who want to san­i­tize Chris­tian­i­ty beyond recog­ni­tion makes me loath to admit it some­times. Which in turn leaves me feel­ing angry, guilty and voice­less. It’s complicated.

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