When I was a kid, I was always intrigued by the things my parents said I could not do. If they told me, “Don't touch the hot light bulb” or “Please don’t run up the stairs,” I did it anyway. And often I found, as in the case of the light bulb, my parents were correct.
Fortunately, my parents reserved most of their “don’ts” for the stuff that would put me in some type of physical danger. In terms of intellectual pursuits, I was lucky: They never tried to prevent me from reading a book because of its subject matter, or because a character did not match their view of the world.
In middle school, I read Catch 22, M*A*S*H (the novel), The Shining, and The Stand. In high school, I absorbed — and learned valuable lessons from — Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
All of those books have, at one point or another, been controversial. In some cases they have been banned from community and school libraries in an effort to prevent them from being accessed by young minds.
That means Tim Federle is in good company. And that’s too bad.
Tim, a family friend, is the author of one of the best young adult novels I have ever read, Better Nate Than Ever. Nate is a teenager who has the passion and desire to do something extraordinary — audition for a Broadway musical. The book is a wise and hilarious coming-of-age tale, written by a kind, knowing, and witty first-time author who was inspired in part by his own childhood and his experience auditioning kids who were in “Billy Elliot.”
Deservedly, Nate has received rapturous reviews from major publications, including the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, and Time. (A sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, will be published in January.) But the book also has spawned a backlash, largely due to a subplot that involves “a teenager who's starting to notice other boys and beginning to wonder why.”
In a blog entry published Monday as part of “National Banned Books Week,” Tim writes about having visits to schools cancelled because Nate’s emerging sexuality is presented in a matter-of-fact — though still chaste — way. Included among the cancellations: the suburban Pittsburgh middle school he attended as a youth.
“All kinds of people deserve all kinds of stories,” Tim wrote in the blog. “When we support books that feature diverse kids, we're telling those kids that we support them too, that they are, more than anything, OK. The opposite is true when we shut those kinds of books down.”
Sadly, I’m not surprised this happened, given our nation’s ostrich-like history of avoiding discussions around topics that make us feel uncomfortable (Example: Congress) or challenge our worldview. Having worked in and around schools for most of my life, I also understand why teachers, librarians, and administrators are skittish about raising the wrath of angry parents or community groups.
But come on, folks. We’re at a point in our nation’s history where attitudes toward bullying, homosexuality, and same sex marriage are finally — if still fitfully — changing. More than 60 percent of people ages 18-34 support same sex marriage, according to a recent Gallup poll, and the number is higher among teens, at least anecdotally.
What makes Nate’s character so endearing is how this child who feels ostracized finds the guts and guile to chase his dreams and pursue the impossible. It’s a timeless theme in literature, brought up to modern times. And it’s a message kids — especially those who feel like they don’t fit in — should be hearing, seeing, and reading about, even as they play 24/7 on their electronic devices of choice.
If the notion of reading a book makes me old fashioned, then so be it. Just don’t tell me which books I — and my kids — should or should not read. My parents didn’t, and I’m better for it.
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