The Principal of the Thing
Every year, PEN America asks PEN Members and supporters—writers and editors of all backgrounds and genres—to celebrate the freedom to read by reflecting on the banned books that matter most to them. This is our way of taking part in the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week, which brings together the entire book community in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular. Check out this year’s Banned Books feature here.
Below, a letter written by artist Mariko Tamaki, co-author of This One Summer, excerpted here, to a school principal who decided the award-winning graphic novel was inappropriate for students and unilaterally removed it from school shelves.
Hello, my name is Mariko Tamaki.
I’m pretty sure we haven’t met.
I’m writing because I think you have the book I co-created with my cousin Jillian Tamaki, This One Summer, hidden in your office.
This assumption is based on recent encounters I’ve had with several librarians and teachers, who have approached me at various conferences like the ALA (where Jillian and I received Caldecott and Printz honors) to inform me that this practice, namely, people in your positions quietly and unofficially removing books from libraries, has become kind of a thing. I assume your action is inspired by one of three things: a desire to remove content you have deemed inappropriate for the young readers that attend your institution; a desire to remove content other people have deemed inappropriate for young readers; a desire to read for yourself these amazing books that everyone is talking about.
It’s probably not the third reason.
It’s a combo of one and two, right?
Just so you know, I get it. You have a job to do. You’re busy. You’ve found an expedient solution to what I imagine you see as a potentially volatile situation.
Covertly removing books is a way of circumventing any conversation about why you are removing these books from libraries and, in effect, schools, necessary if you were to officially remove a title from a bookshelf or a class or a curriculum.
So, here you are, sitting in your office, “protecting your students” from all of these “inappropriate” books, because I’m sure it’s not just MY book.
Although, yeah, the reason I’m writing is mainly This One Summer.
You know what? Why don’t we take a second to take a look at it, since we’re on the subject?
It’s the purple one, with the girl riding a bicycle on the spine.
Yeah, that one.
I’m guessing the reason you pulled this book and put it in your banned library has something to do with a few choice words and scenes.
Let’s start by skipping to pages 35 to 36, the main characters, Windy and Rose, two young girls enjoying a summer at their cottage, talk about how big their breasts are going to be when they grow up. Breasts, in this case, are referred to as: boobs, tits, bazooms, and ta-tas.
On the same pages, an older woman walking past the girls, hearing these words, tisks at these preteens for using language like that on a “public beach.”
(On a related noted: I spoke to a reader, a 12-year-old boy, once, and his complaint was that girls in This One Summer were always talking about their boobs. In his opinion, it was excessive).
Then on page 39, Rose and Windy overhear some teenagers at the corner store describe two other characters as “sluts,” a term the friends adopt as they gossip back at their cottage. When Rose and Windy’s mothers overhear them, they start a dialogue with their daughters about whether or not it’s okay to talk about a woman as a “slut.”
So both of these are examples, I guess, of “inappropriate” language, but also examples of scenes where kids confront different limits, different definitions of what is appropriate language in different contexts.
So, I’m going to skip ahead to a scene I have discussed with many librarian and teacher types. Windy and Rose overhear, at that same corner store, teenagers talking about oral sex. A little later, the two girls discuss what oral sex is, while hiding under a blanket from an R-rated horror movie they’re supposed to be watching.
Rose suggests that oral sex is something a person does, with their mouth, on a guy. Windy thinks this is gross.
The two characters are in the dark, literally under a blanket, talking about a mysterious thing that they’re not really ready to deal with in life, just like they’re not quite ready for the horror movie they’ve managed to get from the derelict teens who rented it to them. They’re questioning and they’re guessing. (And they’re wrong, since technically oral sex doesn’t have to be on a guy.)
So, here is my confession. I don’t write these lines thinking, “How will this scene shape the minds of the young people reading it?” I was of course aware that This One Summer was being published by a young-adult publisher (the publisher lists the reading age level of the book as 12 to 18). But I didn’t focus on the moral development of these abstract “youths” when I was working on the script for this comic. When I write, I try to think about the story, in so much as I am one of the two people telling the story in a graphic novel, in collaboration with the artist, and about what the story is about.
My goal, instead of writing to an audience, was to explore that weird threshold between the ages of twelve and fifteen (depending on who you are and where you’re from), where “adult things,” words, conflicts and responsibilities, become more and more a part of your world.
I have always been hyper aware of this tension between kid-ness and adult-ness, because, growing up, I was always a year younger than most of my friends, which was less of a deal when I was nine than when I was twelve, when suddenly no one cared about The Black Stallion and everyone wanted to read Seventeen magazine and talk about boys and bras and lip gloss. I had no interest in any of these things. It was confusing and overwhelming.
This One Summer is a story where the kids act as anthropologists of adulthood, studying and attempting to interpret what “being an adult” should be.
It’s also a story about adults trying to be adults, which from the kids’ perspectives is mostly adults being kind of jerks.
I tried to stay true to my experiences, as I recalled them, and to the observations I have of young people as an adult. My rule of thumb in writing is, can I imagine this actually happening, how would that experience go? My memory from age eleven of talking about sex was as scary and theoretical, and it was like being forced to watch these horror movies that everyone also became obsessed with in their early teens. This scene in the book relives that as kind of a mish-mash moment, exploring what it’s like to be that young, and to encounter the unknown and misunderstanding as you try to unravel it.
I guess the question is, does it matter that I had a bigger picture in mind, a larger narrative ambition, if there are elements that go “too far” or are possibly upsetting to younger readers?
Maybe you just flipped through and saw the text “oral sex” and stopped there.
If you had a student that glanced through a book and told you that they didn’t like it, what would you say to that student?
Would you tell them that you can’t judge a book by its cover—or by three pages in three hundred?
I respect that the definition of going “too far” is subjective. I also believe that the range of young readers is vast. Some sophisticated allusions go right over the heads of certain readers. Then, there are a lot of younger readers who have had a diversity of experiences of the world at twelve, at thirteen, at fifteen and so on that inform how they read what they read.
I think a lot of books are kept from young readers based on an adult’s imagination of those readers’ experiences. Four of the top ten most frequently challenged books of 2015, I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel and Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, were challenged for “homosexuality,” which to me assumes that the kids reading these book must be straight. Why else would an educator assume a reader was “not ready” for the concept? You can find the rest of the list here.
How we read a book, at any age, is shaped by context. What boundaries should we set up around books for younger readers? How will this affect how they engage with content that is outside of their personal comfort zone and experience?
If you ban a book from your school library, how does that set up the context for a reader when they do read it? What additional weight or meaning (This is bad? This is dirty?) does it add to the content for the reader?
You worry inappropriate content will be upsetting or disturbing to young readers.
I worry about what it means to define a book as inappropriate. I think upsetting is okay.
Upsetting things in books are often upsetting things in life: war is upsetting, violence is upsetting, sex, if you’re not ready for it, can be scary or make you feel weird and uncomfortable. It’s true that a well-crafted book about an upsetting thing can make it feel like the thing is actually happening to you. But the main distinction is that upsetting things in books are not actually happening in real life, but at a safe distance. You can read about war without having to experience the violence of war on your person. You can read about an experience outside of your own, and gain the opportunity to better understand someone who it happens to in reality. You get to experience some of those emotions, without bearing the personal price.
Literature is powerful. A force. An opportunity. Do you want kids knowing about what it’s like to live through a war, through violence, through assault, through family situations like having an alcoholic parent or an abusive one? Do you want kids to know what it’s like to be a gay kid or a kid trying to figure out what oral sex is? I don’t see why you wouldn’t. Understanding an experience outside of your own, or inside your own, is the core of social-emotional education, of developing empathy.
I want kids to have access to these experiences, even if it’s uncomfortable for them or for the adults around them.
Because I also believe that when a book feels like “too much,” a kid can close the book and walk away.
A teacher told me once about bringing a stack of comic books into his classroom for his students to read. One of his students picked up This One Summer from the stack, and took it to his desk. A short while later he returned, upset. He told his teacher the book was making him sad and he didn’t want to read it anymore. So he stopped.
The teacher and I agreed that this was an awesome and educational moment. That a student got exposed to something he wouldn’t have normally read and, at that time, decided for himself that it wasn’t something he wanted to read and stopped reading. How can this experience translate forward into something positive that will inform his reading choices from that point on? I would think it would allow him to think of reading as a choice, as an experience he has agency in.
It’s also an opportunity to start a conversation, a “teachable moment.” Maybe you don’t think it’s your job to talk to kids about the things the books you’ve slipped in your hidden library are broaching. Maybe you think it’s a parent’s job, a religious leaders job. But if talking to kids about these subjects isn’t your job, how is it your job to remove these books from the conversation, full stop? What does it mean when institutions like the ones you’re part of decide to remove the catalyst for a conversation about sexuality, race, class or religion?
Who and what are you protecting? And why?
I know you can’t answer because this is an imaginary letter.
But I hope you can take a moment some day and read these books in your private library. I don’t think you’ll have a similar imaginary conversation with me about them, although that would be pretty cool. But how about starting a conversation with someone, preferably someone who doesn’t completely agree with you? Because the books on your shelf could be great starts to amazing conversations we could all benefit from.
Also, I happen to know, most of the books on your shelf are pretty great.
I’m actually kind of jealous that you’re going to get to read them all for the first time.
Mariko Tamaki‘s work includes Young Adult prose ((you) set me on fire and Saving Montgomery Sole) and graphic novels (Skim and This One Summer, both with Jillian Tamaki). This One Summer received Printz and Caldecott Honors, as well as an Eisner and Ignatz Award. Mariko has written for radio and stage. Her upcoming projects include the graphic novel Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me with Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (First Second Books), Supergirl: Being Super with Joëlle Jones (DC Comics) and Hulk with Nico Leon (Marvel).