Censorship Story Conclusion & Censorship Discussion (Part 2)

When it comes to banning and censoring things, it’s a tough issue (duh).

I just listened to the most banned YA author in the country, Lauren Myracle, in an interview she did yesterday on Louisville’s NPR station (click here for the interview—it’s the edition titled “Is your government doing enough in the recession?“, and the part on book banning is 2/3 into the podcast), where she went head-to-head with a school board member trying to get Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian banned from his school system for vulgarity.  Exciting stuff.

Yesterday, I told this story of censorship from my teaching days. Go check it out, and then come back!


My principal saw my point and didn’t have too much else to say on the matter.  I knew she still wanted me to do it, but I went back to my classroom asserting I would not.

I was never asked to write the letter I offered to draft, the subject was never brought up again, and no one ever blackened out anything in the books.

As for my part, I did my best not to choose stories with certain four-letter words in them (but, as I mentioned in my previous post, the point of the Great Books program was to stir the pot a bit, so it’s not like the stories from which I had to choose were about unicorns and teddy bears), and no parent ever complained to me about any of my choices.

This told me was that it was probably only one parent who’d complained in the first place.


I think you, as a parent, reserve the right to decide what books you introduce to your children, but I also think you should trust schools to know what, developmentally, your kids are ready to handle.  They are supposed to be experts in the field of teaching kids.  Not to diminish your mad skillz, but schools aren’t full of a bunch of rabble-rousers who want to corrupt your kids.

You must agree, right?  That’s why you’re sending them to school and not homeschooling them, right?

Going along with that, you should also trust that teachers know how to handle these subjects in their classrooms, should they come up, in a thoughtful way.  They are professionals.  And if you don’t feel that way about the school . . . then I say MOVE to a different school district.

But I’d be willing to bet the parents of my class of sixth graders—the ones who’d complained anyway—had no idea their kids were capable of such maturity and insight with regard to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” and the countless other selections in those Junior Great Books.  We really had fantastic discussions—regardless of whether or not the kids always wore deodorant.  (While we’re at it, could you have that discussion with your kids??)  We got to the core of why the authors had made the choices they did in terms of putting something in and what that meant—it was never gratuitous language or violence.

To me, when you hide words with a Sharpie or cover a kids’ ears (earmuffs!) or ban books, it’s probably going to work against you.  It highlights that there’s something “naughty” or “bad” about whatever you’re censoring—and that’s going to pique interest.

Look at how this situation in Missouri has escalated. It has prompted many people to start giving away the books this professor spoke against—just to get the word out about them.  About half the people I follow on Twitter have put “Speak Loudly” on their gravatars in support of Laurie Halse Anderson and her 2000 Printz Honor book Speak as well as the two other books being protested: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Fivepoor Vonnegut just couldn’t catch a break, could he?—and Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer.

Also?  I’m pretty sure, by the time your kid is in the fifth grade, unless you don’t allow him to ever watch TV, your kid is going to know what kissing is.  And that people get shot.  And swear.  I’d be willing to bet your kid knew who Snooki was before you did.

It’s if you’re not there to discuss it with him—if he’s watching Jersey Shore unsupervised—that’s the time to panic.  (Not that I think 5th and 6th graders should be watching that show, but I bet there are kids who do . . . )

What I’m saying is, communication is key in all of this.


Also, a few words, taken out of context, don’t necessarily give an accurate picture of author intent or even reader perception.

I mean, at one point in that BBC interview, the school board member sparring with Myracle asked if it should be okay for Hustler magazine to be in schools then, if we are to have books like Alexie’s book.

Taken out of context, he sounds like quite a lunatic, doesn’t he? Within the context?  Well, that’s for you to decide.

But that’s my argument.  You miss the point of what someone is saying when you take out the most “offensive” or outrageous passages and use them to serve your agenda.  Without looking at something as a whole, there can’t be intelligent discussion—nor can informed decisions be made.


When school boards try to get books banned, how many of those people do you think have read the whole book?  Or even more than the page the “offensive” part is on?  I would be willing to bet zero.

So, this is why I think banning books is wrong.  I think, as parents, you have the right to decide what your children will read—particularly outside the classroom.  You don’t need to be a democracy at home—I totally get that.  Although I don’t think you should go along with it if your school puts Hustler in its summer reading, I highly doubt that would ever happen.

It's not that hard, people. And if you start young, it won't be so awkward to keep having these discussions when they're older.

At the same time, I don’t think it’s right to get a book banned from a school library or any library for that matter.  Myracle makes the point in the interview very similar to the one I made above: school media specialists are trained and hired to make good choices.

If there’s a particular book your child is reading in school that gets you a bit fired up, I would urge you to read it yourself.  Have discussions with your kids about it.  This is where learning and growth take place.

And if there’s no discussion about these things?  If you just put a black mark over the bad words?  Well, I’m sure your kids will find out what’s under there eventually and they WILL discuss it with someone.

Wouldn’t you rather they discussed it with you first?

*gets down off her soapbox*

Myracle & me last year, after I interviewed her in Cleveland. 🙂

In the Blogosphere: 3/22-3/26

“In the Blogosphere” is a weekly series, which lists links to writing-related blogs I’ve stumbled upon throughout a given week.  Most posts will be from that week, but if I find some “oldies but goodies,” I’ll throw those up here as well.

I never find as much time to read blogs as I want, but here are a few posts that struck me this week.


Over at Incurable Disease of Writing, guest blogger, bestselling author, award-winning screenwriter and educator Ami Hendrickson offers a three-step approach to editing.

Here are two great posts, brought to you by Naomi Dunford of Itty Biz: Marketing for Businesses without Marketing DepartmentsThe first discusses the difference between being hungry and starving and is a must-read for all writers.  The second talks about the dreaded “elevator pitch” and suggests you boil yours down to seven words, like the people passing out prostitution pamphlets in Las Vegas.

As well, the good folks at Lyrical Press, Inc. give six strategies to overcome what they call “author fatigue” (when writers lose their way, about 50 pages into their manuscripts).


I recently found a group blog, Old People Writing for Teens (OPWFT), and it’s one of my new favorite places to visit.  Particularly if you’re in the querying stage, you’ll want to check out these three posts, which should help you feel better about any of your own submission slip-ups:

Are you neurotic?  Rejections and scathing critiques have you down?  Curtis Brown, Ltd., literary agent Nathan Bransford says feeling like you’re the worst writer (evaaaar!) might not be a bad thing.

In case you were wondering, it’s okay to suck.  Over on her blog, up-and-coming young adult author Myra McEntire asks you to listen to bestselling juvenile lit authors Meg Cabot and Maureen Johnson when it comes to writing—not her.

Why, thank you, bunny!


Since I just realized I forgot to include the link in last week’s blogosphere post, here’s the link to the contest over at Getting Past the Gatekeeper that requires a love of Jane Austen as well as skill at writing queries.  You’ve got until April 5 to write a query as if you wrote, and are pitching, Pride and Prejudice for a chance to win some great Austen-related prizes!

Are you covering up a crazy past?  Over at bestselling middle-grade and young adult author Lauren Myracle’s blog, Jo Whittemore wants to know the craziest legal thing you’ve ever done to get something you wanted.  Two lucky winners will receive signed copies of Whittemore’s new book, Front Page Face-Off.

And, if you’re a glutton for punishment—which, if you’re a writer, you definitely are—try your hand at Script Frenzy‘s screenwriting contest.  Akin to NaNoWriMo‘s novel-in-a-month contest, participants will write a 100-page screenplay in the month of April.  This contest isn’t about the prize; it’s about the challenge!

I *heart* that this is about a school newspaper!


Get out the rubber gloves; it’s time to declutter your Facebook friends and Twitter followers.  The Gawker‘s Brian Moylan suggests eight annoying FB and Twitter types to cut loose.

Editing: Get Distance, Get Advice & Get Over It

When I finished my first manuscript—well, the first time I finished it (heh)—there was one nagging question I had in the back of my mind: is the time span too long?

It started with my protagonist in her sophomore year of college, flashed back through some of high school, and ended up just after her college graduation; so, while the span was technically only two years, it seemed like six or seven because of the flashback.


I swapped manuscripts with a few other YA writers—without mentioning my concern about time span.  I figured, we’ll see if it slides.  For the most part, I received positive feedback, but one woman—the one whose manuscript was the best out of all those I critiqued and the one who, during our swap, landed a literary agent—mentioned she thought I should set the whole thing in high school somehow.

Ugh—I wanted to query—but I knew she was right.  So I set out to make it fit within the parameters of my main character’s sophomore through senior years of high school.


Halfway through the manuscript makeover, I attended the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop and had a critique with Waxman Literary’s fabulous Holly Root.  When she said three years is still too long of a time span for young adult lit, although it killed me, I knew she was right. As a friend at that conference put it, “Three years in YA is the equivalent of War and Peace.”  So I trudged home, consulted several fellow writers, read several YA books and studied those I’d already read, and even asked YA author Lauren Myracle for some advice.

Myracle reiterated what most people had said, most kids’ books take place over a very short period of time (a few weeks, a semester, a school year at the longest). In addition, she asked if I had more than one arc—because, if I did, I could split the book into two.


During that month of researching and gearing up to edit once more, the biggest thing I had to overcome was wrapping my head around mushing my story from three years into two semesters.  I was too close to it at the time, and I just didn’t see how it was possible.

I thought a good deal about what my editor and friend, Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest Books, had said when he reviewed my pages: there was a lot I could cut—if the reader “gets it” with just one scene, why drag it out and have three similar scenes?  He said he often sees this when writers add autobiographical elements to their manuscripts; they want to stay true to “how it happened” and they end up sacrificing story because of it.

So, with some distance from my novel and armed with lots of great advice, I put marker to dry-erase board and plotted out my story.  I looked at every scene and evaluated its worth to the overall story.  With the fictionalized autobiographical scenes, I let go of the “how it happened”—and in most cases, I eliminated them altogether.  It all began to click into place.

SO . . .

It took about a month of revisions, but what I now have is a much tighter, much better, much more marketable story.  I ended up changing my focus pretty much completely, playing up my hook, adding/deleting scenes—and it still wound up being 20K words shorter.

I’m not saying this process won’t likely happen all over again when/if a lit agent is interested in it—and then probably again when/if a publisher is interested in it.  But the most important lesson here is that, if you’re too attached to the “how it happened,” too in love with your words, and too close to your manuscript, you cannot be an effective editor.

In the below Vlogbrothers video, YA author John Green talks editing.  He says he deletes over 90% of his original words and that all the things people like about his books emerge in later drafts. Enjoy!

One Reason I Love Writing for Kids

One of my faves, YA author Lauren Myracle, posted a video on her Web site  of her son’s school doing a reading promo video, using a book-related rewrite of the Black-Eyed Peas‘s “I Gotta Feeling.”

It’s called “Gotta Keep Reading.” 🙂


Here’s a link to the video.

Besides because of its general adorableness, I got psyched because, at the end, one kid holds up a book – QUAKE! Disaster in San Francisco, 1906 – which was written by children’s lit author and fellow Southeastern Writers Association conference presenter Gail Langer Karwoski.

Click here to see my recent Karwoski interview.

I don’t know why (because it essentially has nothing to do with me), but it made me feel really awesome to have made that connection!  It’s just so cool to have interviewed both these women.

Do check out both the interview and the video if you haven't already. You'll feel all gooey inside - I promise!

How to Write Full Time & Stay Sane: Mac Freedom

How to Write Full Time and Stay Sane is a series that offers advice to full-time writers about how to stay productive and in good spirits.

Understatement: Staying on task when writing is difficult.

Without a boss cracking the whip, it’s easy to get distracted by the gazillions of things the Internet offers.  I tell myself I’m only going to do a quick Internet sweep (which, for me, includes checking my e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, my blog, my writing social network on Ning, and occasionally MySpace), but then I look at the clock, and an hour has passed.  Yikes!

Since embarking on this full-time-writing journey, I discovered Mac Freedom, a program that allows you to block yourself from the Internet for as long as you want—up to eight hours at a time.

I first heard about this free program, able to be downloaded right from the Internet, when I interviewed the über talented middle-grade and young adult author Lauren Myracle back in October.  I had asked her how she stays so productive (she’s written 15 books in about six years, and—just today—she announced that she turned in the first draft of a Luy Ya Bunches sequel; the woman’s a machine!), and she gave me the scoop on one of her little secrets.

Although it’s free, the creator asks if you’ll donate $10 to keep it going—but the donation is not required.  However, I dare you to try the program and not feel compelled to cough up the cash.

It’s been an extremely useful tool for me, and I recommend it to anyone who is prone to Internet procrastination—and has a Mac (and no one’s paying me to say that).

I still need to be able to check my e-mail throughout the day, so I generally set it for an hour or two at a time, but it really helps me block out the rest of the world and just write—which is, after all, the most important thing one needs to do when writing full time!

Here's the picture Myracle & I took together after the interview. Such an exciting day for me! I learned so much!

A Banned Books Week Discussion (or Rant?) on Censorship

I felt would be remiss if I didn’t talk about books and censorship, being that we’re smack-dab in the middle of Banned Books Week.  Reading the blogs of some of my favorite young adult authors today, I got a little fired up about censorship.

Banned Books Week (BBW) is the American Library Association’s controversial celebration of the First Amendment.  According to the ALA Web site, it “highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States.”

I taught English at a Catholic school in the South for a few years, and they had adopted Junior Great Books as their reading program just prior to hiring me. At the time, I was teaching fifth and sixth graders, and the first short story in the sixth grade book was Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.”  Being new to the school and assuming I was allowed to teach from the books—the brand-new books, mind you—with which I’d been provided, I taught it.

Click here to read it, if you’re unfamiliar with it; it’s short.

There is nothing inherently inappropriate about the story.  It does feature two teenagers kissing and getting shot at the end for being different, and I acknowledge that the latter is an act of violence.  Furthermore, I can see that, if one took the story at face value and didn’t think critically about it, the story might not have any value at all.

However, this was not a short story intended for casual reading. We analyzed the hell out of this story for two weeks; we talked about what equality really means, if the idea of equality for all is really possible; what it means to be free; how difference are good and bad, etc.  We had some extremely philosophical conversations in that sixth grade class, and you know what?  All of them “got” it because kids are capable of thinking critically.  It’s just that most adults don’t believe they are and, therefore, don’t give them the chance to do so.

Anyway, several parents complained about the story, and the administration actually asked me if I could go through every copy of Junior Great Books and blacken out all the “inappropriate parts” with a black Sharpie marker.

Um, fo’ realz?

I asked my principal, “Did anyone even read these books?”

Silence.  Then, “No?”

Exactly.  In my experience, the sad fact is that most of the people who want to censor and ban literature have not even read said literature.

See?  Even Sharpie opposes censorship!

See? Even Sharpie opposes censorship!

I politely declined the Sharpie project, and counter-offered to write a letter, welcoming all parents to do go through the JGBs and blacken away, since what is inappropriate to one parent may not be to another.  However, I stressed to my principal that, when you put a big black mark over a word or passage, that only draws more attention to that word or passage and causes one to want to see what it is they’re not supposed to be seeing.  You might as well use highlighter instead of black marker.

In the end, she didn’t want me to write the letter.  And to avoid further conflict, I skipped some selections in the JGBs that were sure to invite more nasty e-mails. So, unfortunately, I did have to censor what I taught a bit; however, all of those short stories had some meat to them, and we continued to have insightful discussion that entire year.  (We read George Orwell’s Animal Farm that year, too—hee!—which was also a bit controversial, but a great thematic pairing with the Vonnegut piece.)

But this is such a huge part of the problem.  Most of these banned books are not inherently evil (when read in context) but it seems that the powers that be in schools rarely bother to actually read these things for themselves. Or, if they do, they read only the “bad” scene, which, as YA author John Green points out, misses the mark in terms of understanding the meaning behind it.

I thought even more about this after reading YA author Lauren Myracle’s post from today, which concerns one school’s decision to cancel her scheduled appearance based on this one scene in her latest book.

I mean, I get that talking about a pole dancer and dating an entire fraternity are advanced subjects for “tweens”; however, if you analyze the passage, I think you can see it’s relatively harmless:

First of all, these characters are talking about older kids. College kids. Not that I’m condoning college girls becoming pole dancers, but I don’t think Myracle is either.

My take on this conversation is that these “tweenagers” are gossiping, which is something that is definitely prone to embellishment and—hello—lies.

Kids at this age have no idea what happens in college, and they tend to go overboard when imagining all the crazy things that happen in the lives of older people.

Have you ever talked to an 11-12- or 13-year old?  They tend to exaggerate just a tad…

Digging even deeper, it sounds to me like these characters are somewhat appalled by these rumors; they aren’t aspiring to be “skanky.” In fact, by even referring to the girl in question as being “skanky,” one can infer that they are passing judgment on her. Hence, not idolizing her or condoning her behavior.

Admittedly, I suppose I’d need to read the rest of the book to determine if my analysis is correct, but I definitely would not ban Myracle from coming to my school based upon it either, if I were the principal.  Especially if I knew anything at all about Myracle and her books, which happen to promote positive self-images for young girls and good moral values in terms of being yourself, no matter what is considered popular.

Regardless, whether or not a book is a problem lies in the context, and in order to know the context, one must have read the book and thought critically about it.  And the sad truth is, many of the people who have been charged with this responsibility aren’t willing to do their homework because it’s easier to ban the book or make the teacher blacken out the naughty words with a black Sharpie.

What are your thoughts on the subject?

Here is a list of frequently banned classics. Did you read these in school?  Do they deserve to be banned?  (English teacher in me –>) Why or why not?

Writing Tips: How to Write Full Time & Stay Sane—Installment II

How to Write Full Time and Stay Sane is a three-part series that offers advice to full-time writers about how to stay productive and in good spirits.


As promised, this second installment will continue the discussion on scheduling.

First, determine how many days a week you will be working.  I tend to be a little biased in this area and want to say that, as a writer, you’re always working—even at that Saturday tailgate, you’re observing what drunk people do or sound like (or what it feels like to be drunk—ha!).

If being as anal as I am about scheduling isn’t up your alley, another thing I like to do that might seem less insane less daunting than scheduling every minute of your day is to designate certain days for certain things.  (If you are especially Type A, however, you can actually do this in conjunction with the scheduling outlined in the previous post.  I find it works best for me to do it that way.)

As you get more assignments, develop more ideas, and take on more projects, you will need to come up with a strategy for your labors, which goes beyond the hour-by-hour schedule.  That said, even if you aren’t freelancing and, therefore, only have one manuscript on the fire, there are a few different kinds of things you can be doing in order to keep from wanting to set your manuscript ablaze.

How many types of days are there?


As I said, this kind of depends on you.  If you’ve got several projects in the works, you might have more “types of days” than someone who is only working on one novel manuscript; however, here are the basics.

The most obvious (and essential) is the writing day, and you’ll most likely want to schedule the most time for that.  I like to schedule three consecutive writing days so that I can ride a creativity wave if I’m on a roll.

But, Ricki, I’ve heard that you’re not really a writer if you’re not writing every single day.

Ugh!  I could argue for and against this.  The freelancer probably needs to write every single day—just varying the type of writing or type of project.  However, the lone novel writer might go a little mad if he doesn’t break away from his manuscript at least one or two days a week.  Wherever you fall, just make sure to give yourself breaks from the actual writing so you don’t get into a funk.

Where was I?  Ah, yes.  In addition to the actual writing, it is also important that you brainstorm, read books in your genre, make time to research, and do writing exercises.  For example, you might schedule Wednesdays and Fridays as reading days, where you go to the library or set up camp at your local Barnes & Noble and thumb through the latest John Green or Lauren Myracle novel (guilty!).  If you’re a serious writer, you will also want to work on enhancing your platform by doing things like blogging, etc.

Not only are all these activities essential to being a good writer, but making time to do these things will help break up your work week and keep your mind fresh for those days that—oh yeah—you hammer out 1500 words.

Crap—I’m forgetting something.

Every week?  Curses!

Every week? Curses!

Some of you may be saying, this all works out fine and dandy if you don’t have kids or if you are well enough off that you have hired a cleaning lady, but I don’t have either of those luxuries!

Duh.  I don’t either.

While a three-year-old beagle isn’t the same as a three-year-old child, I am not without responsibilities throughout my day.  And yeah, no cleaning staff.  Even though writing is my passion and the cogs are pretty much cranking 24/7, I have to schedule in things like grocery shopping, laundry, walking/feeding the dog, working out, and eating—otherwise, none of those very important things would ever get done.  On those housework days, take care of the laundry/dishes/groceries/cleaning/pay bills/etc., and don’t worry that you aren’t working on that book proposal.  You’re sticking to your schedule and making progress.  Check and check.

For my workaholics who feel guilty if not dedicating all their waking hours to writing, take some solace in this: It turns out, a lot of these non-writing-related activities are great times to brainstorm, work out those plot details, or figure out characterization.  As well, there’s always the chance that you’ll finish your chores early and discover you now have extra time to run to your keyboard.

All that being said, remember to be flexible.

Just make sure you don't snap!

Just make sure you don't snap!

Ha—that sounds like an oxymoron after discussing how important it is to structure your time (and after looking at the ways I’ve suggested one can do this!), but even I give myself options because what if I don’t feel like writing that day? It happens.

Flexibility is important because something will always come up; that’s just how life works.  You might get a mega-important e-mail you have to answer right now or an editor wants you to overhaul a chapter, and you’re forced to write on—gasp—housework day!

My current schedule looks like this:


Housework – OR – Research/Reading Day



Housework (if not Sun) – Blog – In to Write

Walk Molly

Work out



Out to Write

Work out



Out to Write – Blog

Walk Molly

Work out



In to Write – OR – Research/Reading Day

Work out



Blog – Research/Reading Day

Walk Molly



Research/Reading Day

The beauty of all this is, it’s up to you.  The more you have on your plate, the more likely you’ll need to combine kinds of days and create a more stringent schedule that sets time limits for each of your endeavors.  Just get something down on paper and try some things.  Find out what works and what doesn’t, and then tailor your schedule to fit your life.