My Experience With SCARS Being Challenged, And What To Do If A Book Is Challenged
By Cheryl Rainfield, Sept 2020
My book SCARS faced some challenges over the years—even though I know from readers that it has saved lives. I’m in good company; so many other writers who write about diversity or painful issues have faced book challenges, including Laurie Halse Anderson; Ellen Hopkins; Judy Blume; Julie Anne Peters; John Green; Sherman Alexie; Chris Crutcher, and so many others.
There is a huge need for YA books with diversity and that honestly and openly explore painful issues that teens are living now—
such as rape and abuse; self-harm; suicide; homophobia; racism; sexism; ableism; and sizeism. We need books that counter those harmful experiences and that can help us make sense of them.
Books help us know that we’re not alone in our pain, and when we know that we’re not alone we feel so much stronger. Books also help increase our compassion and empathy for others as well as for ourselves.
For abused kids, queer kids, kids of color, bullied kids, kids who are thinking about or who have attempted suicide, kids who are self-harming or are isolated in their pain books can be a lifeline. It can help them realize that they’re not alone, that the abuse, or being queer, or whatever pain they’re living is not their fault and doesn’t make them inferior. That others have survived it, even thrived, and that they can, too.
Books were a huge part of the way I survived my child- and teenhood. I know what it’s like to have no one to turn to, for books to be the only safety I had, the only way to know that I wasn’t alone in some way, or to hope that things could get better, or to know that everyone wasn’t as cruel and abusive as my family was. I don’t think I could have survived without books, and many teens today feel the same way. It feels wrong on a deep level to withhold books that may help a teen.
Yet there is a huge pushback against books that talk about painful issues with honesty, and with truth and compassion. People who ban books often say that they are doing it to “protect” children, but I believe that censorship comes from their own fear, prejudice, and their inability to deal with their own emotion and trauma or that of others. It’s the whole pretend-something-isn’t-happening-and-maybe-it-won’t mentality, or thinking that if they silence those who are talking about inequality, injustice, or some idea that’s different than the mainstream, that it will keep that idea from spreading, and prevent a push for equality, justice, and safety for all. It’s about keeping the people who are in power in power.
My first experience with one of my books being challenged was when a librarian at Boone County Public Library told me that SCARS had been challenged by a patron who said that it could trigger teens who’d used to self-harm or who still self-harming to cut. This was shocking to me, since SCARS is about healing, about how badly self-harm hurts us even as it helps us, and about wanting and needing it to stop. And I’ve received hundreds of letters from teens telling me that SCARS helped them stop cutting, talk to someone for the first time about their self-harm, abuse, or being queer, or even keep from killing themselves.
I also knew that it was a myth that reading about or seeing self-harm will make someone hurt themselves; I’d been around many others who’d self-harmed in the years that I was hurting myself, and never once did seeing someone else’s self-harm make me want to hurt myself. What made me want to hurt myself was my own trauma history, my overwhelming emotional pain, and my using it to keep from killing myself.
Of course, any content can be triggering; triggers are based on people’s individual experiences and trauma, but it’s up to each of us to manage our own triggers and mental health. If a book upsets us, we put it down—but we don’t tell others that they can’t read it just because we can’t deal with it.
I was so grateful that that librarian let me know about the challenge. I was able to take it to social media, especially Twitter and my blog, asking for help to keep SCARS in the library. I also got NCAC involved. I received a huge outpouring of support from the book world—from other YA authors, from teachers and librarians, and from readers. Some readers called the library in support of SCARS. Some said that they would go buy SCARS if they hadn’t already or buy a second copy to give to a friend. Making the challenge public and gaining support is, I believe, part of what helped SCARS stay in that library, as well as having an incredible librarian who cared enough about my book and the readers who needed it to let me know, and to fight for it.
My next experience with censorship came only a few months later when an article in WSJ claimed that realistic, edgy YA books were “too dark,” and that they were “rife with explicit violence, abuse, and ‘depravity’.” The journalist named many realistic books, and she said that books about self-harm like SCARS would make teens want to cut—even if they had never self-harmed before. This again shocked me, since no one self-harms just because they hear about it. Self-harm hurts too much, and there are far easier ways to gain attention or to ask for help. Self-harm comes from a place of deep emotional pain with no other outlet, and often some form of past abuse or trauma.
Many people who’d read the article mentioned me and SCARS online in a positive way, as well as the other authors who’d been targeted. I wrote a blog post about the article and talked about it on social media, and so did so many other authors who’d been targeted, including Laurie Halse Anderson, Maureen Johnson, Gayle Forman, Sherman Alexie, Jennifer Brown, and Libba Bray. And many book bloggers, reviewers, literary agents, and publishers also spoke out.
In response to the WSJ article, YA author Maureen Johnson started the #YASaves hashtag movement on Twitter, asking readers if YA books helped them, and if so to tell the world how. And the Twittersphere exploded with YA writers, librarians, readers, and bloggers all telling their stories of how YA books helped save them. So many people joined the Twitter discussion that #YAsaves became the #3 trending topic in the US that day, and through this we pushed back against the censorship and gained awareness. And ALA, OIF, and YALSA wrote a joint letter in response to the article and sent it to the WSJ. When the WSJ didn’t publish it, ALA posted it online, which many people read. I saw so many readers saying that through this movement they’d discovered books they wanted to read and authors they wanted to support. Social media and taking a book challenge public makes a difference.
But I have also been told a number of times, years after it happened, about SCARS being quietly removed from bookshelves. When librarians and teachers don’t feel that they can fight back, when they don’t let an author or anti-censorship organizations know about a book challenge, the books just disappear off the shelves, and the kids who need them don’t get access to them. Kids whose lives might be saved by finding a book that is a reflection of their own experiences. Kids who might be able to tell someone sooner, find community sooner, heal sooner, if they’d had access to a book they’d needed.
I also experienced other forms of censorship that I wish I’d been more vocal about at the time—such as when I was disinvited from speaking at a conference because some of the organizers didn’t like the topics of my books (I was never sure if it was the queer characters, survivors of abuse and trauma, or self-harm that they were objecting to), and once an essay of mine was removed from an anthology before it released because I wrote about my past abuse. Censorship can be insidious.
So what can you do when a book is challenged?
Even before you experience a book challenge, it helps to build community that might support you when you do get a book challenge, and to raise awareness about book banning. Take part in the yearly Banned Books Week (or in Canada, Freedom To Read Week) to spread the word (and try to talk about banned books on other weeks as well); support authors or other schools or libraries when they face censorship; and when you have a course list of books explain why you’re using those books (even if it’s just a sentence or two), and encourage the parents to read them and to talk about them with their kids.
If a book is in the process of being challenged, then you still have time to prevent it from actually being challenged. Some things that may help diffuse the situation are listening thoughtfully and politely to the person who’s making the challenge, even when you vehemently disagree, responding calmly and respectfully to them, and assuring them that their concerns are being taken seriously. But it’s a good idea not to agree with their concerns.
You can also suggest other books that might fit their tastes better. If they do request that the book be removed, you can explain that while they may be offended others may not have that same perspective, and that a library or classroom is meant to serve all users, which includes a diverse population and experiences (and if it doesn’t, we should be learning about them). You might explain that each parent or guardian has the right to decide which books are appropriate for their own children.
If the person still wants the book removed, explain the process of reviewing a challenged book, the forms they must fill out, sign (which identifies them), and submit before anything happens, and how long it can take. All of these things may help dissuade someone from making a formal challenge. Sometimes just being heard and having their opinions or worries acknowledged may be all they really need. Sometimes a person acts on anger or impulse and doesn’t want to wait for the months it may take to review. But it’s still a good idea to document everything that’s happened, and to let your library director or principal know.
If the person actually does challenge the book, then of course you need to tell your principal or supervisor what’s going on. And you may need to educate the school board or superintendent about censorship, intellectual freedom, and the importance of diversity in books.
There are also some organizations that you can contact for support—such as the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), American Library Association (ALA), and National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). They have online forms to report a book that’s been challenged, articles on what to do next, and support and advice, and both ALA and NCAC offer advocacy. NCAC’s Kids’ Right To Read Project also has a downloadable Book Censorship Action Kit and a resource on defending LGBTQ stories that you may find helpful.
I think one of the easiest, most impactful ways to let the largest number of people know about a specific book challenge is through social media. It helps to talk as honestly and openly as you can about which book was challenged and why, and remember to use hashtags that will attract the book world’s attention, such as #YAlit and #bannedbooks, and possibly the book title or author. You might also tag the author as well as book organizations. And you could write a statement, an article, or an open letter and share it on social media or submit it to local news outlets. Visuals help gain more attention online, so try to include a photo the way librarians and teachers do during Banned Book Week, such as caution tape or chains and a lock wrapped around the book; create an image quote about banned books; or download a graphic from ALA, NCTE, or NCAC.
I think it’s helpful to tell the author whose book is being challenged. They can add to your advocacy. YA author Laurie Halse Anderson wrote a letter to the committee of a high school where her book TWISTED was removed from the classroom, and she also shared it online. She talked about why she wrote the book, what she assumed the concerns of the parents were, and how her book helped her target readers—teen boys. She included excerpts from some reader letters, and mentioned the awards the book had received. She also got NCAC’s Kids Right To Read to write a letter to the school. I loved this quote from her: “Banning books does not protect teenagers. It condemns them to ignorance and puts them in danger.”
Laurie’s book SPEAK, which deals with sexual assault, is also frequently challenged, so she wrote a post on why it is important for readers, such as finding the courage to ask for help, and she made it personal by asking isn’t that what we want our kids to do? She also included stats about sexual assault, made the point that education is supposed to prepare children for the world, and pointed out that teens know what rape is—not only from the news but also by far too many personally experiencing it, and that removing a book that deals with it in a thoughtful way is harmful. NCAC also wrote a letter to a school district where SPEAK was challenged, which Laurie includes on her website, reminding the school district that “[l]ocal school boards may not remove books from library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.”
Ellen Hopkins’ books, which deal with painful but important subjects such as sexual abuse, suicide, gun violence, drug addiction, and teen prostitution, have frequently been challenged, and she was disinvited from speaking at a conference. She wrote an anti-censorship poem that Banned Books Week used as a manifesto; and has often spoken up against book censorship on her blog, in interviews, and on social media. She also got NCAC’s Kids Right To Read involved, who wrote a letter when her talk about GLASS was cancelled at a school.
When authors actively get involved in fighting back against censorship and contact organizations that can help, it increases the visibility of the challenge, and the likelihood that the book will remain on the shelves or be found by other readers. And you can get some good ideas on how to respond to censorship from them.
News outlets can help you gain visibility if you can get their attention. You can also start a petition, and if it happened at a school, write the principal, the school board, and the superintendent about why the book is important to you, why it’s needed, and mention any book awards or positive reviews.
You don’t have to do this alone. Community support can help. And students can also help! They can contact NCAC and download their Kids Right To Read Action Kit which gives so ideas on how they can fight back. Students can start an online petition (try Change.org), talk on social media about the book being challenged and why it’s important and start a hashtag, organize a discussion at school, contact local news, write a letter to school or library officials, start a protest or letter-writing campaign, and point to times that that book was challenged but kept on the shelves. There’s so much that they can do!
If you’re able to prevent a book challenge and keep it in the hands of readers who need it, you’ve done a wonderful thing. You may have even saved a life. And if you weren’t able to prevent the book from being challenged, but you made the public aware of it, then you helped people see that book censorship still happens (some people don’t believe it still does!), and you may have helped readers find a book that they need. Either way, you fought for the freedom to read, and for kids and teens to read books that speak to their own experiences and bring healing, or that are about others’ experiences that increase their empathy. And both those kids, and the authors, will thank you for that.
I wrote this article as a speech I gave on Oct 1, 2020 for Professor Dixie K. Keyes’ class at Arkansas State University.