In this blog, we’ve explored Laurie Halse Anderson’s life and works, as well as her feelings on censorship. We’ve learned that she’s a passionate advocate for teens, and their right to access information that reflects the depth and diversity of their lives. The decision to write about real topics that plague teens today — suicide, eating disorders, disconnection from family and friends, depression, anxiety, trauma from abuse, and violent tendencies — has made her a target for censors. While they might object to books covering these topics for their own children, Anderson makes it (eloquently) clear that she will not stand for these parents denying rights to other children. As a parent herself, she understands the need to shelter your child, but these instincts to protect and yet deny the rights of youth altogether must be fought, especially when they pertain to issues affecting vulnerable teens.
Anderson’s books continue to resonate with teens and adults today because they feature frank, fresh discussions of topics that are hard to talk about. Tyler and Melinda from Twisted and Speak, respectively, are flawed characters that navigate their lives with humor and sarcasm, which mask their fear and insecurities. I know teens I see in my day-to-day life that do the same thing — they pretend to be invulnerable and carefree, but if you take time to talk with them, the mask starts to crumble. Lia in Wintergirls is also like teens I’ve known who have a secret inner world that is hard to penetrate, and even harder for them to escape. Parents and adults reading these books may fear that their teens may be influenced by these characters and turn away from them, but the reality is that their teens are likely undergoing conflict and it’s too late to deny it or hide. What adults should find reassuring in Anderson’s books is that these teens eventually find a way to ask for help, and they do so with the care of an adult. Melinda finds her relationship with her art teacher to be reassuring, and Tyler, to a lesser extent, talks to his English teacher and remembers his words as he contemplates killing himself. Lia has supportive adults gathered around her, and when she’s able to take charge of her life again, she depends on them for support. If there’s any “message” to be taken from her books, it’s that teens are resilient and extraordinarily complex, and need caring adults to help them as they navigate adolescence. In the hands of lesser authors, their stories would be sensationalized and unrealistic, but Anderson masterfully delivers complex, sympathetic characters with believable dialogue and writing that packs a punch.
Why did I choose Anderson for this study? As a teenager, I remember reading Speak, and although at that point in my life I didn’t have any experience with sexual assault, I was struck by the book. How could Melinda deal with such trauma, and overcome it? How could she be so powerful and stand up for herself? I read Twisted as a young twenty-something, and felt shocked by the violence and anger Tyler felt. Did boys really feel like this?
When I saw her speak in a class last year focused on YA materials, I was in awe: she was so honest, fierce, and obviously careful with the secrets readers had entrusted with her. I read the graphic novel adaptation of Speak and was so happy to have it available to teens at my library; so many teens need this story but find books hard to get into. As her work continues to be seen as controversial, and yet so incredibly timely, I knew that I had to choose her for this assignment and read her books. With Shout, I felt inspired and seen; with Twisted, I came to better understand how boys must feel in this world that puts so much pressure on them. Reading Melinda’s story again in its original form, I despaired at the thought that teens I know might be facing their monsters every day. As I read Lia’s story for the first time, I related so much to her struggles and wondered about the other teens who had checked out my library’s battered copy. How did they find solace in Anderson’s book? My reasons, thus, are personal and professional: I relate to the teens she portrays, and admire her craft. I respect her advocacy for teens, and I hope to follow in her footsteps and take similar care of those I see in schools and in our library. Anderson’s books are a beacon of hope to teens.
What those who try to ban books do not understand is the power of literature. They fear this power and its destructive effects, and worry that their youth will be exposed to obscene content and be forever changed. What they struggle to see is that literature has the power to transform in the most positive and uplifting of ways; it can make the smallest and most broken of us feel seen and heard. For every parent who does not want her son to read Speak for fear it will make him feel “bad”; there’s a dozen more kids who see themselves in Melinda and hope they, too, can recover. Taking the power of these books away from these teens not only does a disservice to these youth, but to the society in which they will soon be adults. If we want well-rounded, empathetic, kind adults, we must accord them their full humanity and rights as children and teens, and allow them the liberation and healing that comes from reading a good book.
Thank you for reading!
Enjoy these kittens.