A Spotsylvania County parent recently
expressed concern about eight books available to students in county school libraries and wants them removed. In a perplexingly easy way of proving her point, the parent has taken to reading the most profane passages from these books at public school board meetings.
Even though the parent is attempting to couch these efforts in communal concern, she is committing a disservice to the books and to her audience in a blatant effort to shock, without any context that might lend profundity to the profanity.
School Board chair Kirk Twigg has gained a degree of national infamy by publicly stating he wants to burn books, supports the parent’s right to read aloud these passages, and believes that allowing her to do so beyond the scope of the narrative is proving a point. That point, which continues to be proven, is that Mr. Twigg does not understand literature, the importance of school libraries, or the value both hold for the educators and students he was elected to support and engage.
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I do not know if the parent or Twigg have read all of the eight books being reviewed by the county, but as one who loves and has reviewed books for this newspaper for 25 years, I thought it might be prudent to read and consider one of the eight titles that was on the list.
I chose a book by ER Frank, partly because she’s “local” (born and raised in Richmond) and also because she’s the only author to appear twice on the parent’s hit list. She must be really good or really bad, depending upon your predispositions to the issue.
This exercise made me nostalgic for when I was 12, and my classmates and I were scouring the school library shelves for “Forever” by Judy Blume. We all wanted to read the titillating parts (probably much like our parents wanted to read “Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller a generation before), but what we all discovered in the pages of that book were kids and voices like our own. Sure, there was sex and a character who named his penis Ralph. But within those pages was also a dawning of recognition that we were entering a new phase in life. One that could be complicated and scary. Judy Blume understood that and offered to guide us.
ER Frank offers the same in “America,” and with thoughtfulness and empathy equal to that of Blume’s. “America” is not an easy read in terms of subject matter, because it deals with the sexual abuse of a young Hispanic boy, homelessness, and an unsparing look at a life seemingly devoid of meaning or love. The character’s name is America and, without having to take a deep dive into literary analysis, Frank’s intent to portray this young boy’s struggles as not uniquely his own is an effort to reach readers who might also find themselves in situations or lives similar to America’s.
Are there swear words in “America”? Of course there are, because that is how teenagers speak these days. Whether or not you agree with this development in our youth, you don’t have to go further than a middle school track meet or Twigg on a hot mic at a school board meeting to hear an F-bomb.
Are there sexual situations that might make a reader uncomfortable? Yes, but they are not graphic or gratuitous. They are, at the risk of sounding lazy, life. It is impossibly naïve to think that there are not youth in Spotsylvania County who have been sexually abused by friends or family. America, the character, did not want to be abused by a person he loved or be homeless—no matter how much parts of America, the country, would love to believe it could never happen.
After reading “America,” I conducted an interview with Frank, who said that she believed literature offered both mirrors and windows to readers. As mirrors, readers can find themselves in characters and stories that reflect their own lives, hopes, and fears. As windows, readers can experience stories that are different from their own and hopefully, stories that broaden their lives and perspectives.
Affording students the opportunity to experience diversity of characters and stories should be fundamental to any education. To allow one parent to close those windows and shatter those mirrors for all students does far more harm than a few chosen words culled without context from a book.
Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer in Spotsylvania.